Gossip Girl reboot: like Breaking Bad with no meth

World of Blair Waldorf could not be less appropriate to discuss class consciousness

The original Gossip Girl (airing from 2007 to 2012) followed the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’: teenagers at Constance Billard high school on the Upper East Side

The original Gossip Girl (airing from 2007 to 2012) followed the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’: teenagers at Constance Billard high school on the Upper East Side

 

Hollywood seems to have a penchant for reboots at the moment. It feels as though you can’t move without bumping into a re-litigation of one of the classics. This year Emma Stone starred in Cruella, the origin story of everyone’s favourite puppy-slaying villain. Timothée Chalamet has been cast as a young Willy Wonka in a musical movie on the life of the young chocolatier before meeting Charlie Bucket or devising the concept of the Golden Ticket (Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory has already been made twice).

Has Hollywood really run out of stories to tell? Are there no new characters to be cooked up and fawned over by fans? It certainly seems that way. The most egregious among the classics-redux-machine, however, has to be Gossip Girl. The original is hardly a cultural relic, only ending in 2012. But the shiny new pilot, replete with a shiny new cast, aired July 8th in the United States.

“You know you love me, xoxo Gossip Girl,” purrs Kristen Bell (the disembodied, omniscient voice of a blogger who stalks rich New York teenagers) at the end of every episode. The remakers must have internalised the message. And the wild success of the original must have appeared too obvious a money-maker to resist a reboot fit for 2021.

The original (airing from 2007 to 2012) followed the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite”: teenagers at Constance Billard high school on the Upper East Side. It toggled between characters from old money, new money and not-as-much-but-still-quite-a-lot money. And with that came all the accoutrements you might expect: drugs, sex, parties, white-collar crime, helicopter crashes. Everything in the series was done with a wink and a wry smile, a hazy line between straightforward soap and satire, a mutable boundary between self-awareness and unashamed gaudiness. It was a mode of television that allowed for ludicrous plot lines such as Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) becoming the Princess of Monaco and Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) killing a man with no real consequence or even further elaboration.

New and improved

It made for perfect, escapist television. And left the viewer wondering “how could this possibly be improved upon?” The remakers had a different vision. Before the pilot was aired, showrunner Joshua Safran told Variety magazine that the new and improved characters “wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t. In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of a lot of things, even going back to Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted.”

This should be greeted with a few raised eyebrows. Not because these aren’t valuable ideas to be grappled with, but because Gossip Girl could not be a less appropriate means to do so. The cruelty of the original characters was the selling point. They steal each others’ boyfriends and ruin everyone’s lives. It is not a world anyone should want to be part of (thank god for fiction, eh), as no one would make it out alive. Empathy did not figure in the Gossip Girl cinematic universe. And all of this was exactly the point.

Now the new Blair and Serena and their comrades are cognisant of climate change and workers’ unions. One character is an anti-gentrification campaigner. The new queen bee (played by Jordan Alexander) is an influencer who is also, supposedly, nice.

Identity crisis

On the surface it may look the same: set in the same school with popular girls and beautiful clothes, inappropriate affairs (though less straight this time round) and impossibly adult teenagers. The cast are also less white than their predecessors (perhaps the one thing the reboot did get right). The form Gossip Girl takes now, however, is no longer a blog but an Instagram account. All of which makes us feel as though the writers are screaming at us that times are changing and we better not forget it.

The problem is a simple one. To make a show about privilege and class consciousness among the most wealthy is a perfectly reasonable project – it could be a fascinating one. But shoehorning it into a world that was designed to be anything but looks like an identity crisis playing out in real time. A Gossip Girl universe in which the characters care about gentrification is like Succession but the family like each other, Breaking Bad with no meth.

It is no surprise that it has arrived in this form. The past decade has seen seismic social change and has seemingly created new demands on traditional media. The anything-goes mantra of the noughties – that gives us the likes of Gossip Girl and its spiritual predecessor Sex and the City – seems to have evaporated. Replaced instead with a desire for moral didacticism from the small screen.

This is all well and good if the creators had bold enough a vision to create a new show, not one piggy-backing off the success of another. “You thought I was a person,” Gossip Girl says in the pilot episode, “but I never said I was. I’m a revolution.” After a decade of social change that has forced art to recalibrate and change its tack, the revolution may well be coming. But Gossip Girl is unlikely to be its vehicle.

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