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‘Gossip Girl’ 1.01 Review: Just Another Girl on the MTA

The rich teens of the Upper East Side make their HBO Max debut with more scandalous antics.

Gossip Girl
(Image: © HBO Max)

Our Verdict

This is not a carbon copy of the original series and the teacher twist is a fun one. A little over-stuffed but a promising start to the next 'Gossip Girl' generation.

For

  • ✒️ Jordan Alexander is magnetic as Julien.
  • ✒️ Hearing Kristen Bell's GG narration felt good.
  • ✒️ The role the teachers are playing.
  • ✒️ Eric Daman's many costume design serves.
  • *Fun references to the original series and subtle nods with music choices.

Against

  • ✒️ The pacing.
  • ✒️ A few eye-roll-inducing lines.
  • ✒️ An overwhelming amount of characters.

This post contains spoilers for Gossip Girl "Just Another Girl on the MTA." 

“Did you miss me?” Kristen Bell, as the titular scandal-driven maven asks about halfway through HBO Max’s reboot of The CW series, Gossip Girl. A lot has changed since the young, rich, and attractive Upper East Side residents signed off in 2012, which has seen the rise of Instagram and the influencers who lead a fabulously curated life. Based on Cecily von Ziegesar’s book series, the original series that was created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage propelled its predominantly white young cast into stardom (most notably Blake Lively) and filled the high fashion costume design hole left by Sex and the City. The reboot from Joshua Safran (he was a producer and writer on the OG Gossip Girl) takes place in the same New York City as its predecessor and gleefully references the students by name who previously walked the halls of Constance Billard and St. Jude's. Rather than an obscure blog teasing their biggest secrets, these students are blowing up Instagram without interference. It doesn’t take long for this reputation-ruining figure to dust off her pithy one-liners in a bid to take back power in this neighborhood. So how do the new characters fare in the battle for Queen Bee domination?

First of all, it is worth noting that I watched the original run when it aired, right to the bitter end and long after it had gone off the rails. Even when Gossip Girl tipped into the ridiculous (which it often did), a charismatic performance from Leighton Meester and Eric Daman’s eye-popping costume design was enough to keep me tuned in. While the storylines did stretch credibility (and the final reveal that Dan is Gossip Girl is rightly mocked), it is impossible to deny its influence or how Season 1 is truly that girl. There is scrappy confidence to the early episodes when fashion houses weren’t laying out the red carpet with samples hot off the runway, and the stars hadn’t yet appeared on the cover of Vogue. The world Gossip Girl 2.0 is strutting into has shifted — and not only because of social media and the smartphones in our pockets. From the first paparazzi shots of the impossibly good-looking cast mirroring their predecessors on the steps of the Met Museum, they have tapped into the aspirational quality — and led to an increase in clothing sales. Shooting the series was delayed due to the pandemic and early in “Just Another Girl on the MTA” there are a couple of Zoom classes mentions. Otherwise, this is a Covid-19 free zone and taps into the escapism we have come to expect. 

Over lockdown, Gossip Girl racked up new viewers on Netflix and still manages to grab TikTok-related headlines, as well as still serving fashion influence points. The new squad might sneer at the idea of a headband, but Blair Waldorf’s (Leighton Meester) signature crown is indelible — and is often referenced whenever Kate Middleton wears one. With the Zoomer crowd taking over, the opening sequence is a quickfire of new characters to learn. The pilot stretches to nearly an hour, which is beneficial in setting up the story but suffers from lags in the pacing and how overstuffed this episode is. As the outsider, Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was the audience entry point back in 2007 and this honor goes to not one but two characters in “Just Another Girl on the MTA.” One is a new freshman, while the girl of the title is actually a woman. Tavi Gevinson’s appearance in those Met steps pap shots was a huge misdirect as she is playing Kate Keller; one of the beleaguered Constance Billard teachers. Educators were virtually invisible in the original series and Blair’s perfect student status was part of the Queen B package. Times have changed and when rattling off the names of luminous alumni, Kate mentions Caroline Kennedy, Colson Whitehead, and Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford). Yes, that Nate Archibald and the biggest mystery so far is what he could’ve done in the last nine years to earn the title of “great” — no offense to Nate but he lacked drive.     

Instead of teasing the identity of the titular scandal spreader to the point where it becomes nonsensical (hi, Dan!), the big twist is that Gossip Girl is now a collective. This is also asking you to stretch your imagination, but placing the underpaid teachers at odds with the spoiled students (who can get them fired at the drop of a hat), sets the reboot apart. Kate pours through the old posts to find what made it an effective weapon and quickly discovers the crux of it all is the Blair versus Serena dynamic. There is a very funny moment, in which they also recount the wild and outlandish plots from Blair’s brief dalliance with royalty and Dan getting published in The New Yorker. The tongue-in-cheek and self-referential element is established early on, as are the pop culture references and designer brands. Quips about the lack of diversity in the original series are pointed (though maybe a little self-congratulatory) and the casting of the series has been cited by every creative as one of the big changes — and also speaks to the outdated white casting bubble of New York-set shows like Sex and the City and Friends. The “too woke” worries that have been uttered before this episode even aired should be put to bed, as while some characters care about social issues, the majority of this friendship group is still predicated on self-interest.

Gossip Girl reboot

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Blair and Nate’s romance in the pilot was on rocky ground (thanks to Serena’s return) and the reboot also plays with the notion of a long-term coupling falling apart. Influencer Julien (Jordan Alexander) is dumped by long-term boyfriend Obie (Eli Brown) in a move that is not surprising considering his barely concealed contempt for his gf’s interests. Obie is essentially the Dan of the group, but this time he has the most money instead of the least. “Guilty rich” is how he is referred to and at this early juncture, he is the most self-righteous — hence the Dan comparison. The events at the Christopher John Rogers runway show confirm (to him) that Julien has morphed into a person who puts her self-interest first. The arrival of her half-sister Zoya (Whitney Peak) is the catalyst for disharmony because her humiliation pushes Obie to end things. Whereas Julien’s father (played by the always great Luke Kirby) is a successful music producer who makes up for his absence by giving his daughter everything she desires, Zoya’s family is far less wealthy. She has come to Constance Billard on a scholarship, which she later discovers was the work of her half-sister using her influence, and her plan to conceal her relationship with Julien is foiled by the TMZ coverage of the fashion show. The issue here is infidelity and the grudge Julien’s father still holds. A tale as old as time (Shakespeare, Succession, and The Bible are all referenced), a family rivalry can run even deeper than frenemies. 

Rather than making Julien unwelcoming, her warmth toward her sister makes her shift toward self-preservation more cutting. Besties Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno) have more agency than Blair’s chosen minions and are both adept in scheming and serving up honest sartorial opinions. They are not scared of Julien and this levels the playing field somewhat. The other couple of the group are also in a rut of sorts and pink-haired Aki (Evan Mock) and Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind) might be adding a third to their dynamic as the first episode suggests both have the hots for hedonistic Max (Thomas Doherty). The first series set out to shock, but after watching the raunchy Spanish teen series Elite, everything in this intro (including public oral sex) is tame in comparison. 

Pitting teachers against the entitled teens is a good and slightly implausible set-up, and I was concerned by the undressing scene captured on a male teacher’s camera. Thankfully, he was equally horrified by his actions (“I should be arrested!). Kate’s justification is that this will make the wealthy better humans and therefore she is saving the world, but this reasoning is also flawed. Sewing seeds of discontent via the petty posting on Instagram — their first attempt to get the teen’s attention on Twitter is a bust — is a smart update to the format, and points to why this reboot isn’t just a retread. The new members-only club hangout is a tad eye-roll worthy but the New York Fashion Week show is the kind of exclusive setting that feels right at home. Lavish and unabashed, I had a fun time entering this enclave once more. Does it always work? No, but the fashion serves, Alexander is a standout, and the war between the teachers and students has only just begun.