‘Gossip Girl’ Series Premiere Recap: Filthy, Rich

0

Full disclosure: I watched every single episode of the original Gossip Girl, from the pilot to the finale. I loved pretty much every moment of it, too, the climactic and nonsensical revelation of Gossip Girl’s secret identity aside. (Seriously, if that’s enough to put you off the scandalous misadventures of Manhattan’s elite, you need to calm down.) I even wrote a fanfic comic about the origin of Chuck Bass, for crying out loud. It was my ideal primetime soap. I am what you might call a Gossip Man.

But that was years ago, and we’re all very different people now than we were then, are we not? So I greeted the news that HBO Max was reviving the show for a sequel series with some trepidation. Without the original characters—to say nothing of the cast, all of whom seemed to have names that sounded even snootier than those of the Upper East Siders they were playing (seriously: Leighton Meester! Taylor Momsen! Chace Crawford! Ed Westwick! Blake Lively! Penn Badgely!)—and without its original sociopolitical setting, could a revival thrive?

Based on this pilot episode (“Just Another Girl on the MTA”), I’d say the answer may well be yes. Written by series creator Joshua Safran (a veteran of the original version) and directed by music-video ace Karena Evans, it replaces Serena van der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, Chuck Bass, and the rest of the original group with a new crew of the young and the consequence-free, then uses a simple but twist-filled structure to set up the big-money backstabbing that’s sure to follow.

It takes a few scenes to get a handle on everyone, but before long a picture of each new teenage character emerges. For starters, there’s Julien (Jordan Alexander), the queen bee of the group. Daughter of a world-famous DJ, she’s become a model and a major Instagram influencer by the start of her junior year in high school. Her boyfriend, Obie (Eli Brown), is both the richest of the group and its sole do-gooder; when we meet him he’s helping out at a picket line in front of one of his family’s properties. (He’s also a dead ringer for Penn Badgely’s Dan Humphrey, the similar outsider-insider character from GG Mark 1.) Monet (Savannah Lee Smith) is an asshole, pretty much, and so obviously a villain that the teachers literally call her “the school villain.” Luna (Zión Moreno) is like a slightly lower-impact version of Monet; her attitude toward her perceived lessers is more imperious than outraged. Aubrey (Emily Alyn Lind), the blonde of the group, is in a long-term monogamous relationship with Aki (Evan Mock), a film buff with a pink buzzcut, though her attention tends to drift towards Max (Thomas Doherty), the voraciously bisexual alpha male.

Into all of that steps Zoya (Whitney Peak), Julien’s half-sister. (Their late mother ditched Julien’s father to be with Zoya’s.) Everyone, from the parents to the peers, is pretty much aghast at the idea that Zoya and Julien might come into contact now that “Z” has transfered to Julien’s school, the infamous Constance Billard.

Ah, but there’s a twist! Despite their protestations that they don’t know each other at all and have no intentions of changing that, Zoya and Julien have secretly been in contact, planning Zoya’s move to Constance.

Ah, but there’s another twist! What Zoya doesn’t know is that Julien secretly pulled strings to get Zoya the scholarship enabling her to attend the school in the first place. (Please note the students’ power over the faculty, as it’s about to come into play in a major way.) This revelation is the first source of conflict between the two sisters, though it’s certainly not the last. 

Now comes the truly novel part of the story. Against this posse of mean girls and boys is arrayed—get this—the faculty of Constance Billard. You can’t really say this group is led by Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson), a nebbish who, like the rest of her colleagues, lives in terror of the rich sociopaths they teach.

Ah, but there’s a twist! Rather than hide the identity of the new Gossip Girl who emerges to torment Julien, Zoya, and the rest of the kids, the show reveals whodunit right away.

Ah, but there’s another twist! This time around, Gossip Girl isn’t one of the students—it’s the faculty of the school, working in concert to try to break the power Julien et al have over them. Kate is GG’s primary voice, though other teachers help her out with everything from encouragement to surreptitious photos of the kids in compromising positions. It’s kind of fucked up!

Which, of course, is the beauty of this iteration of Gossip Girl. Starting out with a larger and more diverse group of friends than the original show had is all well and good, but of course the key difference is the emergence of the teachers—working stiffs who make even less money than their public-school counterparts—as the collective nemesis of the teens. It feels less like something out of a steamy teen soap and more like a Heathers/Election-style high-school black comedy. (The fact that Gevinson—who founded the whipsmart teen-girl magazine Rookie back in the day—is younger than several of the actors playing her students feels like a nod and a wink to the absurdity of it all, too.)

At any rate, Kate and company revive the Gossip Girl persona when one of their own gets fired, seemingly at Monet’s hands. Rather than target such an obvious heel, though, they dig into the GG archives and discover that the earlier site centered on the rivalry between best frenemies Serena and Blair. Gossip Girl 2.0 will only work, they soon realize, if they a) move it off of Twitter, their first would-be site, which they subsequently dismiss as the sole province of over-30 conspiracy theorists “and Lin-Manuel Miranda,” and shift it to Instagram; and b) target and dismantle a new pair of friends. 

So they settle on Julien and Zoya, and the sparks begin to fly. First, one of the teachers takes photos of Zoya and Obie changing out of their rain-soaked clothes in his apartment building (like, literally his apartment building) after they both bail from an evening at the exclusive club the teens frequent. 

When the photos are published, Julien believes Zoya that nothing inappropriate actually happened, but realizes she has to engineer a positive resolution to the mini-scandal in order to preserve her brand. They settle on staging a scene at the afterparty following a fashion show in which Julien is scheduled to walk. But Monet and Luna take matters into their own hands, stealing Zoya’s phone, snapping a dick pick courtesy of a game Max, and airdropping it to every phone in attendance at the fashion show; Julien then makes a big performance of staring Zoya down while igniting the show’s pyro component, cementing her kid sister’s humiliation. The two have a falling out, Obie dumps Julien over the cruelty of it all, and we’re off to the races.

So far, much of what made the original Gossip Girl work is still in place: the Manhattan setting, the fabulous clothes, the constant name-dropping of brand names and the rich and famous, the sex (already much more explicit here than it was even in GGv1.0’s raciest moments, courtesy of Aubrey and Aki). But the diversity of the cast is a welcome change, and it seems likely that it will factor into the story in a major way. Another positive development is that the show no longer feels the need to simply hint at homoeroticism, the way it sometimes did with bad boy character Chuck Bass; Max, Chuck’s obvious analogue here, makes out with a dude right here in the pilot, and it’s hard to imagine it’ll be the last time. 

But it’s the slobs-vs-snobs element introduced by making the teachers the new Gossip Girl and the kids’ enemies that really stands out to me. The casting of Gevinson is key here: Her slight build and wide eyes make her look constantly nervous, like she’s always on the verge of getting found out. Actor Adam Chanler-Berat stands out too as her second-in-command and the shutterbug behind the scandalous Zoya/Obie pics, which are almost certainly illegal as well as unethical. But the overall idea of comparatively poor adults sticking it to their rich students is the kind of thing a smartly written soap can really sink its teeth into, and I’m optimistic that GGv2.0 will take its premise and run with it. It’s an entirely new dynamic, and how many reboots or revamps or relaunches can you say that about? XOXO let’s go!

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.

Watch Gossip Girl Episode 1 on HBO Max

View original post