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Gossip Girl review: HBO's 2021 rendition has potential — despite the mediocre acting and obvious plot holes

Gossip Girl review: HBO's 2021 rendition has potential — despite the mediocre acting and obvious plot holes

Xoxo...

Text: Emily Heng


Image: HBO Go

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

To categorise Gossip Girl within the fantasy genre might seem like a stretch — except, well, it's not. Not when HBO Max's revamped interpretation comes packed with enough outlandish twists to warrant a willing suspension of disbelief; a series that, while lacking in dragons and witchcraft, still manages to convey storylines so drastically removed from reality, it's entertaining. But then again, hasn't that always been the magic about GG? The original iteration was brimming with death fake-outs (see: Bart Bass); falsified identities (Ivy Dickens); and, uh, vaguely incestuous ties, all of which were neatly resolved by the end of its 121-episode run.

Thankfully, the Gossip Girl of today promises just a wild a ride despite its numerous shortcomings. The premiere has made it abundantly clear that it won't be emulating the original's formula. Sure, the show is still about the wealthy and privileged, but it is distinctively less white and heteronormative. Familiar tropes, too, are reworked and repurposed so as to provide a more diverse and inclusive slant. The feuding sisters at the heart of the show are both Black; a cheating storyline hints at polyamory instead of dissolution; while the issue of personal privilege is met with guilt and shame — a struggle that was resolutely glossed over in the original.

Still, that's not to say all the newfound changes in Gossip Girl are well-executed. There's a kind of clumsiness to each interaction where social justice is involved, a solid indicator that the showrunners are still trying to hit the sweet spot between "progressive" and "pushing a political agenda." This is aggressively showcased through the character of Otto "Obie" Bergman, whose entire personality is subsumed by his rich-boy guilt. He delivers donuts to workers picketing unfair work practices, attends rallies on the daily, and scoffs at the frivolity of his girlfriend's influencer job. At this point, I'm just waiting for him to utter the words "discourse" to complete my Bingo card.

But I digress. It's safe to say that the other characters within the Gossip Girl sphere are infinitely more palatable. There's the enigmatic Julien Calloway, whose tenacious grip on Instagram-fame means she's always one step away from a meltdown; the shrewd and loyal Audrey who is day-dreaming about someone other than her boyfriend; and the free-wheeling Max Wolfe, who pops pills and makes suggestive comments like his life depends on it.

The jury's still out as to if the showrunners are able to corral these characters into doing anything remotely interesting. Still, it's an encouraging start as any — one that holds more promise than its other overarching storyline. Enter: The faculty. Ah, yes. The teachers of Constance Billard are finally getting some spotlight in the reboot. Yes, that's beyond getting into inappropriate relationships with their students. In a completely bizarro twist, it is revealed that the teachers are the one behind Gossip Girl 2.0; a piss-poor attempt at "scaring the students straight" and getting them in line so they'll emerge into the working society as "Barrack Obamas, not Brett Kavanaughs." Yikes.

Paper-thin reasoning aside, it is also pretty troubling to watch a couple of adults attempt to shame and expose their teenaged students. Granted, said students did make some sort of snarky quip about a teacher donning Zara to school, but does that really justify a full-blown social media takedown? Meh. It doesn't help that the educator leading the charge, Ms. Keller — played by Tavi Gevinson — has a grating, neurotic presence comparable to nails on a chalkboard. Is it intentional? Is it satire? Are we meant to root for educators who take sneaky pictures of underaged students undressing by the window? All remains unclear, at this point.

At the heart of it, though, Gossip Girl has fulfilled its main purpose: To entertain, no matter how farfetched its narrative. Let's just hope it doesn't lose steam mid-way through.

Gossip Girl premieres every Thursday exclusively on HBO Go.