Gossip Girl: The books, the old CW show, and the new HBO Max series, explained

On July 8, the definitive CW teen drama Gossip Girl is back, with a fresh new HBO Max spin. Maybe this is exciting for you. Maybe you missed the Gossip Girl party that started in the late 2000s. That’s okay! It’s come back around again, because everything eventually does. This time, though, it’s different. Very different, in ways that will likely be… a bit divisive.

Sorry for being coy, I’m just getting into character. Happy to dish, if you’ll stay a while.

So what is Gossip Girl?

Starting at the beginning, Gossip Girl is the first of a series of novels by real-life heiress Cecily von Ziegesar, who attended the elite Nightingale-Bamford girls’ school in Manhattan, among other institutions. Gossip Girl is about that kind of rarified life, a rich-kid drama taking place among the Upper Manhattan private-school set.

And it was adapted for TV, right?

The cast of Gossip Girl’s early CW seasons gathered in front of Central Park

Photo: The CW

Boy was it! Gossip Girl, the 2007 CW show, was the next series from The O.C.’s Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. Only loosely based on the novels, the show centered on Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) as she returned to New York City after some time away, and her relationship with frenemy Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester). Like in the novels, there’s also an extra twist at play — the eponymous Gossip Girl.

So Gossip Girl is a person?

Yes. Gossip Girl is an anonymous blogger who seems to know everything about what all the show’s characters are up to. Their identity is a mystery the show is only halfheartedly interested in — mostly, Gossip Girl is a vehicle for spicy narration from Kristen Bell, who doesn’t actually appear in the show, outside of a brief cameo. Gossip Girl’s identity is revealed in the finale, and there probably isn’t a soul on Earth who’s happy about the answer, so it’s best not to get too invested in that.

Strange. Why was the show a big deal?

It was edgy! Since the story is about entitled rich kids, a lot of the boundaries in most teen soaps really didn’t exist, even in the usual flimsy forms. Parents? Mostly a source of income. Teachers? If they were mentioned at all, it was for an illicit hookup. Jobs? Don’t make me laugh. The characters largely live free of consequences, except the ones they make for each other. This gave the series room to immediately up the usual teen-drama stakes to ridiculous levels, resulting in a truly absurd, relentlessly paced, and compelling television show. Most buzzy teen dramas characterized by excess, from Riverdale to Euphoria, are arguably trying to one-up it in some way. It was also a huge mess, and extremely of its time.

What’s that mean?

Mostly that it’s hard to sell a show about entitled rich white kids taking what they want and having a laugh about it in 2021. It was already a debauched fairytale version of New York in 2007. Now it would mostly play the same, it would just read as tasteless.

So the new Gossip Girl is a reboot that fixes those things?

Kind of! It’s not a reboot — sort of a loose sequel, set at the same school as the original, only more than a decade later and following a new, far more diverse set of students. Its central conflict is also different — it’s still about two girls, but instead of white frenemies, they’re Black half-sisters Zoya (Whitney Peak) and Julien (Jordan Alexander), who recently discovered each other and are reconnecting for the first time. This is complicated: Julien is a wildly popular influencer and at the top of the school hierarchy, and Zoya does not come from the same kind of money and prestige. Their struggle to get along is the spine of the show, with their friends’ individual dramas circling in their orbit.

And it’s on HBO Max, not the CW. Does that mean anything?

The episodes are longer (maybe too long?), and there’s a healthy amount of swearing, along with occasional nudity. Mostly butts. Lotta butts.

But there’s still a Gossip Girl?

Yes! This is the big twist of the show, and depending on where you stand, it might make or break the series for you (Spoilers, naturally.) This time, instead of Gossip Girl’s identity being a mystery, the audience is told from the start: Gossip Girl is revived by a group of teachers who feel their private-school kids are out of control, and decide to use the name to shake up the social order among their entitled students. Unfortunately, this mostly turns these teachers into a bunch of creeps spying on their students, an unsettling social dynamic the show isn’t terribly interested in examining, at least not in its first four episodes. It’s weird! But also, the show is about all sorts of terrible people behaving badly, so in the logic of the show, a toxic solution to a toxic problem makes a strange kind of sense.

Huh. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Zion Moreno and Lee Smith look anxiously at their phones and each other in Gossip Girl

Photo: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

Me neither! Mostly, the show is silly, which is hard to remember sometimes, because almost everything that doesn’t involve the aforementioned teachers — who are truly bumbling goofs — is played deadly seriously. Kristen Bell’s sly voice returns as Gossip Girl’s narrator, but the new series doesn’t have her playfulness — or the original show’s. This unfortunately makes Gossip Girl’s flaws — like the annoyingly weak and artificial conflicts thrown up between Zoya and Julien, and a hot-for-teacher subplot that seems like a big misfire — all the more noticeable, and its strengths (a terrific sense of style and a solid cast) hard to celebrate.

Yet this is kind of normal stuff for teen dramas, yeah?

That’s probably right. Teen dramas are hard, and aimed at a fickle audience. A lot of times, they succeed because of their messier aspects. One of Gossip Girl’s big problems is that it seems equally aimed at new fans, and classic fans. (References to the first incarnation of the show abound in the new series.) Maybe it can pull off that highwire act, but eventually it might have to pick a side, and who knows which is the right one. Mostly, though? Its indecision is boring.

Hmm. Sounds pretty definitive. So are you gonna do the thing?

What thing?

If you know, you know. The thing?

Oh, right. I’ll never tell, you know me, you love me, etc etc XOXO Gossip Josh.

Gossip Girl is available to stream on HBO Max.

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