July 29, 2021

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‘Gossip Lady’ and 5 extra suggestions for some critical teen drama

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Written by Marianna Cerini, CNN

Keeping you in the know, Culture Queue is an ongoing series of recommendations for timely books to read, films to watch and podcasts and music to listen to.

“Did you miss me?” Kristen Bell’s voice asks, almost threateningly, in the trailer of the new “Gossip Girl.” “I know I have missed you.”

And just like that, the TV drama that turned the schemes and betrayals of a group of elite kids at a private school in Manhattan’s Upper East Side into a cultural phenomenon is back. Sort of.

Today, HBO Max is premiering the reboot of the iconic 2007-2012 CW series — dubbed at one point “The Greatest Show of Our Time” by New York magazine — with a 12-episode season that picks up a decade later, relies heavily on Instagram (that’s where Gossip Girl does all her dirt-dishing gossip now), and has been hailed as G.G. 2.0.

In layman’s terms, that means a revival tailored to the more sensitive and socially aware tastes of today’s Gen Z: less about teens destroying one another in all sorts of toxic, often problematic ways (sometimes for the mere fun of it), and more about the struggle to do the right thing while living in a world of privilege, clout-chasers and designer handbags.

Diversity and representation have come to the forefront too (identity-wise, at least — everyone is still incredibly wealthy, beautiful and decidedly thin), which is a definite improvement from the mostly white, cisgender and heterosexual casting of the original series.

That means no more frenemies Serena van der Woodson (Blake Lively) and Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), and no Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford), Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) and Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley). Instead, the new crew of OTT 17-year-olds includes Black half-sisters Julien (Jordan Alexander), a benevolent social media influencer, and Zoya (Whitney Peak) a middle-class, scholarship student new to Constance Billard School (now a coed school); bisexual party boy Max (Thomas Doherty); and a tight circle of friends and enemies of different races and sexual orientations — plus Bell as the Machiavellian narrator.

“I think of it like the Marvel universe,” Josh Safran, the reboot’s showrunner and a writer and executive producer for its predecessor, told Entertainment Tonight in a 2019 interview. “It’s not a continuation or a sequel. It truly just is looking at a different angle.”
The shift was unavoidable given how times have changed and how deeply controversial some of the original story lines were. But in trying to be a “woke” version of the high-gloss high drama Serena and her cohort thrived on, this new iteration might not quite match that “every parent’s nightmare” appeal of the first “Gossip Girl.”

Zion Moreno, Jordan Alexander, Savannah Smith star in “Gossip Girl.” Credit: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

Reinventing the ‘mean teen’ genre

Despite its many issues, the 2007 “Gossip Girl” can be credited for forever reshaping the teen drama genre.

The show was for and about young people but, more than any series before it (with maybe the exception of “The O.C,” which ended the same year “Gossip Girl” dropped, and shared the same creator, Josh Schwartz), it treated its subjects as wordly adults — albeit deeply damaged ones.

“It’s true that ‘Gossip Girl’ was a show oriented at teens, but it was so smart, fun, sexy and tuned in to the culture in a way that made it impossible for adults to ignore, and that other teen shows don’t always quite capture,” Tyler McCall, editor-in-chief of website Fashionista and amateur “Gossip Girl” historian wrote in an email. “It treated its audience as being savvy and engaged, which makes it much more rewatchable than, say, a ‘90210.’”

The spoiled Upper East Siders were sexually active, incredibly catty, drank as much as (if not more) than their absent parents and took drugs. They were technically in school, but most of the action happened in bars, clubs and hotel rooms.

They also dressed like grown-ups, from Chad’s stylish suits to Blair’s impeccable sheath dresses and Serena’s couture pieces, completely dismissing the teenage wardrobe of jeans and sneakers you’d seen in “My So-Called Life,” “Dawson’s Creek” or “Party of Five.”

“I think the biggest impact ‘Gossip Girl’ had on teen shows was in terms of the fashion — especially for shows like ‘Euphoria’ or ‘Pretty Little Liars,’ which I think followed in that same vein of having highly identifiable and, in the case of the former, trend-setting style on a TV show for teens,” Tyler said.

The original cast of "Gossip Girl" included Penn Badgley, Blake Lively, Ed Westwick, Chace Crawford, Taylor Momsen and Leighton Meester.

The original cast of “Gossip Girl” included Penn Badgley, Blake Lively, Ed Westwick, Chace Crawford, Taylor Momsen and Leighton Meester. Credit: AF archive/Alamy Stock Photo

Wealthy but miserable, popular but disaffected, they backstabbed one another and held elaborate, gala-style social events; reveled in excess and power games; and had no qualms about ethics, appropriate behavior, or unashamedly using their socioeconomic class to their advantage (something that Safran is addressing in the reboot, as he told Variety in a recent interview, saying “these kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t”).

They were, essentially, kids running their own snarky, absurd and incredibly addictive soap opera — a satirical fantasy world full of money-fueled pleasures and lacking in any moralizing, which made for great escapism television. As noted in a 2008 New York Times article, ‘Gossip Girl’ “found a way saucily to make a virtue of vacuity and viciousness.” That is exactly what got audiences so hooked.

Tyler believes the timing of the series also had much to do with its enduring legacy. “‘Gossip Girl’ hit TV at probably the most perfect moment it could have: It debuted just as the US hit the Great Recession, at the end of the Bush years and in the beginning of the Obama years, and here you had a show that was documenting the uber-rich during all of those changes,” she said. “There’s also definitely something to be said about the New York City setting… It’s very much a successor to ‘Sex and the City’ in the way it used the city as a backdrop for its characters to play.”

But it wasn’t just the extravagant lifestyle that made the show a cultural touchstone. Among the glitz and the glamour-soaked parties, the fashion and bed-hopping, “Gossip Girl” also explored serious topics like substance abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault and suicide, giving teens not just an overarching storyline of bonkers privilege and all that comes with it, but also plenty of self-contained subplots to keep them talking for days.

It’s likely that, despite its efforts to be more “human,” the new “Gossip Girl” will follow a very similar model of entertainment.

“I just know this world and this language,” Safran told Variety. “I don’t know what it is! But whatever it is, ‘Gossip Girl’ is in my bones — and it falls out of me.”

The reboot still takes place at Constance Billard School, now rebranded as a co-ed rather than all-girls school.

The reboot still takes place at Constance Billard School, now rebranded as a co-ed rather than all-girls school. Credit: Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

Add to queue: More teens behaving badly

Reworking the classic Russian novel “Anna Karenina” with Asian characters, this 2020 debut by author Jenny Lee explores the ultra-rich lives of half-Korean teens Anna and Steven as they breeze through parties in Manhattan and horse races in Connecticut, fancy private schools, and exclusive holidays — but also endure heartbreaks, stir plenty of drama and grapple with social media. Witty and sharp, it’s a fresh take on the teen challenges of struggling to fit in and learning to stand up for oneself.

LISTEN: Fake Heiress” (2019)
This six-episode BBC Radio 4 podcast delves into the rise and fall of Anna Delvey (born Sorokin), who posed as an up-and-coming socialite and multimillion-dollar heiress to con New York’s high society during a year-long run of hotel living, fine dining, luxury shopping and international travel (she was released in February after more than three years in state prison).

The HBO drama about the lives of a group of teenagers in a nameless California suburb is like “Gossip Girl” on steroids. The classic teen drama tropes are all there — unrequited love, parent-child conflicts, pregnancy scares, lost friendships, depression, sexual awakenings — but developed for a distinctly Gen Z audience. From opioid addiction and gender nonconformity to sexting, catfishing and one-night stands, nothing’s off the table. The fashion is striking and wildly experimental, too.

British show “Skins”debuted the same year “Gossip Girl” did and, back then, was the closest thing to the CW series in terms of shock factor. It tells the story of a group of hedonistic teens in Bristol who are leaving school, sleep with each other, party hard, drink a lot and smoke weed, while also tackling deeply personal, coming-of-age dramas. Unlike the adult-like cohort of GG, the characters here act like the kids they actually are, which makes for a more honest — yet still completely wild — depiction of teen life.

READ: The Secret History” (1992)

Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” is set in a college rather than a high school, but, with themes spanning incest, betrayal, twenty-something angst, substance abuse and rich-people problems, it’s still very much part of the “rich kids doing questionable things” canon. It follows a group of wealthy students studying ancient Greek at a liberal-arts college in 1980s Vermont, who form their own secret society replete with rules and rituals inspired by the ancient texts they study — until things get out of hand.



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