Josh Safran has always been fascinated by embarrassing amounts of wealth. Growing up, he was surrounded by it, though not quite in a Serena van der Woodsen way. The Gossip Girl creator watched as an outsider while attending a prestigious private school in Manhattan. “I grew up on the Upper East Side at a time where being gay was not something you were on the Upper East Side so I always felt a little removed, sort of outside watching,” he told recently Refinery29 on a phone call. “I didn't have all the money that other kids did. I would take the subway while they were taking BMWs.”
Safran would use his vantage point into the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” to create the 2007 hit teen series for The CW. It starred a bunch of hot unknowns who would go on to become somebodies — including Safran himself, who says he has more in common with the “other side” after his TV success. In addition to Gossip Girl, Safran is also responsible for the cult classic series Smash, the military thriller Quantico, and now, the even more opulent and trendsetting 2021 GG reboot. The HBO Max series (airing on Binge in Australia), which had its part 1 finale on August 12, will return in November for the final six episodes of its inaugural season. It's (all but officially) renewed for a season 2, according to Safran, who already has big plans for more cameos from the original cast, more controversial jokes, and even more rich people problems.
“My whole career, I've been drawn to that because I find it so fascinating,” Safran said. “We always want to know how that one percent lives.”
In the reboot, which takes place at present-day Constance Billard St. Jude's School — the same school Dan, Chuck, Blair, and Serena attended — the incentive behind the actions of the extremely rich has changed. The writer’s room gave the characters more of a moral compass this time around to better reflect the current priorities of Gen Z, Safran says, but the new slate of teens is still stupid rich. It is a staple of the show, and a staple of my (and Safran’s) favourite genre of TV: shows about rich fucked up families à la Succession, White Lotus, and Billions. We want to see the characters blow up their lives, all while we absorb every designer outfit and mentally track every Michelin-star restaurant they go to.
“We like seeing how everybody fucks up,” Safran agreed. “In a world that we live in right now — where these rich people are not getting their comeuppance [and are] launching themselves into space and saying thank you to the workers whose lives are being destroyed by them — we want to then somehow have an outlet for our outrage and anger. We want to see them go down. TV shows like this give us that ability to watch that happen. It's schadenfreude.”
“At the same time, everybody is so gorgeous,” he laughed.
Safran also spends a lot of his time watching shows like this, including HBO sibling Succession. In fact, there are little tidbits throughout the series that are a nod to the Emmy-winning drama. When the trailer for episode 6, “Parentsite,” dropped, fans immediately noticed that Aki’s (Evan Mock) dad, Roger (Malcolm McDowell), bore an unmistakable resemblance to Succession patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox), a fictional billionaire based on real-life media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Now, Gossip Girl has its own Murdoch moment — the energy of the jet scene was so deeply Logan — and it ties into a bigger theory which connects the worlds of the popular shows through Aki’s dad and his mom Jodi (Hettiene Park), who is based on Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng.
“I knew from the top when I created the characters two and a half years ago the joke I wanted to [make],” he said. “I went to Horace Mann School with James Murdoch. I've always wanted to write about them and the idea for me was how can we tell the story [that] Succession is not telling, which is kind of like a joke. We're telling the Wendi Deng [story].”
The other half of the joke, which Safran hasn’t written into the show yet, is that the audience will hear references to Roger’s adult children who are constantly fighting in the other room. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Luke Kirby's character appears to be a combination of Succession's Kendall Roy (the clothes) meets Diplo (the cool factor) meets Lionel Richie (the dad-daughter relationship).
Safran also teases that the aforementioned jet scene, where Roger makes a mysterious phone call, will be the major catalyst for season 2. (Again, very Logan to dismantle the lives of those around him with no remorse.) Now that Aki’s dad has used his son’s sexuality to further his own agenda, and potentially placed his son’s friends Obie (Eli Brown) and Julien (Jordan Alexander) at risk during a protest at the Navy Yard, there’s really no limit to the chaos he could bring to season 2.
What else to expect from the second half, knowing that there’s a pulse of Succession pumping through the series? Well, you can be sure that we’re getting an amped up version of “Gossip Girl lore.” Episode 7, which Vulture gave a sneak peek of in June, will pick up right before the Thanksgiving holiday (on screen and in real life), with a tense chaotic dinner. The entire cast — all 17 of them — will appear in the episode, making it the show’s biggest Thanksgiving moment yet. (I can only think of one dinner that comes close to this.) Plus, Safran confirms we’ll get more Monet (Savannah Smith) and Luna (Zion Moreno) when we hear their backstories and learn about their ambitions separate from Julien in part 2.
But the biggest thing to look out for is the coming shift in our resident outsider, Zoya (Whitney Peak). Safran said that writing characters like Georgina (Gossip Girl OG and mother to the mischievous Milo), Monet, and Luna came naturally to him, but the real focus of the series is the steady arc of Zoya navigating the choppy waters of unchecked privilege. The part 1 finale’s explosive dinner scene at Le CouCou becomes a place where true colours are shown. The bubble Obie has created for Zoya — one where he is honest, brave, and “not like his parents” — bursts. While viewers may feel seduced by the playful wickedness of Safran’s supporting characters, they’re now forced to sit with the uncomfortable reality of the series’ lead Zoya going up against New York’s morally corrupt.
“Zoya being so pushed to the side of that dinner by those people is an actual act of violence,” Safran said. “It’s actually meaner than if somebody [physically] pushed her over. We were really sitting in the disparity between Zoya and the teachers and everybody else every episode, [and] that's never going away...Zoya is Zoya. You're watching the waves crash against her over and over and over again and see her stand her ground.”
The dinner scene is one of the best and most dynamic we’ve had from the season so far. Everything started to click and lead up to the grand finale (and betrayal) when Obie first chooses his mom, and later Julien, over his girlfriend Zoya. It felt like I finally got the show and its characters; Obie was no longer a flavourless herb, as one Tiktoker called him, but revealed to be much worse: a kind of rotten one.
Even more than having people watch the show, Safran is eager to talk — or rather gossip — about it. “So, what did you think?” he asked me eagerly. I told him I felt more invested in the drama. “Are the actors getting better, or are the stakes just getting higher?” I wondered out loud. In response, Safran told me about the moment audiences fully “got” the original Gossip Girl way back in 2008 with “School Lies.”
“That was when I really started noticing that people were all in and here it's a similar thing,” Safran said. “The exposition of how all these people know each other [and] how the machinery of Gossip Girl is going to work is over, and you can suddenly listen.”
And it’s fun to listen, especially when Safran is explaining. He’s a natural storyteller, but he’s also an expert on his show, having a hand in almost every aspect from rewriting jokes on the spot to scouting locations for key scenes (he’s very excited about one spot in part 2 he can’t reveal).
While the specifics of the reboot are different, the tried-and-true formula still stands: Tease a love triangle, introduce family drama, and expose as many secrets in an episode as possible. With this mid-season finale, the explaining part is over. Now, it’s time to sit back and watch the drama unfold in a beautiful, rich mess, just like Safran imagined it would.
Because you know you love him.