We're already several episodes into the new Gossip Girl, and it's obvious that although the setting is the same, this isn't the show that we grew up with. Everything about the new era of Constance Billard is different — it's still up in the air whether those differences are for better or worse — but the biggest change is the prematurely revealed identity of Gossip Girl. In a shocking and disturbing turn of events, the teachers at the prestigious Upper East Side institution are the ones spilling their students' tea, and it's getting weird. Like, really weird.
HBO Max's reboot jumps the shark pretty quickly when it comes to unmasking the forces behind the Big Brother-esque presence, something that took the original series six whole seasons to do. The first day of school at Constance Billard sets the scene, and it's clear that the dynamic here isn't as it should be. While the students swarm the hallways in their loosest takes on the school uniform with stories from lavish summer vacations, their teachers meekly slink through the hallways to avoid being perceived. The power lies with the students, and everyone on staff knows it. Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson) is painfully aware of the upside-down hierarchy of her workplace, and she's sick of living in fear that one wrong move could cost her career. Thankfully, she's found a solution to instill fear and subordination into the hearts of the student body: reviving the ancient spirit of Gossip Girl.
Bringing Gossip Girl back is easier said than done; Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was a best-selling author in the making with a strikingly unique tone (courtesy of Kristen Bell) as the OG omnipresent force. Plus, no one blogs like that anymore in 2021. After falsely stating that no one is on Twitter anymore — Hello? Am I a tree? — Kate and her fellow teachers create an Instagram for their devious plans and get straight to work, setting their sights on exploiting the growing rift between half-sisters Julien (Jordan Alexander) and Zoya (Whitney Peak).
It doesn't take long for this strategy to go from sketchy to unequivocally unethical as the staff devolves into desperation in order to gather information on their students. Jordan, a teacher who is especially thrilled by the notion of Gossip Girl, stalks Zoya and Obie (Eli Brown) and uploads a picture of them in their underwear. (Zoya is only 14 years old!) School secretary Wendy (Megan Ferguson) goes to great lengths to acquire personal, protected information from Zoya's records. And Kate anonymously barters with Julien for clout in exchange for tea while also earning young Zoya's trust so she can use her secrets against her.
Let Gossip Girl creator Joshua Safran tell it, the blatant bad vibes and murky morals make complete sense. As someone who had personally experienced the Manhattan private school circuit, Safran felt like sending the staff on a power trip would be an understandable plot point given everything that they suffered at the hands of their students.
Unfortunately, it feels like the ends don't really justify the means in this situation so far. As teachers, the job of Kate and company is ultimately to educate and protect their students, fostering a learning environment that is a safe space for the young people that they're responsible for. While class dynamics often corrupt the nature of the education system, giving the rich a head start at the expense of less privileged students, the staff at Constance Billard is supposed to try and balance the scales of inequality the best that they can. Gossip Girl is their attempt righting the wrongs of capitalism and classism, but it actually hurts the very people that they're trying to steer in the right direction; the more the anonymous Instagram account shares about the students, the more the students' mental health spirals, leading them to lean even further into the reckless behavior that spawned Gossip Girl to begin with. What we're seeing now is a misuse of power that is as ineffective as it is predatory and abusive — pretty much a waste of time.
The return of Gossip Girl isn't just detrimental to the students; the teachers themselves are also being affected by their new hunger for power. Seeing as the account itself is a massive privacy violation, their jobs are perpetually at risk should they be exposed. When the school begins a manhunt for the person behind Gossip Girl, they throw one of their comrades (who also happens to be the only nonwhite person in the mix) to the wolves, resulting in her immediate firing. They're even eating their own now.
Also, as full grown adults, this group should seriously be more concerned with leading fulfilling lives at work and at home, yet they spend most of their days plotting their next big post. From what we've seen, these teachers don't do anything other than gossip about the personal lives of teenagers. No swiping right on dating apps, no drinking bottomless mimosas with their homegirls in Williamsburg, no workouts at a pilates studio, no baking banana bread, no one night stands. Just Gossip Girl. It's getting creepier by the episode, and Safran knows it.
"It’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story," Sfaran told Variety. "It’s a cautionary tale. We will be tracking not just what Gossip Girl does to the kids, but what being Gossip Girl does to them. And it is incredibly messy and morally compromised, obviously."
At the end of the day, Safran is the boss, and he knows exactly what kind of story he wants to tell with the HBO Max. But while we can always appreciate a show that's heavy on the drama, the specific vehicle for supplying the mess — in this case, exploiting students' personal information — is starting to feel gross. We're too concerned about the safety of the students to love (or hate) them, almost most to the point of taking away from the intrigue of the plot.
I hate to say it, but maybe they should bring Dan-as-Gossip-Girl back. That didn't make any sense back in 2012, but it was less sketchy than this.
Gossip Girl is now available for streaming, only on HBO Max.