After successfully standing out as a worthwhile reboot, HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” must now contend with continuing the new story it’s set while continuing to appeal to fans of the original show. Naturally, the comparisons to the original series remain, as the mythology gets deeper and success allows the continuity bridge to be gapped even more. But with Season 2 it’s a balancing act, as the show’s success allows for things like Michelle Trachtenberg’s return as original series antagonist Georgina Sparks but can also lead to the series potentially relying too much on the past instead of its present and future.
While “Gossip Girl” has been a continuation from moment one — still very much in the same world as the original series, just within a 2020s, social media-obsessed, Zoomer world — there’s an obvious difference between having Eleanor Waldorf, Cyrus Rose, Dorota, and Vanya showing up in the first season and Georgina Sparks (after featuring her son in an early episode) showing up in the second. (While Wallace Shawn is a national treasure, he’s not the kind of returning actor that’s going to have “Gossip Girl” faithful new and old lighting up social media. Even if they should.) If anything, Georgina’s promised and promoted return is a sign that things are going to get more interesting this season.
As is tradition (and a welcome reminder that the spirit of The CW is still alive), each episode continues to be centered on (or at least makes its way to) a ritzy event of the week. The season opener takes place at a debutante ball, and while Joshua Safran remains the showrunner of this iteration, viewers who are familiar with the work of executive producers (and original series creators) Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (and “The O.C.” alums) should know to be excited about just what the “Gossip Girl” characters will get up to at that setting. It’s an obvious way for the series to return with a bang, setting up the lay of the land for these characters’ “second semester” — which Zoya’s best friend, Shan (Grace Duah, now a series regular), claims is going to be “even bigger and crazier” than the first.
When it comes to that promise, it’s a good sign that the first half of Season 2 is definitely more concerned with the “OMFG” moments than the first season originally felt like it was. Who’s feuding with who, who’s lying to who, who’s sleeping with who — this season definitely attempts to turn up the heat on these characters in terms of those concepts, while also remembering that part of what makes “Gossip Girl” work, in general, is the humor of all these frivolities. There wasn’t a lot of actual “fun” in the first season, but this season remembers that should be part of the equation. The combination of fun plus chaos is something this season really dips its toes into, and it seems like the water is more than fine.
“Gossip Girl” Season 2, does, however, reveal the creative problems that the teachers-as-Gossip Girl aspect of the show is facing the longer the series goes on. While the choice for the teachers to be behind Gossip Girl was a controversial aspect of the series for critics and viewers of the first season, there was some entertainment value to get out of the hypocrisy and madness that caused them to do everything they were doing. (A teacher awkwardly standing in the rain and photographing his half-naked students for Gossip Girl was practically something out of early-season “Glee” — and that is compliment.)
But Kate Keller, the teacher at the helm of Gossip Girl, was a combination of superior, sanctimonious, and self-righteous that became less and less entertaining as the first season went on. This season, unfortunately, the Kate scenes are one of the still iffy components that bring the series’ otherwise steady forward momentum to a grinding halt. This season introduces a love interest (and threat to Gossip Girl) for her, as well as her father, and while the show might think getting to know the character better could be the key to making the character more sympathetic (not necessarily more likable, because who really needs to be “likable” on a soap opera?), it actually takes away from the more interesting characters (the teens and, for the most part, their parents).
While the reveal of Gossip Girl up top was a creative choice, going forward it’s hard to look at knowing who Gossip Girl is (and spending time with these characters) and not think there’s a problem with how long this can actually work as an aspect of the show. The humor in the Gossip teachers scenes is the most forced of the entire series, and as the show comes into its own — specifically with the actors who play the teen characters and those characters’ family dynamics — these scenes stand out more and more in a bad way.
The series’ self-righteous characters also have been and remain its biggest struggle toward smooth, soapy sailing, because it’s ultimately unclear what the series is trying to do with these characters. In the original series, those roles were filled by Dan Humphrey (a hypocrite at best, and Gossip Girl at worst) and Vanessa Abrams (who was barely taken seriously by any of the characters or the viewers), but their characters existed for more than just to be the self-righteous outsider; and even at their most obtuse, the characters were written to have more self-awareness. Both Lotts’ grandstanding about the truth and their opinions on the wealthy tend to occur within the same breath as lying and reaping the benefits of their relationships with the wealthy. For all the fun of the Max/Aki/Audrey throuple or Monet’s ascent in the social hierarchy or Julien’s failed attempts to fix things, that has yet to trickle down to the Lotts this season.
As for Obie, his poor little rich kid activist characterization was already a problem in the first season, but when it comes to Season 2, it feels like a baffling response to fan reaction to the character. In the season trailer, if you blink, you’ll miss Obie completely. Season 2’s solution to its Obie problem seems to be to cut back on his screen time altogether and separate him from the rest of the cast. While Obie obviously ends up at events with the other characters—while intentionally trying not to spend time with them—the series find a way for him to be off doing his own thing. However, it’s no more compelling than when Kate Keller’s doing her own thing.
The most compelling part of this season is the aforementioned ascent of Monet, from right-hand woman to challenger to Julien’s thrown. (As for the left-hand woman, this season works to show that Luna is perhaps the most perceptive and emotionally intelligent of all the characters — and it lands.)
It became clear early on in the first season that the new “Gossip Girl” would more than have its work cut out for it if it was determined to make Zoya and Julien the new version of Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. Besides the sister relationship clearly needing to forge its own path, neither could fill the boots of Blair in terms of both the character’s scheming and Leighton Meester’s scene-stealing command. Instead, the HBO Max series offered the Blair to Julien’s Serena in the form of Monet, though she was on the sidelines at first. This season has made sure that sidelining’s no longer the case, though, as it delivers on the Serena and Blair friends-to-enemies back and forth between Julien and Monet by giving the latter more emotion and character decisions that make sense.
For anyone who watched the original series and firmly planted their flag for either “Team Serena” or “Team Blair,” this season of “Gossip Girl” finally allows the fans to confidently do the same. Despite its continuing flaws, what this season does well is truly a delight.
“Gossip Girl” Season 2 premieres Dec. 1 on HBO Max with its first two episodes, with new episodes dropping weekly on Thursdays.