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'Gossip Girl' review: Sharply drawn reboot lacks original's dazzle

Evan Mock, Thomas Doherty, Emily Alyn Lind, Eli

Evan Mock, Thomas Doherty, Emily Alyn Lind, Eli Brown, Jordan Alexander, Savannah Smith, Zion Moreno in HBO MAX's "Gossip Girl." Credit: HBO Max/Karolina Wojtasik

SERIES "Gossip Girl"

WHERE Streaming on HBO Max starting July 8; airing Fridays at 8 p.m. on CW/11 starting July 9.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT At a fancy Upper East Side day school, Constance St. Jude's, the students have returned to class, while the power clique, the so-called "Samurai 7," is about to reassert its dominance. Ruled by senior Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), she's an influencer with thousands of followers who has an iron grip over the student body and teachers. That's all about to change. On the first day of school, her half-sister Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), has arrived on campus as a freshman on full scholarship. Suddenly, Julien's grasp of power seems a little more tenuous.

Yes, this 10-episode reboot of the original "GG" (2007-12) will also feature an online gossip who knows everyone's secrets — Kristen Bell voices her once again — and is also written by original co-creators, Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz (who are joined by another "Gossip Girl" writer/executive producer, Joshua Safran, now the showrunner).

MY SAY The original "GG '' was whatever fans (and detractors) wanted it to be over the span of a few superheated seasons back in the early aughts. Smart or dumb, provocative or trivial, satiric or sophomoric — take your pick (everyone did). Maybe it was a sly sendup of power dynamics, social hierarchies, and the tyranny of information. Or maybe just another teen romp with a dressed-to-kill cast — really dressed, by Diane von Furstenberg, Elie Saab, Marc Jacobs or Oscar de la Renta — when not in various stages of undress.

But looking back, "GG'' was mostly a soap about YA insecurity and how an emerging technology (flip phones!) could so easily exploit that. It was both old-fashioned and cutting edge at the same time. Fast forward to the reboot, which unfolds in a post-pandemic New York, where the superrich have forgotten about the immediate past inconveniences, and where Instagram has been weaponized. School's back in session, which means no more Zoom, while queen bee Julien Calloway must take back control of Constance St. Jude's.

The setup and Manhattan setting look familiar, but Savage and Schwartz have scrapped the original premise (and mystery; more about that below) while scrambling the power dynamics of who's up or down, in or out. Power in this still-shared universe is as fungible (and ephemeral) as someone's last Instagram post, and is allotted by algorithms and followers — the more, the better. Those followers are mostly lemmings who mindlessly scroll through galleries, archives and DMs when not furiously "double-tapping," "liking," "hash-tagging" and "engaging." Brand ambassadors and influencers like Julien are the masters of this domain but social media also takes a lot of work. Who has got time for school? Teachers? They are roadblocks on the road to riches and glory.

This new "GG," then, is really just a heightened reality version of the world we all find ourselves trapped in, with a twist: A teacher, Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson), decides to turn the tables on Julien, by creating an Instagram alter ego based on the original Gossip Girl while retaining her (his) same "voice," which — in Keller's colorful description — is "E.M. Forster's [if he] got roofied by Dorothy Parker and Jaqueline Susann.'' She's got supporters (other aggrieved teachers) who serve as information gatherers.

Like the original, this "GG" can be pithy and clever (that Forster line tells you as much) but unlike the original, at times glum and muddled too. It's a sibling-rivalry drama set in the age of Instagram and COVID, where social media is the true villain. That part may be accurate — just not quite as much fun.

BOTTOM LINE Sharply drawn and written, absent the dazzle of the original.

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