Finally, it can be said: The teachers on “Gossip Girl” are Gossip Girl!
Yes, in the new version of the show on HBO Max, the school’s teachers are attempting to take back their power from an entitled student body and their controlling, grade-grubbing parents. Led by Kate (Tavi Gevinson), who creates the voice of Gossip Girl, they at first set up a Twitter account, which goes unnoticed. “Twitter is a glorified chatroom for meme sharing, conspiracy theorists, and Lin-Manuel Miranda,” one of them says. So off to Instagram they go, where they begin to get the traction they seek.
This idea was the hook that Joshua Safran — an executive producer of the original “Gossip Girl,” and now the showrunner of the continuation — came up with that made him want to do the show. And he also considers it to be a major spoiler, though it’s revealed early in the first episode of the new series’ 12-episode season.
With the premiere now available to watch, Safran broke the episode down and previewed what’s to come this season.
How did you decide that the teachers would be Gossip Girl?
I have friends who work in the private schools of the Upper East Side and Upper West Side. And I went to one, obviously. I often thought since the first “Gossip Girl” ended that there was maybe a show in teachers at these rarefied schools, but I never landed on anything. And then I was talking to my friends a couple of years ago, just about the small changes that they had noticed in the students’ parents in the years they were teaching there.
I can’t remember whether I first knew that there would be teachers and a teacher would be Gossip Girl, or whether I knew first that I would know who Gossip Girl was and it would be a teacher. The two were so neck-and-neck for me. I was also very interested in looking at roads we hadn’t explored the first time around, and teachers — that was a whole area. Especially private school teachers who are younger than public school teachers, who make less money than public school teachers, who come out of college and are not so removed from the age of the students that they’re teaching. All of that combined just felt like really fertile territory.
Is it a fun thing that by doing the Gossip Girl account to try to control the students, the teachers are in danger of becoming worse than the kids?
Oh, totally. It’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for story. 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.
And while I understand the teachers are operating this moral gray area, to me, it was actually worse if you think about it as Dan Humphrey. Because he is demoralizing and destroying his own sister sitting next to him at the table without her even knowing it! Here, at least, these people entered this noble profession believing that they could shape the hearts and minds of young people — and found out very quickly that they couldn’t.
Dan being Gossip Girl — you weren’t there that season, and that was a very controversial thing. How much was that in your mind when you decided to have it be not a mystery from the start?
After I left the first show and I heard that it was Dan, I was like, “Why did they change what I thought it was going to be?”
Wait, who did you think it was going to be?
Initially we thought it was it was going to be Eric, who’s Serena’s brother. But then that actor got a series regular job on another show and he was only recurring for us. Then we did briefly talk about other people it could be, from Dorota to other students at the school that we barely knew. And then we landed on Nate. Because somebody in the writers’ room noticed one day offhandedly that Nate had actually never sent a tip into Gossip Girl — which is true; we went back and we looked, and he never had. So we were like, “Oh, that makes sense.” Like, if you look at the pilot, he’d just cheated on his girlfriend with Serena, who’s he really in love with, but he didn’t know how to get that information out. So he created his alter ego that was going out everybody’s secrets, and he’d be forced to deal with what had happened.
And then I left, and they shifted away from that. But with distance, I was like, “Of course it’s Dan.” I’m sure nobody would make sense, unless it was totally Lady Whistledown, who you never saw write letters. But the fact that it’s Dan, the outsider, it’s such a no-brainer that it’s almost a trope to say it. The outsider who was pining for a woman that would never give him the time of day, so he created a way in which to equalize them. I do support it now. I just wish that we had thought about it in Episode 2 so that we could have laid it in. Because of course you watch it now, and it doesn’t quite make sense.
Knowing from the top this time around that we would know, that just gave us a lot of freedom. You’re the only person I’ve told this to: There are still mistakes in the show, which I had to just be like, “Ah, fuck it. This is a bye, and we’re going to do it.” Meaning, sometimes Gossip Girl still has to post something that Kate or the teachers would not have received. The plot has to turn. And so there’s an example in Episode 6 where we watch somebody take a photo of Zoya, and while you watch them take the photo, you hear the post. But there’s no way the photo got to Kate, Kate wrote the post and posted the post. We needed that to happen. So it’s a little tricky.
When it was Dan and you didn’t know, you could get away with anything.
The central relationship of the new show appears to be Zoya (Whitney Peak) and Julien (Jordan Alexander), half-sisters who’ve never met before the first episode. When did you figure out that Julien was going to be instrumental in bringing Zoya into her world?
I knew I wanted to do sisters because I knew I wanted to look at another form of female bonding. I’ve noticed, even looking at my half-sisters, the ways in which they operate in totally different worlds and the ways in which their worlds overlap.
I added on top of the sister dynamic this background tragedy. That’s another tropey literary thing. And I was like, “Well, it makes sense that the older child was more aware of the younger child, even if they didn’t know each other. That she would want to feel closer to their deceased mother by creating this bond with this younger sister.”
I really love exploring their dynamic, because they’re friendly, they’re not friendly, then they’re friendly again — but it’s always complicated. And I think of “Hannah and Her Sisters” — not to evoke the dreaded Woody Allen. But you could watch that movie, and the dynamic between those women is once incredibly real, but also a little bit heightened. They’re so idiosyncratic and so distinct, but they also bleed all over each other. And you can see where they’re connected.
Monet (Savannah Lee Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno) are an incredible Greek chorus. Zión Moreno is trans — is she playing Luna as a cis character?
No, Luna is trans. I say that, but I don’t know how oblique there is of a reference to it. But yeah, Luna is a trans woman in the show. We decided as writers that this isn’t a show that’s about how she became her authentic self. That’s just not our story. Luna is Luna to these people, and that’s that.
There is a story later in the season that talks about disclosure. But Gossip Girl is not weaponizing anyone’s gender or sexuality in the show, or race or identity.
There are references in the first episode to Nate Archibald and Dan Humphrey, along with the cancel culture joke about Chuck and Blair. How are you deciding which callbacks to make?
Because I was there for most of the original, it’s so inside my DNA that these references to the old show come out of me without me even knowing. It’s just I’m in that same world; I’m still there. So, the teachers would look at Gossip Girl, and this would be what they referenced.
I can’t remember what’s still in the pilot, but initially it was: Blair was the Princess of Monaco, Chuck and Blair is definitely “pre-cancel culture,” a senior got a story published in the New Yorker. As the series progresses, there’s a lot of mentions as well. And it’s just simply these characters all still exist for me, and I have very intimate knowledge of everything they ever did.
Is there a world in which someone from the original show would appear in the new version?
Yes. There are a couple of cameos in Season 1 — none of them are from series regulars. We have 16 series regulars and up to 22 recurring, which is more than double each of that from the original. If, let’s say, Dan Humphrey were to come on, we’d only be able to have two scenes with him. And would the audience actually want only two scenes with Dan Humphrey?
So instead, the decision was made by me — and supported by everybody — that we would bring in recurring characters from the original show initially. Who you wouldn’t mind — and I’m not going to say who — if you saw this person for two scenes only. And then as the series progresses and you get to know our series regulars better, they can maybe take a backseat for a guest star that’s a bigger series regular who could take a bigger spot.
So you can envision that in Season 2 one of the original cast members coming back?
Yeah, in my head I have Season 2 mapped out already. My hope is one or two series regulars come back, and we have some arcs planned for them should they wish to. And not just one episode, not just two scenes.
There’s an emerging sexual dynamic between Max (Thomas Doherty) and a teacher. How are you approaching that story in 2021?
It isn’t an aspirational story of, Max is such an adult, he should have a relationship with this adult. It actually looks at the ways in which that dynamic is inappropriate on many levels. When I went to these private schools, students were sleeping with teachers. And it still happens. I have friends with kids where these flirtations happen. But by no means is it right. And by no means are we glorifying it.
lt’s a story that can only have a bad end. It’s not a story that’s going to have a Hollywood ending.
“Gossip Girl” streams new episodes Thursdays on HBO Max.
This interview has been edited and condensed.