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‘Gossip Girl’ season 1 recap – episode 1: ‘Just Another Girl on the MTA’

(Courtesy of Emily V. Aragones/HBO Max)

"Just Another Girl on the MTA"

Directed by Karena Evans

HBO Max

July 8

By Ashley Kim

July 8, 2021 3:59 p.m.

This post was updated July 11 at 1:34 p.m.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

A new group of elite students is ruling the iconic Met Steps.

Nine years after the identity of the original Gossip Girl was revealed, the figure returns in HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” reboot. In Thursday’s premiere episode, a fresh cast takes the stage at Constance Billard after a year of Zoom boxes and isolation – paving the way for new drama. The series’s first installment deftly illustrates the distribution of social capital and the politics of power, most prominently between the teachers and their students.

The main student in question is high school junior Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), a beloved influencer and daughter of a Grammy-winning musician. Her life is carefully curated for consumption – from the tiniest wrinkle to lightest dusting of powder – by her companions, the opulent Monet de Haan (Savannah Lee Smith) and the elegant Luna La (Zión Moreno), who are more stylists than friends. Though they assist Julien, there are hints of an underlying power play weaved throughout the episode.

Teacher and student clash when Julien bumps into coffee-carrying teacher Kate Keller (Tavi Gevinson), who is dressed in a preppy style reminiscent of Serena van der Woodsen’s first outfit in the original “Gossip Girl” pilot. Their interaction and the subsequent conversation in the teachers’ room makes it clear that teachers are at the bottom of the school’s food chain, intimidated by their students’ wealthy and powerful backgrounds.

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In the midst of this frustrating power dynamic, the adults become intrigued by the Gossip Girl who plagued their school years ago, referring to her as an “Orwellian big sister.” When a number of teachers are fired for upsetting an affluent parent, the remaining staff take it upon themselves to revive the dormant figure and bring back a sense of justice to their campus. With this, the reboot immediately demystifies Gossip Girl – redirecting viewers’ attentions from her identity to the social dynamics she disrupts.

In another scene, aptly set to Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids,” the rest of the elite friend group reunites at the school’s front steps and dwells on established dynamics, from close childhood friendships to sexually frustrated relationships. The turbulence escalates after the appearance of freshman Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), Julien’s half sister. Despite first impressions, the show reveals Zoya’s transfer was part of the siblings’ carefully premeditated plan to finally meet after years of phone calls.

The warmth and friendliness between Zoya and Julien are surprising in a genre in which it would be expected for them to be set up as rivals from the start. They have a history – sharing a mother who died years ago – and they both find something, or someone, in the other. Through the depiction of their sisterly bond, the story incorporates emotional depth that lends a greater weight to the eventual fallout, where what started as a scheme mutates into real strife in a subversion of the standard formula.

While the central duo deals with sisterly conflict, Audrey Hope (Emily Alyn Lind) and Akeno “Aki” Menzies (Evan Mock), who present the image of a satisfied couple, deal with sexual frustrations involving Max Wolfe (Thomas Doherty) that are set up to have greater implications later on. With this, the first episode introduces core relationships in various stages of ruin that will be further tested by the scheming Gossip Girl. The complicated ties between these characters also highlight intriguing differences in upbringing and status to be fleshed out in future episodes.

[Related: Film preview: Summer films bring an abundance of bright visuals, action scenes to life]

These theatrical storylines are supported by solid performances, particularly by Alexander, Hope and Doherty, who are arresting and bring nuance to their characters. The actors are aided by sleek costume design that merges the latest trends with classic pieces, from an orange Alex Perry dress to a fairy-like Rococo Sand gown, to create timeless looks that signal shifts in their character arcs. Additionally, the carefully curated set design – particularly for the fashion week scenes – visually elevates the reboot beyond the original.

Altogether, “Gossip Girl” attempts to balance easy displays of wealth with marked social commentary but has yet to find that balance in the first episode. However, the show is not primarily criticism but entertainment. At its core, it delivers a glamorous if slightly satirical look into the lives of rich young people, translating the teen drama and sensuality of the original to the current moment.

School is back in session for the Upper East Siders and with a new Gossip Girl, there is nothing to do but to wait and see where the rumors lead.

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Ashley Kim
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