A lot has changed in the landscape of social media and the world at large in the near-decade since the original Gossip Girl finale aired. But at least two things remain the same for the soapy teen drama: bed-hopping and betrayal.
HBO Max’s new Gossip Girl, which premieres on November 25th with part two of season one, still features an all-seeing digital entity who airs the dirty laundry of the Upper East Side’s upper crust. This time, however, instead of a blog, Gossip Girl wields an Instagram account.
Joshua Safran, who served as an executive producer and writer during the run of the original series — which helped launch the careers of series stars Blake Lively, Leighton Meester and Penn Badgley — has taken over as showrunner for the new version. He collaborated with original series creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage to create an updated take with an eye toward diversity and inclusion.
Safran, whose other credits include Quantico and Smash, is also enjoying the bigger budget of the new iteration, which allows for shooting in New York City hotspots like Le Coucou and Frenchette, as well as a lengthier production time (twelve days versus the eight of the original).
Emmys.com contributor Hillary Atkin spoke to Safran about the original show’s stamp on the pop culture landscape, Safran’s choice to reveal Gossip Girl’s identity early on in the new series and the influence of social media on his storytelling.
How did you get the band back together — you, Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz?
They came to me two-and-a-half years ago, and they were like, “Let’s see if there’s something there.” Within a couple hours I had an idea. Warner and HBO Max were on board and the train began rolling. It’s taken three long years.
Gossip Girl was a seminal show not just for the CW, but for pop culture. What are your thoughts looking back on the original series?
The show actually feels like a period piece. It doesn’t feel like today or tomorrow — it’s of its time. But it still resonates — when it was on Netflix [and now on HBO Max], it created a new generation of fans. That’s a rare show that can do that, like Friends. I look back with love and respect, but it was so much work doing twenty-four episodes a year.
Fashion was a big part of the original show, including Blair’s mother having her own clothing label. How has the new show’s depiction of fashion evolved?
Some of the fashion houses from the first show don’t exist anymore. Back then, you’d wear Chanel everything, now it’s a bag paired with Converse — more of a mix. This time we have more money — we don’t rely on brand integration. Then, with our CW budget, we’d have to show you a close-up of a Rolex or Louboutin. Now you’re seeing it in a different way — it feels accurate. In the first show the audience was outside looking in, and in this version you’re with Julien [Jordan Alexander], with her perspective.
You got Kristen Bell to provide Gossip Girl’s voiceovers again. What else creates a through-line between the two series?
The structure is the same in that there’s an event where all the paths end up converging. There are the same schools, the Metropolitan Museum of Art steps — there’s a lot of DNA shared — just like with a sibling, but a little different.
Unlike in the original series, where Gossip Girl’s identity remained a secret until the final episode. Here, their identity is revealed in the first episode. Why did you make that decision?
I felt that it was important to show Gossip Girl taking steps before posting — and sometimes destroying lives. And now the audience is complicit. I think it’s better you’re on the ride.
Where do you think the original characters are now?
Dan [Badgley] is a novelist, Blair [Meester] runs a fashion line, Nate [Chace Crawford] is still running the Spectator [a daily N.Y.C. newspaper].
Tell us about the casting for the new series.
Our casting director [Cassandra Kulukundis] has a producer’s eye. She found these incredible people who are totally connected to each character. It’s like working with a great theater troupe. In fact, a lot of the [performers who play the] parents are great theater actors.
The two lead characters this time around are half-sisters. Why did you want to explore that relationship?
The first show is very much rooted in a beautiful friendship between two women, and I knew the leads for this would also be two women. We’ve done best friends, so let’s explore sisters. It’s a fertile area. They are sisters, but they’re not, so what would happen if they had to connect?
In what ways does social media influence the storytelling?
Social media is a pyramid scheme to get more and more people to follow you — and that drives the stories. Gossip Girl is looking for things that will get you noticed. In a later episode, Gossip Girl sends out a call to arms to bring dirt. All these tips float in and it doesn’t matter if they’re true. We wanted to look at ways social media can be used for good or bad.
What would you like viewers to take away from the new Gossip Girl?
I hope they enjoy being back in this world, where people can’t get away with anything. Three years ago I put out a tweet that I was staffing a show that was a mix of Downton Abbey, Big Little Lies and Black Mirror. Downton, because it’s a bigger sweep, Big Little Lies because of the terrible things you have to reckon with and Black Mirror because tech will destroy you. That phone is an appendage, a scalpel that will cut you. Gossip Girl isn’t lying or making things up, she’s telling the truth.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Part one of season one — as well as the original run of Gossip Girl — is available for catchup viewing on HBO Max. Part two, comprised of six episodes, will be released weekly beginning on November 25th.