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The Gossip Girl Reboot Finally Remembers How to Have Fun

“One Flew Over the Cuck’s Nest" is Gossip Girl in its purest form. 
  • Savannah Lee Smith stars in Gossip Girl (Photo: HBO Max)
    Savannah Lee Smith stars in Gossip Girl (Photo: HBO Max)

    Gossip Girl has officially returned. After an uneven first season, the HBO Max reboot has finally found its footing. And never has that been more clear than in this week’s episode, “One Flew Over the Cuck’s Nest," which has everything: a lavish party, recreational drug use, sex, scandal, comedy, and a Charli XCX cameo. It’s Gossip Girl in its purest form. 

    When the reboot premiered in 2021 it was a show at odds with itself. How do you take a very 2000s —and very white — show and make it relevant post-2020? Plot twists that may have once been deemed forgivable — like Chuck Bass attempting to rape two girls in the pilot and then becoming a main romantic interest for Blair — are now universally regarded as horrible examples of rape culture, elitism, and the oversexualization of teenage characters. 

    Season 1 of the reboot was almost too aware of its predecessor’s sins. Sex has always been a GG selling point, but the first season shied away from the kind of hedonistic idealism that made the original so popular. The logic behind this was sound: overly sexualizing teenagers — even fictional ones — is definitely not what contemporary audiences are looking for. So, instead of indulging in hot sex scenes, the reboot took a more realistic approach to sex: What happens when a couple that loves each other has some trouble in the bedroom? It was a honest and refreshing, but not quite the salacious escapism Gossip Girl fans are used to. The other two major sex storylines were more Law & Order: Special Victims Unit than GG: Max (Thomas Doherty) had an affair with his teacher, and Julien’s dad, Davis (Luke Kirby), was exposed as a serial predator. 

    These storylines were dramatic, yes, and they made the show more current in a post-Weinstein scandal world, but they were also overwhelming. Without lighter, sexy storylines, Gossip Girl lost the naughty allure of the original. And Season 1 faced similar issues with how it handled the teen drama. It’s one thing to watch rich people ridicule each other or make fun of the scholarship kid; it’s another to watch rich girls try to get a freshman and her father evicted from their Brooklyn home. Sure, the stakes were higher than in the original, but that also made it more difficult to swallow as a viewer. 

    With the exception of a handful of scenes and some particularly juicy dramatic climaxes (the Thanksgiving episode is truly a thing of beauty), Season 1 of the reboot was dragged down by the burden of accountability for the original. By trying to right the wrongs of the 2000s show, the reboot lost what made the original so great: fun. But in Season 2, the reboot is finally finding that joy again. 

    The success of the second season is largely due to the elevation of Monet (Savannah Lee Smith). After spending most of Season 1 simmering in the background, the reboot’s resident mean girl stepped up in the new season to challenge Julien (Jordan Alexander) for the title of Queen Bee. And, oh, is she deserving of the title. Monet is unashamed in her quest for power. More than that, she relishes in it. She made that clear when she gleefully threw herself into a fountain in Episode 2, “Guess Who’s Coming at Dinner.” But while she’s deliciously mean, she’s also a layered character, burdened by the desire to prove her worth to her mother and to be unapologetically herself. Never has Monet’s complexity been more on display than in Episode 4, “One Flew Over the Cuck’s Nest.”  

    The episode opens in classic Gossip Girl fashion — heavy panting and moaning courtesy of our favorite throuple, Audrey (Emily Alyn Lind), Max, and Aki (Evan Mock). Meanwhile, Monet, fresh off her rise to power and desperate to keep her crown, throws the Kiss on the Lips party — the same one Blair (Leighton Meester) threw in the pilot of the original series — and uses it as a way to confront her father about his affair. Meanwhile, Julien schemes to expose Obie’s (Eli Brown) girlfriend, Grace (Anna Van Patten), as a cheater, and Max and Audrey follow Aki after he avoids participating in bed. Oh, and Gossip Girl herself, Kate (Tavi Gevinson), gets close to the hot new teacher, Mike (Pico Alexander), only to find out he’s on a mission to find GG’s true identity. 

    It sounds like a lot of drama, but the episode is extremely well balanced. Amidst all the interpersonal drama are a few scenes that are the closest Gossip Girl comes to slapstick comedy. Audrey and Max hide behind mailboxes and in pharmacy aisles as they tail Aki all over the Upper East Side. And then, during a spa day, Zoya (Whitney Peak), Luna (Zión Moreno), and Julien take turns breaking into Monet’s phone, using her FaceID to unlock it while she remains completely unaware thanks to the cucumber slices chilling her eyelids. The teenagers are dealing with serious issues — potential infidelity, bonding, repairing relationships — but they’re also having harmless fun.

    It’s the kind of mid-level chaos that allowed the original Gossip Girl to thrive. The episode even includes twincest — yes, that’s twins who have sex with each other — which is the perfect blend of shocking and absurd. It’s this plot twist that truly encapsulates the spirit of Gossip Girl. No one’s getting seriously hurt, but everyone is behaving badly. All the audience has to do is sit back and watch it all fall apart.

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    Olivia Truffaut-Wong is a culture and entertainment writer. Follow her on Twitter @iWatchiAm.

    TOPICS: Gossip Girl (2021 Series), HBO Max, Gossip Girl (2007 Series), Anna Van Patten, Eli Brown, Emily Alyn Lind, Evan Mock, Jordan Alexander, Luke Kirby, Pico Alexander, Savannah Lee Smith, Tavi Gevinson, Thomas Doherty