SPOTTED: Sad13 Watching Gossip Girl, #1

Sadie Dupuis, Michael DeForge, and Jessica Boudreaux dissect the scandalous lives of HBO Max’s rebooted elite.

Episode 1

Jessica Boudreaux (Summer Cannibals) and Michael DeForge

I didn’t start bingeing TV until I was a solidly post-teen 22-year-old, but I’ve since spent a decade-plus primarily obsessing over the sordid scandals of CW high schoolers I technically graduated alongside; the miseducations of Chuck Bass, Blair Waldorf, Serena Van Der Woodsen, Dan Humphrey and their ilk are etched forever in my Tiffany-engraved heart. (GG blast-worthy evidence? My shockingly faithful cover of Gossip Girl’s theme song for this benefit compilation, Eat the Rich.) Elated at the chance to reinhabit the Upper East Side’s superlatively melodramatic brunches through HBO Max’s 2021 update to the Gossip Girl franchise, I realized friends don’t let friends gossip alone, and am inviting fellow connoisseurs of juvenile cattiness to dissect each episode’s bad behavior, glorious outfits, and hostile posting. Xoxo. 

Joining me this week is previous Talkhouse contributor Jessica Boudreaux, the producer and front person of Portland rock quartet Summer Cannibals, who’s also team Blair Waldorf and “anything that is vapid and easy to watch and easy to zone out to” — Gossip Girl to a T. Our other guest is Michael DeForge, the celebrated Toronto-based graphic novelist, illustrator, and agitprop designer, who admits he is probably most like original series heel and do-gooder, Vanessa Abrams. Like me, Michael will “eat any crappy teen melodrama up, and was a big fan of how unapologetically evil the original show was.”

This episode is called “Just Another Girl on the MTA,” and we open on Tavi Gevinson, riding the train in a very similar getup to Serena’s entrance in the original series. Tavi is portraying a teacher, even though I believe some of the actors playing students are older than her?

Michael DeForge: Knowing everyone’s ages were going to be kind of weird in the cast, I hoped Tavi would be a millennial equivalent to Rufus Humphrey as a washed-up, millennial “cool dad.” And I’m fine with her being a Jokerfied teacher, but a little disappointed she wasn’t a millennial parent.

Jessica Boudreaux: This is the first time I’m watching a show like this and all the parents and teachers are my age. I saw their dads, like, “That looks like someone I’d hang out with!” I like to break from the knowledge that our entire lives revolve around Instagram and phones. Now the kids are all high school influencers and I feel old.

I had those feelings too. I love salacious teen social hierarchy shows, and have rewatched a lot of them over the quarantine — a quarantine our new Gossip Girl friends seem also to have experienced. But when they referred to Nate Archibald, Dan Humphrey, the class of ‘09 as being ancient… I think, “I graduated class of ‘06! I must be really ancient to Gossip Girl.” 

Michael: It did feel very aspirational how post-pandemic they made it. Rather than saying the pandemic was a few years ago, it’s very much: it just ended, it’s over, and we’re all going to clubs. Maybe that’s just what it’s like in the States right now, but there was not a mask in sight, not on the extras, not in crowds, not anything. I don’t know how aspirational that’ll be come September.

One of the underpaid teachers at Constance Billard-St. Jude’s was actually a classmate and Gossip Girl suspect in the original series. She shows her coworkers the site, they make “I haven’t seen a blog in years” comments, read through old posts, deem Gossip GIrl an “Orwellian big sister” and “a lost Edith Wharton novel.” The teachers then decide to… teach the students a lesson by morphing into Gossip Girl?

Michael: It’s hard not to think that if these teachers just unionized, they wouldn’t have to start a creepy pervert blog. One of the funniest parts of the first show was that most of the villains ended up being anyone slightly poorer than the central class. So that would track with the horrible evilness of the Gossip Girl worldview. But it’s so unsympathetic that these teachers are spying and gossiping about children.

Jessica: I like that we know who Gossip Girl is in the first episode. That was cool and different. But I do not like these teachers. I get the sense I’m supposed to feel sympathy for them, but I just don’t. At all. I was having a hard time imagining people in high school watching and relating. Is this for us? Or is this for them?

Michael: I was curious too if it was supposed to appeal to high schoolers, or if the emphasis on the creepy teachers was just a nostalgia exercise for everyone who’s now in their early-to-mid 30s.

I’m not connecting the dots on the teachers’ scheme to use Gossip Girl to somehow evade being fired. But my favorite scenes of this episode were the teachers dissecting Gossip Girl’s voice. Those scenes had the scheming, campy, self-aware energy of the original. 

Jessica: The first episode of any series, I feel nitpicky about dialogue and how the characters interact, and I have to remind myself it’s the first time these actors are doing this with one another in this way. Things settle in, people get more comfortable, you get to know the different layers. I hope I’ll come to like these teachers more. Unless they want me to hate them.

Michael: How earnestly we’re supposed to take this line of dialogue maybe reveals whether or not we’re supposed to be on the teachers’ side, but when Tavi says, “We’re supposed to produce Barack Obamas, not Brett Kavanaughs,” are we supposed to take that statement without irony, or are we supposed to joke about what an elite school could think positively about producing people like that? It reveals where the satire in the show is hitting this time around.

I also thought it was funny when the teachers described Chuck and Blair as “pre-cancel culture.”

Michael: It felt so targeted to us, rather than children, that they made jokes about cancel culture, or Blair’s headband.

When Tavi enters on the train, she’s doomscrolling through a student’s Instagram: Julien Calloway. She’s seemingly an influencer, not clear for what. Her dad is a famous producer, who implies he’s off to a session with Billie Eilish… which we know is a lie because only Billie Eilish’s brother produces Billie Eilish.

Michael: Maybe this will come in future episodes, but I wish we were clear what Julien’s brand is, apart from “really popular.” Is she a woke influencer? Does she only do fashion and skincare ads?

Jessica: In her first appearance, she takes a picture of a brooch, and her friend [Monet] is like, “Oh, you already wore that.” I was not that into the clothes… I didn’t think it looked like I imagine fashionable high school influencers now dress. It was a bit older.

The dads are all in beanies, and the kids all look like young office professionals. Our next big character is Zoya Lott. She’s the mysterious half sister of Julien. Her dad refers to her as “the Fresh Princess of Constance BIllard,” and she’s transferred there on a scholarship we learn was acquired through nepotism, although Zoya doesn’t know that.

Michael: I liked all the shorthand props to show her politics and interests — the Stokely Carmichael poster, the booklist including Toni Morrison and Camus.

I thought I spotted a June Jordan on her nightstand. 

Jessica: I love her. My partner Cass was cracking up at Zoya’s dad’s Bad Brains shirt. 

Michael: Zoya’s supposed to be fourteen? I can suspend my disbelief with a lot of these actors being 16 going on 27, but her being 14 felt a little hard to believe.

The parents, teachers, and children all look the same age to me, in a confusing way. But I am fascinated by how they’ve scattered character traits from original characters into these new kids. Julien is clearly the it girl, a Serena type. Zoya seems combo Jenny Humphrey, a not-quite little sister, but also a Blair, with her headbands and dreams of Yale. We see this also in Obie, Julien’s rich kid boyfriend who brings donuts to striking workers. He seems like billionaire Dan Humphrey.

Michael: I thought it was funny they made not just one Right to the City Alliance reference, but multiple, over and over again. It was a plot point! I don’t know if they had to consult Right to the City Alliance, but I did enjoy the prominent feature of their logo. I like that Obie has that Nate Archibald guilt. I can’t remember what Nate went on to do… apparently something great, since he’s called out in a list of alumni, like, “Caroline Kennedy, Colson Whitehead, Nate Archibald.” He got into publishing at the end of the series?

Nate had a newspaper, the Spectator. But I hope we get more lore on our previously beloved GG characters. They talk reverently about “the novelist Dan Humphrey.” I’m dying to know what novels Dan has published.

Michael: I’d love a billboard ad featuring the new novel by Dan Humphrey. Or a lesser character, like Poppy Lifton, on a magazine cover aging gracefully into this part of her career.

Jessica: Do we know how old Obie’s supposed to be? Zoya’s 14, I know they’re both in high school, but… I feel they want Obie to be genuine, but there’s something about the rich guilt that I’m distrustful of. I don’t totally believe in him.

There was a bit of a red flag for me when Obie and Zoya get caught in a rainstorm after a debacle of a party — Zoya’s status as a scholarship student is called into question because of a Gossip Girl post exposing Julien’s machinations. Obie invites Zoya into his apartment, but says she needs to strip, because his mother won’t be happy if they get the rugs wet. It results in them being photographed semi-nude by a teacher to post on Gossip GIrl! This was one of the more disturbing moments of the episode for me.

Jessica: Yes. It felt wrong on multiple levels. You see the teachers in the moment, like, “I can’t not take this picture. I can’t not become the beast.”

Michael: It would’ve all sat differently if they’d gradually escalated, if the arc had been posting gossip and the teachers are confronted with more ethical dilemmas as the monster slowly gets away from them. But that it hits the ground running with photographing teens undressing… It goes 0-100 so quickly. They didn’t gradually become evil.

There’s another love triangle I’m more intrigued by. We meet Audrey, a voice of reason to Julien. She is dating a character named Aki, with amazing pink hair. And their friend Max seems to be the new Chuck Bass, flirting with them both. 

Jessica: The first thing I told my partner is Gossip Girl needed to be gayer. I was really excited by that. Aki is beautiful and seems tender, and I immediately liked him. But I could be really wrong. Chuck 2.0 is fantastic. I like how naughty and evil he seems.

Michael: I thought Aki and New Chuck — Max? He’ll always be New Chuck to me. I thought it was a nice, more overtly homoerotic version of the exchanges between Nate and Old Chuck in the first season, when Nate was a disaffected, rich, directionless stoner, and his best friend was more overtly evil and leaning into the hedonism of their wealth. It seemed like an updated, hotter version of that dynamic. I didn’t get anything from Audrey other than they had a lot of close ups of her reading on the steps, and it was clearly supposed to be important that she reads.

Jessica: The sex scenes in the beginning reminded me of Euphoria. I felt this show was trying to live in that world. I don’t remember O.G. Gossip Girl being very obscene. What comes to mind, for sexy stuff on that show, was when Blair stripped for Chuck.

We have an incredible scene at the party where, after declining ecstasy from Max, Audrey enters a literal closet with Aki, where she receives oral sex while fixating on Max. Later, Aki tells Audrey she can fantasize about Max during sex. It’s… not the old Gossip Girl.

Michael: Where was she, that she could stare down Max but still be hidden enough away from the rest of the party? I was very stuck on what the map of the party could look like. 

And speaking of Max. His dick pic is AirDropped to the entire audience of a fashion show from Zoya’s stolen phone, thereby disgracing her. Fait accompli by Luna and Monet, the reboots of Blair’s minions. Monet is a classic villain, apparently the richest person in the school, so I’m not quite sure why she also seems to be Julien’s social media manager.  But I’m really into these henchmen.

Jessica: I liked them a lot. I don’t have any sense of who they are as people, other than malicious! I just keep thinking about Monet’s purple blazer. It was like a cartoon all of a sudden.

Michael: I 100% loved them. I love Gossip Girl when it’s evil, so I’m onboard with the two most evil characters. I want teens to be irredeemable.

I liked their steps of the Met scene. They call out Zoya for being a rube for not jaywalking, they threaten to throw a turmeric latté on her because “turmeric stains forever.” They’re good and evil, for sure.

Jessica: The showrunner [Joshua Safran] teased that there will be more appearances from past characters. I’m curious to see who that is.

Michael: Hillary Duff comes back?

Jessica: I hope Nate makes an appearance.

They did name drop him twice. I’d love a reunion concert from Rufus’ band.

Michael: Hell, yeah. See how his marriage to Lisa Loeb is holding up. Also, when the teachers checked the Gossip Girl website, that it wasn’t on Internet Archive implies that Dan Humphrey is continuing to pay hosting fees for the original Gossip Girl blog.

Of course. It’s his love story with Serena. I’m sure he’s kept an archive of every horrendous betrayal he inflicted on his closest friends and loved ones. 

Michael: Some posts had been deleted, apparently, so maybe he took a few down. I could see Penn Badgley being game to come back in one of these. I don’t see Blake Lively showing up, but I could see Dan coming around.

I think Penn Badgley has tried to distance himself from the character. But he is also a musician, which brings me to my next thought. Ariel Rechtshaid and Rob Lowry are doing the music now, with fun soundtrack choices in the first episode: Hope Tala, Rosalía, Junglepussy.

Jessica: I felt it fit the world exactly. I don’t love when people say a song sounds expensive, but some songs just sound expensive! There are some expensive sounds only Ariana Grande’s producer has.

Michael: I don’t keep up as much with new music, and it felt appropriately new to me. If I found it too recognizable, as a person who doesn’t keep up with music in his 30s, it would have been a failure as a show reflecting the tastes of 16-year-olds. 

When they were panning over the steps of the Met, when Kristen Bell’s voice over came in for the first time, I got chills. There were some pizzicato strings and drums, similar tempo-wise and tonally to the original theme music, but darker, in keeping with the new tone and how it’s shot. It has prestige drama-looking editing and cinematography. And I guess the director of the episode, Karena Evans, is well known for Drake’s “Nice for What” video.

Michael: I did not know that. But I think this is how all TV looks to me now: generically prestige. I know it’s HBO Max and doesn’t have that campy, cruddy CW look to it. Part of me just thinks all TV, no matter how garbage-y, looks like this now.

One other thing that’s changed is Gossip Girl no longer tracks “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.” Now it’s just “New York’s elite.” We have characters living in Brooklyn, seemingly all over the city.

Michael: They clearly want to be more overtly class-aware, and if they do start talking about gentrification in trashy teen Gossip Girl mode, I’m curious how it’ll manifest. I’m preemptively cringing at them doing it earnestly, because the original succeeded by just being evil. If they talk about geography and displacement, I’m already steeling myself for how unpleasant those takes will be. But it’s not magical, fictional New York this time. I can’t tell if I want a Gossip Girl grounded in reality.

Where are you hoping the season takes us? 

Michael: More trash, but less creepiness. It sat ill with me how creepy the teachers were. But I’m into Tavi’s permanent brow furrow, and machinations.

Jessica: I want wilder outfits. I want more of Monet and Luna, the henchmen. I want their lives in detail. I want storylines with their love interests because they seem so fun

Same. I want more fashion montages, disbelief at a teen’s credit card limit during a shopping spree. Was Monet the one buying Alice and Olivia on her phone? I don’t want to see a tiny screen on my tiny computer screen swiping through clothes. I want them to go in a boutique and load up.

Michael: Do the fictional characters have IG accounts? I want to see Obie posting an anti-racist reading list. I want to see fake skin care accounts.

Totally. What mutual aid group in Buffalo is Zoya directing people to?

Jessica: I feel appropriately conflicted about this show. But not enough to not continue watching it.

There is nothing anyone can do to make me not watch all six episodes of this.

Michael: Definitely. I’m excited. I’m in for a bad time. I’m in for a good time. I’ll be around.

Sadie Dupuis is the guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter of rock band Speedy Ortiz. She’s also the producer & multi-instrumentalist behind pop project Sad13. Sadie heads the record label Wax Nine, has written for outlets including Spin, Nylon, and Playboy, and holds an MFA in poetry from UMass Amherst. Mouthguard, her first book, was published in 2018.

(Photo Credit: Jordan Edwards)