Watching Gossip Girl at the End of the World

Nostalgia drew me in. But the escapism, absurdity, and innocent stupidity of the late 2000s kept me watching.

Photos: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/FilmMagic/Bobby Bank/WireImage/James Devaney/Getty Images

It’s the second Friday in March, and nobody seems to be going outside anymore. I’m glued to my couch watching season 1, episode 11 of Gossip Girl, in which Blair Waldorf is coming to terms with her dad. He’s recently come out as gay and is moving to Paris to live with his boyfriend, who — scandal upon scandal! — used to be a model for Blair’s fashion designer mother.

Now it’s July, and I’ve moved a mile down the street from my old apartment. Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey is, improbably, getting a story published in the New Yorker as a high-school junior. It’s August, the eve of my birthday, and Nate Archibald is running The Spectator, which is surely not a parallel to Jared Kushner’s ownership of the New York Observer. It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m making three men between the ages of 28 and 31 watch as Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” plays over the now-iconic Thanksgiving scene in season 3 in which everyone exposes everyone else’s secrets at the dinner table. And now it’s January, and there’s a fascist insurrection happening in Washington, D.C., but I still have to work, so to add another layer of noise and chaos to my day, I watch as Rufus and Lily’s love child, who is now an adult, comes into town, dates boring Vanessa, and, after revealing his identity, leaves again.

The only TV I want to watch anymore is the kind that doesn’t make me think too hard. It’s nice that some people want to be mentally stimulated at a time like this, but I can’t relate. Every day feels like my brain is floating through a swimming pool of molasses. This is all to say that since March, I’ve watched all of nearly every available reality and soap opera franchise of the past decade, including every iteration of Real Housewives, Summer House, Southern Charm, The Hills, Laguna Beach, Chopped, Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, Entourage, and, of course, Gossip Girl.

Every television show from before the streaming era seems to get a second life online, complete with a newly obsessive fan base, new memes, and a new audience watching it with fresh eyes. While Gen Z is watching The Office, marveling at the idea of going to work or having a job, millennials are watching and rewatching Gossip Girl, marveling at the concept of rich people behaving badly in ways where they only hurt each other and not all of society.

I read the Gossip Girl books in middle school wherever I could find them, which sometimes meant sitting in the YA section at Barnes & Noble and finishing an entire book or two in the store. (My deepest apologies to author Cecily von Ziegesar and her ghostwriters.) The Gossip Girl books are set in a cliquey, mythical New York City — not the actual city 200 miles east of my suburban hometown in Pennsylvania. Gossip Girl molded my imagination of what living in New York City would be like, eventually setting me up for a bevy of unrealistic Brooklyn apartment expectations. I didn’t watch the original television adaptation of Gossip Girl when it initially aired in 2007 — by that time I was in high school, a few years removed from my YA phase.

I did eventually move to New York in 2014, after the show ended, and the first time I ever watched Gossip Girl was a few years later, in 2017. I had spent the weekend back home, sleeping in my childhood bedroom and watching my high-school best friend marry her husband outside a big stone barn in Hershey. Apparently unready or unable to return from the mental time capsule of adolescence, I arrived back at my apartment in Queens the next day, dropped my bags, and crawled onto the couch, mainlining most of Gossip Girl season 1 in one sitting; the other five seasons and 121 episodes followed in the weeks after that. I was hooked: I loved the gratuitous name-drops, the jarring cameo appearances, the hysterically dated technological references, and the general absurdity of the show: An 18-year-old owns a hotel? Why are high schoolers ordering vodka martinis during daylight hours at an empty bar? Why is Serena calling the airport to ask them to send her a limo?

The shift in my cultural palate in the intervening years can only be described as regression. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a global pandemic happened, and a bunch of other bad shit kept happening, and so here I was, staring down all six seasons of Gossip Girl, again, first on Netflix and then on HBO Max.

The lives of rich teenagers and twentysomethings on the Upper East Side typing out Gossip Girl tips on their T9 flip phones were outlandishly, laughably dramatic. Whatever conflicts they faced still became tidily resolved within a matter of episodes. I was obsessed with how liquid all the characters’ relationships were: Blair and Chuck are dating; Serena and Dan are dating; Dan and Vanessa are dating; Serena and Nate are dating; Nate is dating an older woman who’s keeping his family financially afloat. Every episode was like turning a kaleidoscope, all the same colorful pieces reoriented all over again. It was so easy to watch, like a white-capped wave washing over my brain, smoothing it out like sea glass.

Gossip Girl felt inescapably zeitgeisty in 2020. A month into quarantine, we were given the incredible gift in the form of a surrealist humor meme in which Serena asks Blair an inane question and Blair responds with an answer that’s some sort of play on the Gossip Girl logo. My group chat still regularly references the instantly iconic “Go piss, girl” meme. Gossip Girl archivist and expert Tyler McCall expanded her Instagram series #WaldorfWednesdays — in which she anatomizes Blair Waldorf’s outfits and style in different scenes of Gossip Girl episodes — to also include #SerenaSaturdays. In the middle of the year, HBO announced a Gossip Girl reboot, though its launch was delayed to 2021 because of issues with filming during the pandemic. Then Netflix announced that at the end of 2020, Gossip Girl would be leaving the streaming platform, making a new home at HBO Max instead. All of this, combined with the desperate need for escapism during an incredibly dark year and nostalgic yearning for the early 2010s, the last time things maybe actually felt better — or at least felt more innocently dumb.

I wasn’t alone. On Instagram and Twitter, I saw a few dozen people talking about Gossip Girl, particularly in the past few months, doing their own first-time watches or rewatches online. And when I put out a call on Twitter this week asking if anyone else was also knee-deep in Georgina Sparks plotlines, I was inundated with messages from hundreds of Gossip Girl acolytes trying to explain what it was exactly about Gossip Girl that made it the television show for our fucked-up times.

One of the first people I talked to was Matt Lubchansky, who, along with their partner Jaya Saxena, has been watching Gossip Girl during quarantine, making the switch over to HBO Max to keep tabs on a show that reflects a certain type of insanity. “I feel like it’s perfect for me because it’s a weird nostalgia for a much stupider time in NYC,” they told me. “Watching it now, knowing how it ends, is just absolutely mind-bogglingly incredible. Nobody acts like a person, and it’s this kind of insane meta-world where everything is stretched and distorted, the mirror of a mirror of a certain kind of New York — and I think we’re living in such a crazy time that it’s almost comforting to just sit back and get swept away in its special kind of madness.” Also, it’s Blair vs. Dan when both get internships at magazine.

Perhaps one of the more wild things about Gossip Girl is all the ways it winkingly nods at 2000s New York society, complete with cameo appearances by Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. Dave Klion, who is in a group DM specifically for Gossip Girl rewatchers, sees today’s politics as the inevitable zenith of the cultural landscape depicted in the Gossip Girl universe. “I started marathoning Gossip Girl a few months ago, thinking it would be The O.C. but in New York. Turns out it’s a proto-Succession, a show about how the Manhattan super-elite are, without exception, dead-eyed sociopaths,” he told me. “But unlike Succession, it came out in the early Obama years, which means it was ahead of its time in capturing the cultural pathologies that would culminate in the Trump administration.”

Obviously, not all of Gossip Girl withstands the test of time. Chuck Bass’ entire character development is a redemption arc for his attempted sexual assault of Jenny Humphrey in the pilot. Ed Westwick, who plays Chuck Bass, was accused of rape in 2018, a charge he denies. “Ed Westwick is one of the most watchable/obsession-worthy characters as Chuck Bass, but he used his fame to allegedly rape women, and that feels very different to me as a viewer,” Gossip Girl rewatcher AC Gaughen told me.

There are almost zero people of color in the show’s New York City, and we’re led to believe that the poorest people on the show, the Humphreys, own an art gallery, send their kids to private school, and live in Williamsburg — a location New York viewers will immediately clock as actually a really nice building in Dumbo. Still, it’s some of the more unrealistic aspects of the show that some people find enjoyable instead of grating. “It’s got a very simplistic, watered-down (and just okay-sure-you’re-poor-Dan-you-and-your-poor-impoverished-Brooklyn-loft) version of class commentary that I think some people might find soothing compared with the very complicated and way less digestible reckonings going on around us right now,” Lindsay Lee Wallace told me. “At the same time, seeing some particularly outlandish moments that would be less likely to fly without outcry on TV today can kind of seem like a testament to some social progress that’s been made.”

For some people who moved to New York amid the pandemic, Gossip Girl became a funhouse mirror, a portal through which to explore their new surroundings. “Every time I’d mentioned wanting to live in NYC, friends and family would recommend a cool experience the city had to offer. When I moved to New York, most of these options weren’t available to me,” Sumedha Deo told me. “So instead, I turned to NYC on TV. I started rewatching Gossip Girl as an escapist experience of a New York that was right outside my window but out of my reach. I went into it cynically — who really cares about the lives of fictional Upper East Side teenagers? — but soon realized the show had quite a few clever nuggets to offer. I totally enjoyed this rewatch as I slowly acclimatize to post-Covid NYC.” For others, rewatching Gossip Girl is about recalling a New York that doesn’t exist anymore. “It’s such a time capsule of 2008 NYC — the Box, The Campbell Apt — and like this amber-enclosed version of the city before the recession,” Mark Byrne told me. “To be clear, that is a good thing. I absolutely love a time capsule of 2008 NYC.”

Admittedly, Gossip Girl has insane writing. “The thing I find so captivating in that is not ‘Oh what’s Blair going to do next?’ but instead ‘What the fuck do the writers plan on doing next? Why was THAT their choice?’ That’s the Netflix equivalent of page-turning quality for me,” Kaci Peringer said. And there’s also the soothing certainty of the show. “Compared to like, Euphoria or 13 Reasons Why, these shows that want to hit you over the head with the gritty reality of being a teen (being marginalized, being out of control, being the object of violence), Gossip Girl is way tame,” Isabel Cristo told me. “Even though bad things happen to the characters, most of them are so absurdly protected by their wealth and privilege — there’s this glossy sheen to the show that lets you know they’re going to be just fine in the end. There is definitely comfort in watching conflict play out in such an insulated and sheltered space and to characters who are all pretty odious to begin with.”

There’s also the general absurdity of the stakes of the plot and the celebrity cameos. “It’s such a time capsule of micro-celebrities from that period in time (Lou Doillon!) having gratuitous cameos — like, Rachel Zoe (!) getting chocolate fondue dumped on her head in an episode that also had featured a Robyn performance,” Michelle Cyca said. “The stakes are incredibly low (Serena is ALSO going to Columbia!) or cartoonishly high (falsely accusing someone of statutory rape), which makes it entertaining. The fact that they are all teenagers feels more absurd and funny in retrospect.”

Gossip Girl fans are not harboring any illusions about the quality of the show they’re watching for the second (okay, eighth) time. “Gossip Girl is not, by any means, a good show,” Peggy Mullin told me. “But it’s a warm hot chocolate and a bubble bath in the form of Kristen Bell’s weirdly crooning voice that helps me not to worry too much about what’s coming next because a) it usually won’t have an effect on the plot, and b) the ending sucks anyway, so I might as well enjoy the journey.”

Will I rewatch the Gossip Girl reboot when it comes out? I’m honestly not sure. It’s been so fun to turn off my brain and rewatch this perfectly imperfect artifact from a decade ago that I’m afraid to trade it in for something that might actually try to be good.

i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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