A ‘Gossip Girl’ for a New Generation? How Joshua Safran Reinvented TV’s Wicked Teen Soap Opera

By the time Joshua Safran was pitching the “Gossip Girl” revival to HBO Max in May 2019, he knew exactly what he wanted the new incarnation to be. Based on Cecily von Ziegesar’s young adult books, and created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the original show ran on The CW from 2007 to 2012 and was a zeitgeist success, creating stars of Blake Lively and Penn Badgley, and cementing “xoxo” as a shady signoff forevermore. Safran had risen in the writers’ room to become one of its executive producers, and Schwartz and Savage approached him about imagining a hook for a revival.

The new “Gossip Girl” would be different from the first show in both small and profound ways, adapting to reflect, as Safran puts it, “a more diverse universe,” and “to tell more queer stories.” But what would cause the biggest shift in the show’s worldview, he says, was that he wanted “Gossip Girl” to be funny. If the CW version was “Edith Wharton-y” with an “arsenic-under-the-tongue thing,” to use his phrasing, HBO Max’s “Gossip Girl” would be “‘Downton Abbey’ meets ‘Big Little Lies.’”

“I was very clear: It’s got to have more humor,” Safran remembers saying to HBO Max’s Sarah Aubrey. “It’s a comedy of manners, but it’s also a comedy.”

The resulting 12-episode series, which premieres on July 8, revolves around the lives of (mostly) extremely privileged New York City high school students, who dominate a post-pandemic city with their looks, their style and — most crucially — their wit. The audience will know who the tapped-in, tyrannical Gossip Girl is from the first episode. But that is a spoiler Safran is hellbent on keeping a secret — for now, let’s just say it was the twist that made him want to do the show after meeting with Savage and Schwartz.

“And I kind of hated myself for having an idea,” Safran says about his falling-in-love process with the revival, “because honestly in my mind I was like, ‘I did that already, and that’s done!’”

To create the new show’s characters, Safran says, “I thought of the worlds first, and then the kids second.” There’s an influencer, of course, by the name of Julien (Jordan Alexander), and her two best friends who are stakeholders in her clout, Monet (Savannah Lee Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno) — they’re a cheeky Greek chorus who might make you rethink Zara as an acceptable wardrobe choice. (In a signifier of the new world of “Gossip Girl,” all three characters are played by actors of color.) Scions of New York-based industries such as fashion, real estate and theater are among the other Junior Masters of the Universe who comprise the show, and who deliver its arch dialogue, which Safran calls “heightened.”

“I just know this world and this language. I don’t know what it is! But whatever it is, ‘Gossip Girl’ is in my bones — and it falls out of me.”

How did you create the characters for the new “Gossip Girl”?

The first show had the benefit of Cecily’s characters from the books. Even though Josh and Stephanie moved away from certain elements, Chuck Bass existed, Serena, Blair — those were characters in the books. This time it was from scratch.

I wanted to be more inclusive; I wanted to showcase a more diverse universe; I wanted to tell more queer stories. I also was inspired by real people: Evan Mock, who plays Aki — I had been following Evan on Instagram. So already, Aki was sort of in my head. I knew I wanted to write about influencers, but I didn’t want to write about them in a way in which it was so on the nose. I wanted to look at music again, much like the first time around with Rufus. I went to high school with Jordan Roth, and I think Jordan is an incredible inspiration, and his husband Richie — I knew I wanted to have a character with queer parents on the show, because the first time around I didn’t know any queer parents, and at this time of my life I know many.

As you mentioned, with this generation, inclusion and diversity — those are baked in, as is the full spectrum of sexuality. When you started approaching that in terms of the story, how were you thinking of it?

I didn’t come out until I was 19, and I have a lot of gay shame. I think all any queer person has shame, and it doesn’t matter if the world has shifted and it seems like things are more open and we have more rights — you’re called “fag” on the playground, or you even hear the word “fag” on the playground called to somebody else, and it sinks in you no matter what.

I think I might have been afraid to go toward those issues, because inside myself I had shame and fear still. And as I’ve grown as a writer, I’ve wanted to really expand and look at it more richly and more deeply. I cultivate a writers’ room where everyone — it’s like group therapy, right? Where everyone talks about their lives. And we have a large representation of sexuality and also diversity in the writers’ room.

I was learning stuff all the time. Even just deciding in the room, and with Todd Almond, who plays [Max’s father, a queer parent] Gideon, how Gideon would identify himself. And what we came up with was: Gideon is a cisgender gay male who expresses himself through his femininity. I know it’s a mouthful, but actually that’s the authentic way that Gideon would say it — it’s only a mouthful to people who don’t know what it’s like to live in their truth. It’s just been one of the best parts of the job. Representation in terms of diversity and the queer issues — having these conversations, going deeper, and we’re all learning. And it’s just been really beautiful.

Is HBO Max just on board with all of this?

Yes. And I respect HBO and HBO Max and what they do. I haven’t had time to watch anything, but I finally started watching “Hacks” on Saturday — that show looks so expensive. I mean, they make shows that just look good, and I can’t say the streamers that I would like to talk about out loud. But there is a difference when you see content that looks good — you feel like it’s supported in other areas. I can tell you this from my side: Yes, they care about every aspect. They want every aspect to be the best. And that is a new experience for me.

I feel blessed every day. I mean, I’m dying inside, because I’m working crazy long hours, because I’ve never worked to make a show as good as I believe this show is. I mean, of course I have — but I’m saying a lot of my energy used to be to fighting for, can I please just have that extra sequence, can I please just have one extra day? Like, it was always fighting. Please, the show will be better! Here, I don’t have to fight. If I call them and I say, “I really believe that this scene could would be better with a reshoot.” They will say, “We agree with you, make that scene better.” It’s the way that all people should be. But it’s hard, because when you’re when you’re one of 100 shows on a network versus one of 15 shows on the network that really cares about every detail — anyway, I don’t want to shit on previously places I’ve worked, because they’ve been great too. But I’m saying it’s been less exhausting. It’s only exhausting as I pushed myself to my limits but it’s not it’s been less exhausting.

What’s changed about writing about super rich kids in New York City since the original show?

In 2007, you knew you were wealthy if you were wealthy, but you didn’t know necessarily how much money you had. Zillow is always the waterline for me. I grew up on the Upper East Side, but I knew that we didn’t have as much money as everyone else. The weird signifiers are ridiculous, and it’s going to make me sound like I’m saying, “We weren’t rich!” But we lived in a post-war building on the second floor, and I had to take the subway to school. And everyone else lived in brownstones or 740 Park, and they had drivers. My allowance was $5 a week, and my friends’ allowances were, like, $80 a week.

But in 2007 when the show started, was there a difference between how much money Chuck had, and the difference between how much money Blair had and Serena? It was kind of like they just had money, and Dan didn’t. Nowadays, you know how much money your parents donated to the Republican National Committee — you can find it in two seconds. You know how much your apartment costs, you can be in Zillow in two seconds. You know what an Uber costs, because you’re fucking seeing it on your phone and your parents are getting charged. You know money.

We now know and expect rich people to be rich. And we don’t expect them to, like, pretend they’re not rich. It’s like, no, actually, be authentic — just don’t gloat. And I think that’s how it’s changed. So for these kids, they’re authentic but not gloating.

In May, you got into a ridiculous Twitter thing when you said that there wouldn’t be slut-shaming or cat fights on the show, and somehow people jumped on you for that. What were you saying that people just didn’t hear and didn’t allow you to say?

Obviously, you’ve seen the show — things happen, but there’s no one sleeping with somebody and then being called a “whore,” and being made to feel bad about that. There’s only the personal regret of, “Was I too young? Was I not ready? Did I did I not go into it with the noblest of intentions?” I’m more interested in that. Since “Gossip Girl,” there’s now a preponderance of shows that are about the fun of cat-fighting, and all of that, and that’s just not a world I want to be in. And I look at my young cast — that’s not a world that they’re in either. If they’re going to come for you in this generation, they’re going to come for you for not being authentic, for not being educated, for not actually wanting to grow and learn, for having older ideas that are not where we’re at right now, for not being conscious about your privilege. And you know how you walk through the world as a white person, or as a straight person. That’s where the conversation is. It’s not: You slept with my boyfriend, and I’m going to now destroy you online.

When you think back to the original “Gossip Girl,” what are your favorite memories of it?

Is this gonna end with what are my not favorite memories of it?

“And what are the parts that make you cringe?” is how I planned to phrase it.

I think because I was younger, I was more seduced by making sure we had enough story than making sure that we had the right story. We had 22, sometimes 24, one season 25 episodes — and you just have to feed the machine. And especially if we were shooting eight-day episodes, new scripts had to be ready every eight days.  

But now the benefit of a 12-episode season is I do have the time and the space to step back and make sure. I slowed the story down. There are 16 series regulars instead of seven. And they’re up to 22 recurring instead of 12, and so the world is bigger. In order to slow down story, there’s more story!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

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