Woke Reboots: How Gossip Girl & And Just Like That Failed, But Bel-Air Succeeds.

It’s an undeniable fact that we as a society have gotten more progressive. So much so even Hollywood has begun to take notice. Coupled with this fact is that Hollywood can’t seem to conjure up an original thought anymore. Instead, they are turning to shows and movies that worked in the past and trying to re-create them for a new generation. One of the problems with these reboots is that they come from a time in Hollywood where diversity on-screen (and behind the scenes) was almost non-existent.

Rebooting TV shows like Gossip Girl and Sex and The City was a no-brainer. Both of these shows have huge fanbases that adore them in spite of their flaws. But the lack of diversity and problematic elements from each show is something that needed to be remedied. If these reboots wanted to appeal to new audiences while also bringing back their original fanbase, they needed to change with the times. The question for each show’s showrunners became: how do you make these beloved, yet problematic properties work for a new generation?

Luckily Gossip Girl showrunner Joshua Safran and …And Just Like That showrunner Michael Patrick King recognized they needed to do better when it came to showing diversity on-screen. They didn’t want to make the same mistakes that the original shows did. Instead, they made a conscious effort to make up for the shows’ past discretions. The Gossip Girl (2021) and …And Just Like That make an effort to cast actresses of color and depict progressive characters and storylines. It’s admirable that these showrunners tried to fix some of the mistakes from each show’s original run, but diversity on-screen isn’t enough to make a show good. It seems they forgot they needed to create a cohesive entertaining show to watch too.

First, let’s tackle Gossip Girl (2021). Unlike …And Just Like That, Gossip Girl is not a continuation of the original Gossip Girl (2007). It does not follow any of the original characters, though it is set in the same universe. In theory, Gossip Girl should have been the perfect show to reboot. A show that follows a bunch of rich privileged New York teenagers doesn’t seem like it would be a difficult show to reboot, but Gossip Girl (2021) proves that sometimes lighting in a bottle can’t be replicated. The show’s attempt to modernize the original show by adding diversity among the cast and depicting LGBTQIA+ characters and relationships is nice to see, but the show doesn’t put any effort into their characters beyond that. The best thing about the original Gossip Girl was the connection the audience felt towards the characters. Memorable characters like Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass captivated viewers, so much so they are still talked about long after the show has been over. None of the characters from the new Gossip Girl are worthy of being remembered because the writers put little to no effort into developing their characters or relationships.

So, sure it’s nice to see POC characters. But if the show isn’t doing anything to make their characters feel completed, what’s the point? Instead of feeling like well-thought-out characters, they end up feeling like caricatures. And when the show uses these characters as mouthpieces to try to push progressive beliefs and opinions, it doesn’t feel empowering. It feels disingenuous and hamfisted. It’s obvious the show is targeted to Gen Z and millennial viewers, so they push progressive views thinking it will win those viewers over. But because their attempt to be woke feels like they’re doing it because they have to, not because they want to. Their goal to engage Gen Z and millennial viewers ultimately actually push them away. Many of them came to watch a messy melodramatic show about elitist teenagers doing terrible things to each other. Instead, they do get a messy show, just for all the wrong reasons.

Before …And Just Like That even debuted, it seems like it was set up to failed. Original Sex and The City cast member Kim Cattrall who played the fan-favorite Samantha Jones did not want to participate in the reboot. Once news of this broke, many people knew that if the reboot was going to move forward, Samantha would either be killed off or written out in a way that would damage her character. I won’t give away spoilers, but I will say having seen the show fans were right to be worried. But what the reboot did to Samantha can’t even be considered the show’s worst crime. …And Just Like That committed a cardinal sin, it forgot what made the original show special. Despite the discretions Sex and The City made in its first run, fans of the show were able to overlook it because they cared about the characters and more importantly they loved their relationships with one another. …And Just Like That doesn’t present the characters of Carrie, Miranda, or Charlotte the way we once knew them. For one character, in particular, she has changed so much is nearly unrecognizable to viewers. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have these characters change from the last time we’ve seen them, but to change them and their dynamic this much is a huge adjustment. It’s an adjustment that the show is never able to overcome.

Similar to Gossip Girl (2021), …And Just Like That does add diversity among the cast. Viewers get new four new characters, all people of color, to watch interact with the original cast. The introductions of these characters vary from feeling clumsy to natural. But ultimately each of these characters does end up becoming fully fleshed out throughout the season. They feel like real characters that add something to the show. Unfortunately, none of them ever escape that they’re there to be Charlotte, Miranda, or Carrie’s friend. They sometimes feel like they are teaching each white character not to be ignorant of social issues. They may be seen as some viewers as guides to the main characters, rather than main characters themselves. We mostly only see them when they’re hanging out with Charlotte, Miranda, or Carrie. Any screentime they get by themselves is kept to a minimum. Only one of these characters gets a fully realized storyline, and even in that case, their storyline doesn’t receive a resolution by the end of the season. It’s a shame because of what we see from these characters, they deserve more screen-time and their own storylines centering around them. Hopefully, if …And Just Like That does get a second season, they give their new POC characters something to do besides being a friend to Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte.

You might come to the conclusion that any reboots that try to keep up with times by being progressive end up failing. But that’s not always the case. In fact, a progressive reboot that manages to be woke and entertaining is The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot Bel-Air. The reason why Bel-Air works with adapting to the times is that the original show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was already progressive. The original show had conversations about race, interracial relationships, what it means to be Black, etc. Bel-Air, unlike Gossip Girl and …And Just Like That, doesn’t have to make up for the faults of the original series. Bel-Air gets to focus on going deeper and talking about social issues that The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air either touched on or couldn’t talk about on television at the time. Bel-Air had a foundation to build its show off on. While Gossip Girl (2021) and …And Just Like That are starting from scratch. It also helps that Bel-Air is able to effortlessly talk about social issues while still being an engaging show to watch. Gossip Girl (2021) and …And Just Like That tried to be progressive, but sacrifice being entertaining to do it. Bel-Air is able to balance the juggling act of being socially conscious and being a good show at the same time.

Reboots are not going anywhere. Hollywood is going to keep rebooting old favorites that probably haven’t aged well and will need to be modified in order to work for a new generation. As long as this is happening, showrunners need to be able to modernize these shows without giving up what made them special in the first place. Updating a classic show shouldn’t mean that you have to sacrifice what fans loved about it in the first place. Adding people of color to the cast, depicting LGBTQIA+ relationships, and being socially conscious are all great things to have in a reboot. But adding those elements doesn’t mean anything if the reboot isn’t any good. You have to have a good show before trying to make it progressive. Fans, both old and new, won’t stick around for a show if they aren’t being entertained by it. They may like the diversity, but it won’t be enough to keep them watching. No matter how pure intentions a showrunner may have once viewers deem their reboot not worthy of their time, no amount of diversity is going to save it.

My book Living Rent Free In My Head: Essays On Pop Culture comes out on August 2, 2022. Pre-order it now for only $3.99 on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other vendors.


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