‘Gossip Girl’ Boss Josh Safran Explains How He Re-Shaped The Season 2 Closer As A Series Finale & What He Had Planned For Season 3
By Katie Campione,2023-01-26
SPOILER ALERT! This story contains details from the Season 2 finale of HBO Max’s Gossip Girl .
It was never supposed to end this way. HBO Max ‘s Gossip Girl took its final bow on Thursday as the Season 2 finale hit the streamer. Since news of the show’s cancellation broke last week, the episode now also serves as a series finale.
Showrunner Josh Safran told Deadline that he’s holding on to a glimmer of hope that the series might land at a new home, but he’s had an inkling for months that this might happen, considering the growing number of streaming cancellations and Gossip Girl ‘s hefty price tag.
“I asked HBO Max if I actually could go back in [to the episode]. I had the idea to take some of the cliffhangers out, because there were a lot of cliffhangers,” Safran said. “We got the editorial team back together. I went in and I lifted a bunch of stuff, I changed as much as I could. I couldn’t do as much as I wanted, because I couldn’t re-shoot anything, obviously.”
So, the episode that audiences will see isn’t exactly the episode that Safran had planned, though many of the plot details remain the same. The kids devise a plan to expose Gossip Girl once and for all during the Met Gala, after realizing that Obie has been foiling their previous attempts to figure out her identity. They hope that Zoya taking credit for the anonymous account will bring the real GG out of the woodwork, but it takes more than that. Only the fabricated rumblings of a movie deal about GG lure Kate Keller to expose herself, and it turns out that no one is really interested in a teacher revenge story. Her story ends as she’s led away in handcuffs (though Safran says there would have been more to that plot in Season 3).
In order for their plan to work, the kids all have to expose their deepest, darkest secrets on the GG account, which causes a massive rift between everyone’s favorite throuple. Aki and Audrey stay together, but Max splits. Luna decides she’s had enough of Julian and branches out on her own, landing a worldwide Oscar de la Renta campaign that thrusts her into the spotlight. The core group — Julian, Zoya, Audrey, Aki, and Obie — spend the summer traveling through Europe and find themselves in Rome, where Julian is on the hunt for information about her family and they all (individually and unknowingly) meet a friend (played by Aaron Dominguez). That, Safran says, was meant to set the gears in motion for the Season 3 plot.
And let’s not forget the end credits scene, which sees Aki’s dad, media mogul Roger Menzies, team up with Jordan to democratize Gossip Girl and turn it into an app. Below, Safran breaks down more about the finale, as well as his plans for Season 3.
DEADLINE: Under the circumstances, I think this episode does serve fairly well as a series finale, although I know that wasn’t the intention. How were you intending to approach this episode? What loose ends were you tying up, and what did you want to leave open?
JOSH SAFRAN: It definitely wasn’t approached as a series finale, when we wrote it. We even had a Season 3 mini [writers] room to break the arc for Season 3. So it was meant to launch Season 3. There was a whole storyline involving Aaron Dominguez’s character that was the primary focus of the last 25 minutes of the episode. Once Season 2 started airing, I had an inkling when I saw things were being canceled, and especially stuff that is in this universe and is as expensive as we are. I asked HBO Max if I actually could go back in. I had the idea to take some of the cliffhangers out, because there were a lot of cliffhangers. So we got the editorial team back together. I went in and I lifted a bunch of stuff, I changed as much as I could. I couldn’t do as much as I wanted, because I couldn’t re-shoot anything, obviously. So it closes out kind of, but it was never meant to [end the series]. Even Kate being found out and being arrested was meant to tip off a story in Season 3. It was never built to be series finale. We knew we were going to close the teacher’s story. I guess that’s the biggest thing. I knew that it was time to end that, but there was going to be more.
DEADLINE: It’s interesting to hear you had the opportunity to go back in to the episode and tie up some loose ends.
SAFRAN: It was lovely. I’m a big fan of — and I’ve done this with all my shows — trying to not have huge cliffhangers at the end of seasons, because you never know how long between seasons will be. Even back on the network, maybe it would come back mid season. You wouldn’t know, and you wouldn’t want to leave the audience without too much. We only did it once. We shot Chuck. That was the big cliffhanger the first time through Gossip Girl , but that was because we were gonna be back in like two and a half months. But for this, you never know with streaming. So I definitely wanted to close out the season and just leave a tease. The same thing was with Season 1. The characters were in a pretty good place at the end of Season 1. You just could see the seeds. So here, removing the pieces of cliffhangers were not as hard as it would have been because most of the storylines were wrapped up by design.
DEADLINE: That Met Gala scene is so much fun. It feels like you wrote it as a heist, of sorts. Since you also directed the episode, can you talk about crafting that sequence both on the page and on screen?
SAFRAN: We always wanted to do the Met Gala, which I’ve talked about before. Josh [Schwartz] and Stephanie [Savage] and I talked about doing it the first time around with the original show and we could never do it because we would always be done shooting by time the Met Gala would happen. This time we decided we would do the Met Gala that had previously happened, so that helped us. Of course, Ocean’s 8 had their heist. It was like, ‘What’s the Gossip Girl version of Ocean’s 8 ?’ We had a lot of fun building that out. It really allowed us to look at that as a football field for lack of a better analogy and just be like, ‘Okay, how are we going to get everybody there?’ Their goal is to get inside and do everything they can before they get inside, and they only have a limited time to do it. It was the biggest, most expensive set I’ve ever had, and we built it to replicate the original Met Gala steps. I had the luxury, the privilege of directing that episode. So that really helps too, because from the ground up, not only did I break into the room and write it with the writers, so it was already envisioned in my head, but I was directing it. So I knew how to place everybody. This cast loves each other so much, and at that event, they’re all there. So everybody was there together for three full days on that set. It was a blast. We did build it as a heist, I’ll just say more succinctly. In the writers room, we were like, ‘This is a heist. The heist is: Who is Gossip Girl?’ It’s got to get announced somehow, everything has to go according to plan. Karena Evans, who directed the pilot, did this great thing that was not in the pilot script, which was, as Julian explained to Zoya the plan of the fashion show in the pilot, she intercut the arrivals to the fashion shows like a plan was already in motion. So I echo that here. I had Julian explain the whole plot, and you see the plans starting to get into motion. And then from there, it just became: How many people can we put in one room? How many secrets have to come out? And what’s the order to do it?
DEADLINE: Andy Cohen makes an appearance in this episode. How did that come about?
SAFRAN: Well, in the world of Gossip Girl , some of the real characters from the original like Lily van der Woodsen, would probably be on a Real Housewives at some point in their lives. So we always talked about Andy Cohen and the Bravo universe. We were like, ‘Why had we never dealt with that before?’ Then somebody had the idea, like, why not Andy himself? And we were like, Oh, my God, absolutely. So we asked him, which it was insane that he said yes. He doesn’t usually act, especially as himself. We were supposed to have a couple other cameos from the original, but we couldn’t make it work because of scheduling and COVID.
DEADLINE: Well, and he’s there when Kate is exposed as Gossip Girl , which is also brilliant.
SAFRAN: That was the first thing we shot with him, and that was just so fun. The cast loved him and people walking down the street were calling out to him. It was really just a great time. I really hoped that if Gossip Girl continued there would be more crossover with his universe.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk some more about what was removed from the episode. I know fans will be curious about Monet and Luna. Was that the ending you always envisioned for them?
SAFRAN: Nothing changed with that story. It was always going to end with Luna having achieved the success that Julian could have only ever dreamed. The only thing that changed was stuff around Aaron Dominguez’s character. That did not involve Monet or Luna or Shan. Aaron’s character interacted with Julian, Zoya, and Audrey. I cut the Julian and Audrey parts of that story.
DEADLINE: So at the very end when Audrey and Julian mention meeting someone that day…
SAFRAN: That would have been Aaron. There was some dialogue I cut between the characters with more hints of things to come. But yes, they are both talking about Aaron. And there was also a scene where Aaron interacted with everybody without them knowing, and he was watching them. That was also excised.
DEADLINE: Luna’s decision to cut Julian off was sad but also predictable. I am going to miss their dynamic though.
SAFRAN: You would have loved Season 3 then, because we’re not getting rid of Luna. Luna is taking more of a center stage. We were going to really enjoy telling a story of Julian and Monet teaming up and Luna is now their enemy, not each other. So there was gonna be a fun story there. We had spent a lot of time over the two seasons fostering a friendship between Luna and Max. Luna has Max, and Julian and Monet are going up against her, but that means they’re also going up against Max. So the dynamic was still gonna be there, but it’s just going to be in an even more fun, delicious way. We were really excited to explore Luna’s level of celebrity. It’s a kind of celebrity none of the characters in the original or on this version of the show have ever achieved. Julian is an influencer. She wants to be a great influencer, but there’s no such thing as the top influencer. She was happy to be a celebrity in that way. But Luna is a super star. Luna is a supermodel. Luna is all over the world. To be able to tell that story was going to be super fun, and it was still gonna have to include everybody. So the dynamic would still be there.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk about that end credits scene. Jordan and Roger Menzies turning Gossip Girl into an app is an interesting concept, especially after Jordan called Roger the most terrible person on the planet earlier in that episode.
SAFRAN: Yes, well, money speaks a different language. I think Jordan is a character who has never gotten the spotlight. All of the hard work he put in was never rewarded. So he would be grabbing that brass ring much faster than his morals. What was going to be fun there was the idea of democratizing Gossip Girl , but not really. Meaning, we all go on our apps and think we control our content. But a corporation is controlling all of that, not us. We were very interested in watching what would happen if people believed that Gossip Girl was theirs, but it actually was still just a money making corporate scheme. What happens when those two things come together? We were going to create our own version of TikTok basically. And the teachers’ roles would still be in the show, but they were going to change. Their storyline would have been lighter. But I actually think the audience has really come around to them in Season 2. They got a little more devious this year, a little more God Complex-y. So Season 3 would have gone even further down that road.
DEADLINE: Funny you mention all of that, considering the recent reporting that TikTok employees can decide what goes viral.
SAFRAN: That’s exactly what we would have done. The thing is, I still have a slight hope the show might go somewhere, so I don’t want to give everything away. But it is a very slight hope, I have to be honest. It’s next to nothing at this point. But yes, we would have played in that universe.
DEADLINE: Since you mentioned it, how are you feeling about the possibility of the show being saved, now that there’s been some time since the cancellation?
SAFRAN: The show was not a failure. I don’t think we’ll ever know numbers, but the viewership just wasn’t enough to justify how expensive it is, because it isn’t sci-fi or fantasy. It’s not going to reach a Stranger Things audience or a House of the Dragon audience. So the problem was just inherent in having the budget be what it was. I’m very grateful for that, because we were able to make the show one of the most gorgeous things on TV. The clothes, the locations, the food… It was an incredible world to play in. But I just don’t know how to make this version of the show at a price point that could get it picked up somewhere else, without severely harming it. I also think that executives and companies are wise enough to know that. Meaning they can’t afford to make the version that is making it successful. So why make a lesser version? I don’t see it happening. If it did, I would be overjoyed. I think everybody would be back in an instant. It’s just the nature of where the business is at right now.
DEADLINE: I’m curious how you feel about the current streaming era as a creator. There have been so many cancellations lately, and it seems like series definitely aren’t granted as long of a runway anymore to prove they can be successful.
SAFRAN: I was just talking about this the other day with friends of mine who are also showrunners about how scary it is, because we were all raised that when you go to pitch, you have to show you have enough story to go seasons. That’s all anybody wanted to hear for the lifetime of television. Do you have enough? Is the engine enough to keep it going? So now, oftentimes, when you’re pitching, people still want to know that. Because in success, you hope that Emily can stay in Paris for six years. That’s the hope, right? But shows don’t get that chance. So you’re stuck in this universe where you’re like, ‘Should I be creating a show that really can only go two years? Or should I be trying to create a show that still can run eight years?’ I haven’t figured that out. I’m lucky that the project that I’m working on now at AMC is kind of a limited series. It’s not meant to go on for years. So I feel a little bit more bold in writing, and not being afraid that I won’t be able to finish telling the story. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. I still believe that audiences want 22 episodes of their shows. It doesn’t have to be as crazy as it used to be, where 22 episodes come out over eight months. But I think that my hope is that we move into a universe where if they really want to pick up your show, and they really liked it, and they were going to pick it up for one season, why not pick it up for two at once? Which is what they sort of did in the beginning with shows like House of Cards , when these streamers began. Because if it’s working in Season 1, then you can green light Season 3, and then the audience isn’t waiting 13 months or 16 months between seasons, because you’re a couple seasons ahead every time. I think that helps grow the audience and helps keep the audience. The real problem is the span between seasons for shows. How do you get people back? How do you make them feel like there’s something that should draw them back when they’ve watched 60 other things between the time that your last episode aired and the next episode? Overall, there’s going to be less content, which is a good thing if you ask me. But still, it’s hard, right? Because you’re vying even more for a prized spot that still may not last as long as you want.More from Deadline
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