** Originally published in the Feb. 1, 2013 print edition of the Los Angeles Times:
MEXICO CITY -- In the Mexican remake of the popular U.S. TV series "Gossip Girl," the privileged teens at the center of the drama still have it all: stylish clothes, great hair, top-of-the-line sports cars.
The types are familiar: Bowtie-wearing Chuck Bass is now known as Max Zaga, and effortlessly chic Serena van der Woodsen is now Sofia Lopez-Haro. The setting is no longer the Upper East Side of Manhattan, but the former "jewel" of the Mexican Riviera, Acapulco.
Wait a minute — Acapulco?
As filming began last week in the port city on the southern Pacific coast, "Gossip Girl Acapulco" immediately sparked passionate reactions among social media users in Mexico.
Many expressed disgust at the idea that a show about Manhattan's teen elites would be translated into a contemporary Mexican setting, where drug-related violence, especially in places such as Acapulco, and class and racial barriers remain entrenched. Others, though, said they were dying to see the finished product this year on media giant Televisa.
It may be little more than a whisper-worthy coincidence, but Acapulco is considered one of the most violent cities in Mexico, perhaps topped only by Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2011, the last full year for which figures are available, the national statistics institute said 1,114 people were reported killed within Acapulco's city limits, which has about 789,000 residents.
Kidnapping and extortion are believed to be rampant, and gory execution scenes are common mere blocks from the major tourist zones. The State Department urges U.S. nationals to "defer nonessential travel to areas further than two blocks inland" of the downtown beach.
("Let's hope this new round of 'Gossip Girl' only sees Blair losing her virginity, and, not, on top of it, her head," said the New York Observer, naming another character from the original series.)
Acapulco also happens to be deeply in debt. This month, Mayor Luis Walton Aburto said the city owed about $33.2 million. The city hopes a fresh push for tourism income can help it climb out of its fiscal hole, but when reached by phone, several municipal officials said they hadn't heard about "Gossip Girl Acapulco" until this week.
There is no clear sign that the Mexican series is part of any larger plan to revitalize the struggling city. But the brain behind the project, producer Pedro Torres, said he hopes people will see the beauty of Acapulco through the show and maybe venture to visit.
Torres, in a hurried telephone interview punctuated with garbled asides to aides, said "Gossip Girl Acapulco" will remain true to the story line and character types that captured viewers in the original. The only difference, he said, will be the setting and the use of "mannerisms of Mexican speech."
"It was I who proposed the idea of placing it in Acapulco," Torres said.
One of the most powerful figures in Mexican television, Torres has remade imports such as the reality TV shows "Big Brother" and "Fear Factor" for Mexican audiences.
"There is no doubt that the city of Acapulco has suffered serious problems of drug trafficking and violence like many other cities in Mexico," Torres said. "But, well, this series is not a portrait of that. This is fiction, a complete fiction."
"Gossip Girl Acapulco" is the second attempt at farming out the franchise to a foreign market by Warner Bros., the original show's producers. As The Times reported last year, the company announced the launch of "China Girl," a "Gossip Girl" for Chinese audiences.
In previews of "Gossip Girl Acapulco," in addition to their material wealth, the central characters also seem to have inherited the European-looking side of Mexico's racial spectrum, a persistent feature of Mexican television that can either be read as a reflection of the country's stubborn class hierarchies or as a tool that inadvertently promotes them.
A better term for it might be "aspirational," which is how actor Vadhir Derbez described the show's context during the press rollout for "Gossip Girl Acapulco." Derbez, who plays Max, the Mexican Chuck, said the show will have valuable lessons to offer viewers.
"People see these kids who come from lots of money, and it may seem unreachable," the actor told an interviewer. Yet "it has a strong message behind it, that money is not everything. And that's cool."
Torres' Mexico City-based production company, El Mall, said it is in negotiations with U.S. Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision for possible distribution of "Gossip Girl Acapulco" north of the border.
"I've been living in Acapulco for a month with my family and we've had an incredible time, with an incredible climate," Torres said by phone. "The truth is, one should have the normal prudency like in any other city. We do not have any security detail that is out of the ordinary."
"Gossip Girl Acapulco" is to start airing in July on the Televisa network.
* Photo via Gossip Girl Acapulco FB.