It’s striking just how much of a role innocence—and the loss of this innocence—drives the emotional narrative on The Carrie Diaries. There was a time when teen dramas were fixated on these themes, but slowly, the genre has evolved into a far more flashy and cynical affair. It’s this show’s studied portrayal of innocence and how that innocence shapes the character’s worldviews—more than the neon clothes or the 80s pop hits playing on the soundtrack—that makes it feel like a throwback to days gone by.
Second episodes are notoriously difficult, and this one was not without its bumps, but the one thing it did nail down was the intended emotional tone of the series. The center of everything is obviously Carrie and her sort of slow shift into a more grown-up version of herself, and Carrie as a character just completely works. Her central issue tonight was nothing groundbreaking for the genre; young girls have been obsessing over their crushes for ages. What the episode got right was how all-consuming those early days of a flirtation can feel, how insecure they can make you, and how many out-of-character choices they can cause you to make. Rival Donna’s overt, predatory interest in Sebastian is a glaringly obvious choice, but the writers use it in smart ways here: to flesh out Carrie’s own issues of self-confidence, and to demonstrate the character of her (otherwise fairly silent) love interest. These small steps go a long way toward making Carrie’s high school world feel natural and lived in, and imply this is a show that seems to care about the why of who people are more than simply the what, which is encouraging.
The thing that comes across loud and clear is how the show is creating a different kind of central female teen character. For all the things Carrie does wrong, she remains immensely concerned about how those actions ultimately affect others. She’s innately good in a way that feels so refreshing to see a teen character be allowed to be. For goodness sake, her big indiscretion of the episode was to ditch her little sister in order to invite a boy to the public pool with her! The Upper East Siders of Gossip Girl may scoff, but I rejoice in this preservation of a gentler portrayal of high school.
Less successful this week was the integration of Carrie’s adventures in New York. What felt like wondrous discovery last week felt more shoehorned in here, only existing because the premise set up that we need to spend time with these New York characters every week. The one thing Carrie’s attempts to get her purse in Interview magazine while still getting all her work done at the law firm showed was her fierce ingenuity and commitment, which are all great qualities. But her boss is nothing more than an obstacle in a stuffy suit, and while Larissa is a sort of cipher of a character so far, she does remain a lot of fun. It just feels like these stories will need to get a bit more weight to them or else the ones back at high school will be destined to always outshine everything in Manhattan. (Carrie randomly holding a zebra was a lot of fun, though.)
One thing far more noticeable here than in the pilot was the show’s tie to its Sex And The City origins, as the voiceover transitions between scenes (and use of Pinocchio as a thematic device) felt like something straight out of its elder statesman. The voiceover is still far less intrusive than it could be, but little moments like Carrie transitioning from talking about herself to talking about Maggie and Walt’s relationship felt a bit strained.
After introducing all of the supporting characters and their relationships successfully in the pilot, the second episode is where these characters have to start being fleshed out, and Maggie and Walt were this week’s projects. While the idea of telling a story about a teenage boy realizing he might be gay is extremely compelling—especially when you get to see his teenage girlfriend’s reaction to that rejection—the characters, both in the writing and the acting, aren’t quite there yet. The scenes between them are fine, but suffer mightily from the “they’re not Carrie” syndrome. Creating compelling supporting characters is extremely difficult, especially when you have a lead performance as confident and strong as AnnaSophia Robb’s. Katie Findlay and Brendan Dooling simply aren’t at that level yet, but it’s so early in the series and they have so much room to grow that this is a minor issue. One thing I am very interested to see how Maggie reacts when she learns Walt is gay.
Minor quibbles out of the way, let’s get to what was the one big thing that turned me off in this episode: Carrie’s father’s edict that she is not allowed to see Sebastian any longer. It’s not that this is something a father wouldn’t do—that kid just screams bad boy trouble—but that it’s so obviously going to become such the focus of the episodes to come. If there’s going to be an obstacle to keep Carrie and Sebastian apart, it would be far more interesting to have that obstacle be something organic, rather than something imposed on them from an outside source.
Despite these reservations, this was a fairly solid second episode that did far more things right than it did wrong, especially when it comes to Carrie’s characterization. Her throwback to wide-eyed wonder and innocence are sorely welcome in this modern cynical world.
- AnnaSophia Robb is seriously great in this role, and her chemistry with Austin Butler is fabulous. Sincere congratulations to the casting department for knocking that out of the park.
- I think my favorite thing about Carrie is that she isn’t a hysterical girl. When she gets flustered by Donna’s interest in Sebastian, she doesn’t freak out and do a bunch of crazy things: She just asks Sebastian to hang out. Straight, to the point, no games. Atta girl.
- Sebastian’s casual bemusement at Donna’s obviousness is kind of great.
- I love Mouse. More Mouse!
- “Dumbo.” “As in the elephant?”