The Carrie Diaries debuts tonight on The CW at 8 p.m. Eastern.
One of the things that TV’s surprisingly good at is playing around with the idea of fate. Watching characters squirm against the inevitable—even if they don’t know it’s coming—provides for great dramatic tension, and that idea has been used in very different ways on everything from Mad Men to Lost to FlashForward. (Okay, maybe that last one wasn’t so successful at using fate as a dramatic device.) Unusually, this makes TV a medium uniquely well-suited to prequels, stories that are usually completely devoid of dramatic tension in other media because the audience knows how everything will turn out. On TV, a prequel can drill down into the secret history of those it’s prequel-ing. Episode by episode, the journey may take viewers to a place they already know they’re going, but it will also provide individual stories that aren’t necessarily predictable. All of TV is about the tension between predictability and the lack of same; prequels or historically-set series just heighten that tension.
Now, in terms of grand, dramatic stories, “How does Carrie Bradshaw from Sex And The City become the successful writer viewers meet in that show’s pilot?” is pretty far down the ladder. But what makes that series’ prequel, The Carrie Diaries, so fun is that it takes just enough of the original series to feel of a piece with it while developing its own tone and themes. It’s very much a series aimed at teenage girls and those who either were teenage girls at one time or now have teenage girls of their own to look after, but on those terms, it succeeds wildly. In its first three episodes, it’s easily one of the best young series The CW has ever had, mostly because it feels less like a CW show than it does one from The WB, one of the two networks that spawned The CW.
At its heart, the series Carrie is most similar to is My So-Called Life. Saying that sets unfair expectations for The Carrie Diaries, which is in no way at the level of that earlier classic, one of the best series ever made about teenagers. But it suggests the solid template this show is following, one that’s very different from the show that spawned it. Indeed, the character of Carrie here has a slightly different back-story from the character of Carrie in Sex And The City—though not so different that the two shows can’t be roughly retconned together, for viewers who are into such things—and it’s a back-story designed to heighten the emotional stakes and content of the show. Carrie’s a bright, responsible young woman who recently lost her mother, and she’s begun acting out in tiny ways that hardly count as rebellion but feel like rebellion to her. That puts her in line with Angela Chase, even if she’s not nearly as well-developed a character as Angela. (After all, it has to be somewhat believable that she’ll grow up into the confident, self-assured character Sarah Jessica Parker played.)
It’s the stuff that echoes MSCL that works best on Carrie Diaries, but that’s not all that’s here, because this is a Sex And The City prequel and a CW series, which means there needs to be an element of wish fulfillment. In addition to her typical, suburban teenage life, Carrie’s also gotten an internship in Manhattan, and while that would, in and of itself, be pretty exciting, she also stumbles upon a fashion photographer for Interview magazine who befriends her for reasons that are, to put it kindly, strained. This adds an element of the fairy tale to the proceedings, which was probably necessary to sell the show, and while that fairy tale element isn’t awful and can be fun in small doses, it often feels like a different series entirely from the more personal, family-oriented material happening in Connecticut. Worse, there doesn’t seem to be a realistic way to integrate that fairy tale world—where a bunch of adults believe a teenager is one of them for no real reason—with the more believable world Carrie usually occupies.
At the same time, Sex And The City often worked best when it embraced the fairy tale aspects of romance in a big city, so providing a bridge between a sleepy, realistic adolescence and a frothier, more exciting adulthood could work in the long run. And there’s a nice moment in the pilot where Carrie sits in a taxi cab, wondering whether she should head back to what she knows or make up another lie to keep spinning out the life she’s inventing for herself all at once, a moment that speaks to everybody who’s abandoned a boring life in a boring town to pursue their dreams in the city. (Carrie’s choice in this moment is also the one anybody in that situation would actually make, and it’s nice to see the series admit that even if she’s not quite ready to be the central figure in a fairy tale, boy, would she like to be.) The link between My So-Called Life and The Carrie Diaries shouldn’t exist—and boy does the series strain to create it in the first three episodes at times—yet the fancifulness of it makes it enjoyable all the same. It’s realism, but it’s also wish fulfillment, and what awkward teenager hasn’t wanted a handful of wishes fulfilled? Even better, the fact that the whole thing is set in 1984—despite the overreliance on ’80s music on the soundtrack—gives things a wistful quality that lets the show get away with far more than it would in a contemporary setting. At times, it approaches magical realism, and if the series gets long enough to figure itself out, it may actually hit that sweet spot where realistic, heart-rending problems are propped up against whimsically over-the-top fun, and everything somehow meshes together.
The twin worlds around Carrie are thoughtfully fleshed out and constructed by developer Amy B. Harris, a former producer and writer for Sex And The City who took Candace Bushnell’s Carrie Diaries novel and found something like a TV series in it. (She’s joined on the production side by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who seem to be producing roughly half the CW’s lineup nowadays.) As Carrie, AnnaSophia Robb is a lot of fun. She has some of the weaknesses of other CW protagonists—in that she can mistake making a pouty face for thoughtful acting—but she’s winningly charismatic, and she’s really good in the moments where Carrie is being swept away by her new Manhattan life or the boy she’s fallen for, believably conveying the way that adolescence can be all about momentum. As her best friends, Ellen Wong (Knives Chau!) and Katie Findlay (TV’s own Rosie Larsen!) offer softer, more adolescent spins on the sorts of dating tribulations the Sex And The City women faced. In particular, Findlay’s character struggling with a boyfriend who’s obviously gay, though since it’s 1984 and Connecticut, nobody knows how to say that, is particularly well-handled, while Austin Butler is solidly handsome—which is all he needs to be—as Carrie’s love interest. Over in Manhattan, Carrie’s only real acquaintance, just yet, is that photographer, played by Freema Agyeman (TV’s own Martha Jones!), who makes a bunch of really implausible stuff work just by being plucky. In a way, that describes the whole show.
Yet Carrie Diaries wouldn’t be as good as it is if not for the world of Carrie’s home, where two teenage girls and their father are dealing with the loss of a parent who meant the world to them. Indeed, the most fascinating character in the whole show might be Carrie’s 14-year-old sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen), who’s acting out in more obvious ways than Carrie is but is still enough of a kid to want to have a hamster she can name Morrissey. That she’s so weird and pained—and named Dorrit—tells viewers as much as they’d ever need to know about Carrie’s mourned mother, and the scenes between the two sisters, who try to navigate their new relationship, are usually the strongest of any given episode. As their dad, Matt Letscher is also very good, though he has a tendency to get stuck in plotlines where he plays the hectoring parent—when he’s not trying to reenter the dating scene.
Carrie Diaries is not great television just yet, but it has potential to be much better than its various parts would ever suggest. This is a sensitive, compassionate, surprisingly sweet show about growing up in the wake of a giant loss and about kids who have dreams too big for them to handle just yet. There are awful things about it—the Sex And The City-aping voiceover from Robb is among the most annoying things on television right now, and there’s a lot of it—but there’s also a real, palpable sense of yearning and hope at its center. The CW can fall too easily into the kind of sexy cynicism that it believes its key demographic wants, so it’d be tempting to applaud The Carrie Diaries just for trying something new. Yet there’s plenty here to applaud beyond that, and that’s coming from someone who never much liked the parent series in the first place.
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