We haven't said much about The Carrie Diaries since its confident, enjoyable pilot episode back in January. With a short order for a first (and sadly, possibly only) season, the show completed its run on Monday night, so this is going to be a review of both "Kiss Yesterday Goodbye" and the season as a whole. That's sort of fitting, as the finale embodied some of the season's biggest problems—and in certain cases, made those problems worse.
Though the pilot offered us a world with interesting characters and suggested that it would treat those characters with a level of respect and realism we rarely see from CW-era teen dramas, The Carrie Diaries ran into some trouble over its 13 episodes, almost entirely because of its fascinating, but ultimately problematic story structure. As friend and fellow critic Myles McNutt nicely detailed earlier this spring, the decision to move through a full school year in one season, dropping in on important moments in Carrie and company's lives hampered how coherent and consistent the storytelling could be. I admire creator Amy B. Harris' decision to not keep Carrie in high school for too long, especially with her Manhattan ambitions and the stories already taking place in that location and in theory, I love the idea of checking in. When done well (on something like Mad Men), the survey of little moments elucidates larger stories and arcs. But whereas Mad Men (which is obviously a much better show, but go with me) deals with adults whose small changes and decisions lead to larger movements, Carrie Diaries is all about teens bound to waffle emotionally quite a bit more. Consequently, while this season has been full of some really great individual moments, stories and episodes, the whole piece has been disjointed and sometimes even disorienting.
Take Carrie's relationship with Sebastian. AnnaSophia Robb and Austin Butler have wonderful chemistry and every time the characters interact, the show moves up another tic. However, because this season told a year's worth of story in just 13 hours, we were forced to watch the two lovebirds play the on-again, off-again game too quickly, and much too often. Although I understand that these characters are teenagers and quite enjoy that this version of Carrie is as fickle about her men as the one from Sex and the City (whether this series is based on the HBO offering or not), it's difficult to really build a rooting interest for the two of them when they're always in the midst of a major drama. I believe that this amount of drama would happen over the course of a school year, but never getting to many moments where Carrie and Sebastian just existed together as a couple, without the state of their relationship serving as a dominant story, was frustrating. I don't want to sound too critical because Robb and Butler can make it easy to forget the wonky, push-and-pull storytelling. But it's been an issue. Nothing ever settles.
That feeling is ramped up to 11 in this finale, where Carrie and Sebastian get back together in one of the season's best heartfelt moments, then have a fight about a secret Sebastian was keeping, only to reconcile later in the episode, only then to end the episode not speaking to one another because Sebastian drunkenly and stupidly kissed Maggie in a moment of pain and loneliness for both of them. Can you imagine following this relationship on Facebook? The relationship status changes alone. But more seriously, this is a microcosm of the show's problems. I get wanting to end the season with Carrie in Manhattan for the summer and giving the audience something to hope for come the possible season two, but the back and forth eventually wears thin and the relationship-altering moments don't have the same impact.
While Carrie and Sebastian's relationship probably received too much attention, other stories suffered a bit from not enough legitimate burn. Walt's journey out of the closet was one of the season's best stories and one of the better versions of that arc that we've seen on broadcast television. The series managed to let him work through his confusion by interacting with a number of different characters, sometimes overreacting (like his calling Bennett a fag earlier in the season) and other times dealing with his emotions more calmly (in his coming out to Donna). Brendan Dooling did consistent, solid work in these stories. Still, I felt like we missed a beat or two along the way, and the Bennett character is way too much of a Young Gay Spirit Guide stereotype, unlocking all the secrets for Walt but then holding back on romantic feelings.
We could probably say the same thing about Maggie's junior year journey. The series tried to really emphasize how complicated her relationship with Walt was and how her affair with the cop made that more problematic, but too often, one or more of the characters wasn't around in an episode, so we were only getting one side of a conversation and even then, those conversations were being used to move the story along despite an absence or two. This was obviously a byproduct of budgetary restrictions, but it hurt the stories, and Maggie the most. She's an interesting character in that she doesn't really have an obvious future direction, but that doesn't mean the show should keep using her as a tool to start drama.
Both Walt and Maggie's stories coalesced in awkward ways in the finale. The episode wanted to create substantive drama out of the reveal of a number of different secrets--Walt's sexuality and Carrie's knowledge of it, Sebastian and Maggie's info about Carrie's dad--but I'm not sure it all worked. Maggie basically outing Walt in the diner didn't have the emotional wallop I expected it to, and though Maggie's response to it created another patch of tension between her and Carrie, Walt mostly running away limited the emotional impact of the resolution. That's obviously something the show wants to explore in season two, but again, when you only have so much time to tell these stories and then you want the finale to be the big payoff, it actually has to come together.
Weirdly, the two stories that worked best for me, both over the course of the season and in this episode, involved Mouse and Dorrit. Unlike with Walt and Maggie, the show always managed to move Mouse's story along with logical beats. Of all the stories in Season 1, her journey from grade-obsessed and uptight nerd to grade-obsessed and more confident nerd felt like a legitimate arc. Her relationship with West was simple yet cute, and it's admirable that the show kept the character committed to her future while allowing her to open up with someone who has the same kind of hopes and dreams. And yet, the finale probably pushed it too hard by trying to give her one more moment of maturity by introducing the random forced prom date.
The Dorrit character annoyed me throughout much of the first season, as these kinds of characters do, but the relationship with Miller worked well enough. While it wasn't heavily featured in the second half of the season, the pairing allowed Dorrit to be happy, which is a good thing. And her willingness to simply be happy and have sex with Miller nicely contrasts with Carrie's inability to calm down and go with the flow.
I really hope we'll get a second season of The Carrie Diaries. The show boasts some good characters and solid performances, and most of the episodes in Season 1 worked on an individual level. But if does get renewed (and I believe it will), the show needs a larger episode order. It also needs to improve its approach to storytelling, or ditch it all together.
– Whether intentionally or not, AnnaSophia Robb picked up many of Sarah Jessica Parker's mannerisms by the end of the season. The good news is that it's not really distracting; feels completely natural.
– No Donna in the finale. That's really unfortunate.
– Pretty great use of Bryan Adams' "Heaven" in this episode. The show, unsurprisingly, does really fun stuff with its needle drops.
– Matt Letscher did really fine work as Tom throughout the season. Loved the conversation where he and Carrie discussed his new relationship, or "the gym."
– Said this on Twitter yesterday, but Austin Butler was clearly made in a teen drama heartthrob lab right? He's quite the specimen.