The Carrie Diaries wasn’t supposed to be good. The show is adapted from a prequel book series that is based on a previous book series that also inspired a popular, yet somewhat controversial HBO series (did you get all that?). It is a period piece, set in the mid-1980s, a time period more likely to be given the VH1 clip-show treatment than to be featured in a quality contemporary television show. It is from the Josh Schwartz/Stephanie Savage Fake Empire factory, which has reached the law of diminishing returns in recent years. And it is on The CW, a network that's seemingly been dedicated to telling empty, tone-deaf stories about the 1% since it came into existence.
Yet, here we are. Despite each of those problematic obstacles, The Carrie Diaries' pilot is one of the better ones of the 2012-2013 television season. The show might be part of and share characters with the Sex and the City world, but its premiere quickly moved out of the respective shadows of HBO, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Michael Patrick King. And although The Carrie Diaries has inherited Gossip Girl’s timeslot and appears to loosely follow in its Upper East Side footsteps, that really isn’t the case. In fact, The Carrie Diaries isn’t quite like anything The CW has developed in recent years, and while I enjoy many of the network’s offerings, this is a very good thing.
The highest compliment I can pay this first episode that it was straightforward, honest, and earnest. The script by Amy B. Harris didn’t carve out any new ground within the teen drama sphere, and in fact relied on a number of tried-and-true conventions of the genre, but those familiar elements were a nice respite from the finally ending era of hyperbolic wealth and cynicism that made shows like Gossip Girl, 90210, and Melrose Place, and others so unbearable at times. Characters' emotions were taken seriously, and importantly, were prioritized over puns, sarcasm, or incessant popular culture references, which I think was especially nice for a period pierce. While the pilot name-dropped Interview Magazine, Madonna, Rob Lowe, and more, those references felt purposeful instead of part of some attempt to be ‘cool’ or whatever (at least for now; we’ll see what happens if the ratings aren’t solid and The CW gets anxious).
The Carrie Diaries’ use of generic tropes helped it set up the premise relatively quickly: Carrie, high school junior, recently lost her mother, and she, a younger sister, and her dad are all still trying to pick up the pieces. Because of these unfortunate circumstances, Carrie felt out of place on the first day of school, something that was both calmed and further exacerbated by the appearance of her former almost-flame, heartthrob Sebastian. While Carrie tried to put her own life back together and catch up with friends (Mouse, the nerdy girl; Maggie, the sexually-active Samantha stand- in; Walt, the closeted gay man), her father offered her the opportunity of her short lifetime: an internship in New York City. Spellbound by Manhattan, Carrie immediately made friends with a much-older magazine editor, Larissa, and simply couldn’t wait to move away from the Connecticut suburbs.
This is very clearly a coming-of-age story about a girl with big dreams. Not only have we seen this story framework hundreds of times, we know that Carrie eventually reaches those dreams, and more. However, the execution of this origin story is what mades The Carrie Diaries' pilot an effective one. By playing everything straight and taking the characters’ emotions seriously, the opening episode established what so many good shows about young people do: that every new emotion is the most important one and that the little moments are often what help make us who we are and who we might become. It might be lame to trot out the old “journey, not the destination” epithet here, but it most certainly applies. Though this Carrie is obsessed with fashion and New York City (and voiceovers), she is far from how most of us might know of her, and the show seems dedicated to exploring the varying roads it could take in the character’s developmental process.
This all starts with AnnaSophia Robb, who, if you haven’t heard of her, is almost certainly going to be a big star. There were moments in the pilot where it seemed like Robb was channeling SJP a little—and doing a fine job of it—but she truly has made this version of the character her own. In her care, Carrie wonderfully does not fit into one clear character type. She isn’t an awkward wallflower, or an elite member of the school’s social circles. Robb’s Carrie feels like a normal high school girl, yet not in the traditional TV style. Her performance drove the pilot through Carrie’s highs and lows and never over-extended emotionally on either end of the spectrum. Though she may've been less believable in the circumstances where Carrie was pretending to be much older, Robb nailed the character’s enchantment over New York City. But it was in the scenes with home-based characters like her father, sister, and love interest where Robb’s work really shined. There, we saw a Carrie who, despite love for NYC, was also still figuring out how to be a sister, a daughter and a young woman.
While Robb carried the pilot, most of the rest of the cast members fill their supporting roles nicely. Austin Butler is compelling and likable as Sebastian, and he and Robb have an innocence to their chemistry that I really enjoy. Kate Findlay (The Killing’s Rosie Larsen) and Ellen Wong (Scott Pilgrim’s Knives) do solid work with little material—especially Wong, who in the pilot made a nice runner about Mouse losing the long-distance boyfriend who took her virginity feel worthwhile, despite the small amount of attention given to it. Matt Letscher is also quite good as Carrie’s father Tom, so hopefully the show will commit to developing that relationship as the first season progresses.
The show further established its simple, yet effective world by not acknowledging the period too much. There was a nice sense of place in both the Connecticut and New York sequences, while the production design, fashion, and musical cues all signified the mid-'80s, but in a muted way. Meaning, the pilot succeeded in establishing that the series will take place in the past, but never over-emphasized the time period in the narrative. Really, the show, devoid of context, could take place in any decade.
This might be sacrilege, but The Carrie Diaries is more like Freaks and Geeks than it is like Gossip Girl. It lacks the raw emotion and specific perspective of a show like Freaks and Geeks, but it at least made an attempt to develop those things in its first episode. In short, it has the potential to be the sincere teen drama that many of us have been waiting for The CW to develop since its inception seven years ago.
– I love the Jens already. More of them.
– I’ve seen most of Sex and the City, though I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “fan.” I’d love to hear from people who do consider themselves fans of that series. Does this show work for you?
– As a long-time viewer of SATC, I liked that The Carrie Diaries' pilot didn’t overwhelm with the allusions to Carrie’s future. Obviously the voiceover is here, but the sex conversation with the girls at school felt familiar to me, and Carrie putting her hair in a ponytail so she could write was a nice touch.
– Frankly, the high school stuff worked better for me than the New York escapades. Freema Agyeman is fun, but it’s silly that all those people believe Carrie is at least 6-7 years older than she is. Unless they’re all on drugs. Are they all on drugs?