The year is 1984. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is at the top of the charts, Footloose is a top-grossing movie, and Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb) is entering her junior year of high school in Castlebury, Connecticut.
Carrie, of course, will grow up to pen the “Sex and the City” column in the New York Star and inspire millions of women to be obsessed with Manolo Blahnik shoes and Magnolia cupcakes. And the CW’s The Carrie Diaries, loosely based on a series of young-adult novels by Candace Bushnell, is a prequel to HBO’s Sex and the City. The network, well known for targeting teen viewers, provides a particular framework for The Carrie Diaries, one that is limited in how faithful it can be to some Sex and the City trademarks — its sexual frankness, for example — but it doesn’t try to deliver to such expectations. And this allows The Carrie Dairies to skirt around some of the most annoying aspects of the previous series.
Let’s start with that ever-present narration. The most galling facet of Sex and the City was the conceit of Carrie’s column. To imagine that anyone would be interested in the ultra-simplified, we-can-all-learn-from-this observations trickling through Carrie’s voiceover week in, week out, was always a stretch. Even more irksome, we were asked to believe that for this terribly written column, someone was paying her enough to support the Carrie Bradshaw lifestyle: that bordered on insult.
The Carrie Diaries keeps that trademark narration, but maintains the idea that it’s comprised of diary entries. No one assumes that people are interested in reading the inner thoughts of a 16-year-old Carrie, and no one is paying her to write it. That detail alone makes The Carrie Dairies more endearing than its adult counterpart. If the lessons Carrie learns are a little too pat, if her sentiments are a little too treacly, and if her word choices are clunky and awkward, it’s okay. That’s what teenage diaries are for.
The rest of the show goes on to prize sweetness over superficiality. The main relationships in Carrie’s life are not her rotating series of boyfriends, they’re her family: a sister, Dorrit (Stefania Owen), whom Carrie describes as “going through a rebellious phase”; and her father, Tom (Matt Letscher), who is struggling to help his two daughters cope with the loss of their mother three months prior. It’s refreshing to see an on-screen father with discernible flaws, and more precisely, one whose flaws aren’t so over the top that he’s turned into a cartoonish villain.
Of course, female friendships have always been the core of Sex and the City, and that continues in The Carrie Diaries in the form of her two best school friends, Maggie (Katie Findlay) and Jill (Ellen Wong), who is too frequently called by her nickname, “The Mouse.” Apart from that cutesy tic, these friendships are more innocent and more emotionally involving than Carrie’s adult ones. Sure, the girls get together over food — in the school cafeteria, not some trendy Manhattan eatery — and talk about boys, but since they’re dissecting their first real boyfriends and insecurity about their first sexual experiences, they exhibit a refreshing naiveté, generally missing not only from Sex and the City, but also from other, predictably jaded teen soaps.
The consumer-oriented, label-obsessing focus of Sex and the City is also thankfully absent from The Carrie Dairies. Instead of rattling off the names of fashion houses, the names the girls drop are ’80s cultural touchstones: Indochine, Interview magazine, Rob Lowe. When Carrie talks about how much she prizes the few possessions she has of her mother’s — a purse and a pair of sunglasses — the brand names are never mentioned. She treasures them for emotional reasons, not status-seeking ones.
That’s not to say that people who are looking for ’80s fashions will be disappointed by the show. The pilot is awash in day-glo. The boys wear two popped collars in contrasting colors, and the girls show out in fluorescent, geometric earrings, gigantic shoulder pads, splatter-painted accessories, and poofy, polka dotted party dresses worthy of “that singer on TV — you know, the one who takes Jesus’ name in vain” (though we all know that Madonna didn’t get really blasphemous until “Like a Prayer” five years later). It’s a perky palette, familiar and fun (and you don’t have to know the names of the designers responsible). The music is familiar too: the soundtrack to the pilot is littered with ’80s hits, from “Bette Davis Eyes” to “Material Girl.”
The main action of the pilot kicks in when Carrie, during an internship at a law firm in Manhattan, is mistaken for someone much older by an Interview editor and is taken on her first big night out in Manhattan, kickstarting her love of the interplay between fashion and New York City, as well as her journey to become the Carrie Bradshaw. Back at home, though, she’s a devoted daughter and sister, a caring friend, and a cool and confident girl in the midst of a new high school crush. It’s a shame that Carrie didn’t keep hold of these qualities throughout her adult life. She’s kinder, deeper, more interesting when she’s out in the suburbs.