If there was one show I was particularly dreading this year — indeed, had been dreading since we first heard the news that it was happening — it was The Carrie Diaries. I mean, what could be worse than a Sex and the City prequel, tracing Carrie Bradshaw's teen years in 1980s Connecticut, and on The CW no less? The last time they tried a prequel in the '80s it was that awful Gossip Girl backdoor pilot about Lily van der Woodsen in L.A. Sure, Carrie Diaries comes with a tiny bit more pedigree than that show did, namely a well-received series of young adult novels by SATC inventor Candace Bushnell, but still. What a mess. All the annoying things about Sex and the City dulled and warmed over for a network teen show.
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Imaging my surprise then, when the show's premiere, almost a month ago, didn't land with a thunk at all. In fact, the first episode, directed by sensitive and soulful director Miguel Arteta, of all people, tingled with spunky smarts (not that kind of spunky, Samantha) and lived-in heart. The lead actress, AnnaSophia Robb, was bright and appealing, while her costars — among them Katie Findlay (poor Rosie Larsen, back from the dead!) as one of Carrie's besties, and the surprisingly capable Austin Butler as the (slightly) bad boy of her dreams — gave surprisingly witty and subtle performances, given the context. The writing, by SATC and The Comeback vet Amy B. Harris, was of course silly and bouncy and all those other curly haired teen girl things, but it also carefully textured its own sentiment, made the Big Emotions, particularly about the death of Carrie's mother, seem particular to the story. That's something The CW has always struggled with; namely, creating real people. And yet somehow, on a show about the young Carrie Bradshaw, of all things, they pulled it off. I was stunned, and immediately sure they couldn't keep it up. (Stop making jokes, Samantha.)
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And yet! Over the subsequent episodes, the show has continued to display that surprising level of perky sophistication. As Carrie lives dual lives — the traumas and travails of high school and the harried world of workaday Manhattan (she has an internship downtown and a new friend who works at Interview) — the show has done a lovely job of juggling. What seemed initially like a higher-budget Jane By Design, a hokey and amateurish ABC Family series about a high school girl secretly working for a fashion designer in New York, is in fact something much cleverer than that. So far the show has not been too hung-up on creating clashes between these two existences, with lots of madcap lying and covering up and racing to be two places at once (though there is some of that), and is instead more focused on how Carrie's two worlds inform one another. That might sound a bit heavy for something called The Carrie Diaries, and maybe it is overstating a little, but we should give credit to this series, which could have been a dumb fashion show waste of time, for actually thinking about its concept and figuring out ways to live robustly within it.
Last night's episode was any teen show's (or really any show's) requisite Halloween episode. Carrie and her friend Walt, who is dealing with some questioning if you get my drift, attended a swingin' Soho party with Carrie's city friend Larissa. Dressed as Di and Charles, the two innocent suburbians encountered a world of Ecstasy and LSD, yes, but in a quieter sense, they got a little growing-up education. Carrie learned a lesson about expectations meeting reality — she'd wanted to meet a guy at the party to get over the bad boy back home, until realizing that the one she liked was gay — while Walt... Well, Walt got kissed by the aforementioned gay guy. Overwhelmed by the fastness of the situation, of the city, he freaked out and, when back in Connecticut, reunited with his ex Maggie. He forced himself to have sex with her, something she'd been pressuring him to do, and now he's back where he started, tangled up in a fake life all over again.
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The way the show depicted Walt catching a glimpse of one particular out life — a lightly hedonistic downtown world of blurred borders — and getting scared all the way to the back of the closet was, if not entirely realistic in a My So-Called Life sense, at least genuinely sad and thoughtful and delicately handled. The writing in one wistful little scene between Carrie and Walt, sitting dejectedly on a curb and realizing the limits of their youth and experience, was sweet and smart. So too were the B plots of the episode, one with Carrie's two girlfriends going to the cute bad boy's Halloween party even though he'd recently rejected Carrie, the other with Carrie's rebellious, bratty little sister turning to her dad after getting scared by a movie. The show has a gentle sensibility about it; there's little of the blaring aren't-we-coolness of other CW shows. While they're maybe a little more verbosely well-spoken than normal high school students, the kids in The Carrie Diaries actually seem like, well, kids. And that's remarkably refreshing.
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Lest you think I'm some sort of insane person, I'm not urging you to watch The Carrie Diaries expecting some grand revelation. It's a teen show on a largely teen network and all the attendant corniness and chintz that comes with those traits should be assumed. For its genre, though, for its ilk, The Carrie Diaries is an unexpectedly charming and sanguine little show. With the intelligent Robb in the lead, supported ably by Butler and others (but especially Butler, and not just 'cause he's cute, he's actually a good actor), and writers like Harris (who also developed the show for television) steering the ship, I've high hopes that the show will only grow deeper and more textured as it ages. Maybe I'm just blinded by the glow of expecting the worst and being proven completely wrong, but The Carrie Diaries is, to me, one of the best new shows of the season. Give it a watch.