The problem with The Carrie Diaries (CW, Mondays, 8 p.m.) isn’t that it dares to prequelize Sex and the City, or that it’s not too interested in keeping continuity with the original, or that its star AnnaSophia Robb doesn’t look like Sarah Jessica Parker, or that it devises a childhood backstory for Carrie that seems more pampered than the one we inferred, or that its weak stab at eighties atmosphere makes you long for the visceral realism of The Wedding Singer. The problem is that The Carrie Diaries is an inept spinoff that dishonors its source.
I never thought I’d type the phrase “dishonors its source” in connection with Sex and the City, as fundamentally lighthearted a comedy as HBO has ever aired. But if you watch tonight’s premiere of The Carrie Diaries, a comedy-drama from Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Gossip Girl), you’ll know what I mean. Everything about it is wrong, starting with the venue, the CW, a commercial broadcast network whose content restrictions guarantee we’ll never see, perhaps even hear about, the sort of misadventures that turned Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie into a fin de siècle Holly Golightly writing a sex column. The CW is, for the most part, a place for revisionist genre dramas and warm, blah comedies. Not only can you not get a phrase like “funky spunk” onto the CW, but you can barely get the other kind of spunk on its airwaves, either, because the network prizes “sensitivity” over almost every other value. Even its best series have a bit of a wet-blanket feeling. This one’s a soggy comforter.
The show kicks off in 1984. Reagan has been reelected. MTV defines music and fashion. There is no Internet, and all the phones have cords. The virginal Carrie is living in Connecticut with her troubled younger sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen) and her dad (Matt Letscher). She has Danielle Steel books and a Rubik’s Cube in her bedroom. She hears New Order in her head as she roams her high school, reciting a Clueless-like taxonomy in voice-over. Her mom died three months earlier and the family is still reeling from grief. Vulture’s Patti Greco has already pointed out that this last bit seems to violate Carrie’s established backstory; but plot continuity has never been a dealbreaker for me when judging sequels and prequels. I’m more concerned with continuity of vision, and that doesn’t seem to be on The Carrie Diaries’ list of things to fret over. This pilot doesn’t even feel like a PG-rated protean version of SATC. It feels like a dull CW show about a family struggling in the aftermath of loss, with by-the-book eighties art direction and sub–John Hughes character beats mixed in.
Carrie’s sister Dorrit is a black-clad, pot-smoking teen-at-risk. She and Carrie have sad, angry fights, including a literal knockdown over ownership of one of their mother’s purses, which Dorrit splattered with nail polish. Carrie’s own restorative experiments with nail polish inspire her to explore fashion design and develop a signature look. Her dad’s offer of an internship at his Manhattan law firm sparks an obsession with living in New York as a single, professional woman. Her fixation on a hunky yet distant new kid named Sebastian (Austin Butler) seems a harbinger of adult Carrie’s long slog toward marrying Mr. Big.
I’ll spare you a further recitation of incidents because you know what kind of show this is: a prequel so literal-minded that it wants to explain traits that were more fascinating for having been left unexplored. The lead-footed setup-punch-line storytelling evokes an eighties femme-centric version of the prologue to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film whose pleasures were undercut (for me, if no one else) by its insistence on answering every big question we had about Indy in ten minutes flat. Why is he afraid of snakes? Because he fell into a pit full of snakes! Where did he get his hat? From the treasure hunter who made him fall into the pit of snakes!
The characters are bland. The younger actors are too untrained to invest them with life; the more experienced performers do the best they can with what little they’ve been given. There’s only one promising subplot, likewise a bust: Carrie’s new friendship with a black British fashion editor named Larissa (Freema Agyeman of Dr. Who) at Century 21. Larissa lunges at Carrie’s artfully splattered purse, and Carrie assumes she’s trying to filch it, but it turns out only wanted to look at it and maybe buy it. She ends up introducing Carrie to Manhattan nightlife, which brings the pilot’s grand total of Extinguished Backstory Mysteries to (by my count) eight. Between Larissa’s forward manner, penchant for shoplifting, and blithe worldliness, you’d think The Carrie Diaries would at least genuflect toward understanding the race and class issues built into their relationship. (That misunderstanding about the purse is a nerve center of unexamined assumptions.) But, no: The show takes a “hot potato” approach, setting Larissa up as a proto-Samantha and mostly letting it go at that.
Considering the show’s ineptitude elsewhere, that’s probably for the best. The Carrie Diaries would have to be a hell of a lot more fun to redeem its blundering. Parts of it feel like a late, “We give up” episode of Everwood or Seventh Heaven, but with SATC situations, character names, and perfunctory music cues grafted on. Where the original danced from one absurd, cutting, or poignant scene to the next, this one trudges along like a "Peanuts" character with a depressive inkblot over his head.
Is this a creatively valid approach to a prequel series? I guess, if it were well executed, which The Carrie Diaries isn’t; and even if it were, I’m not convinced I’d want to watch it each week, even if the producers promised to mix things up a bit.
Was Sex and the City about abandonment issues as well? At times, sure — particularly when it dealt with Carrie’s masochistic love for Mr. Big, who at times seemed to represent an emotionally unreachable daddy as well as a rich, handsome boyfriend; but the series never bore down on that notion so relentlessly that the humor got squashed. Whenever Carrie or Miranda or Samantha or Charlotte suffered humiliation or heartbreak, you at least knew the whole episode wouldn’t get mired in that mode. Not so with The Carrie Diaries.
SATC could be a repetitious, annoying show. Its feminism was a muddle, it wore out its welcome after that lovely post-9/11 season, and its two spinoff films were mostly loathsome, back-benching the show’s interest in friendship and filling the foreground with a near-pornographic lust for stuff. But even at its weakest, the HBO series was a pip. Every episode contained crackerjack performances, quotable lines, laugh-out-loud slapstick, and beefcake and cheesecake galore, and it was never without substance. In its deceptively sprightly way, Sex and the City was “about” a lot of things: female friendship; entitlement expressed via clothes, shoes, jewelry, and real estate; writing and living, and living through writing; the New Yorker’s delusion that her city is the center of the world; and the princess fantasy, and the lifelong parade of men that embody it, destroy it, or wear it down. The Carrie Diaries is mostly about one thing: wanting to cash in on Sex and the City. If there were a Miscalculation Hall of Fame, this show would be assured a spot, right alongside Qwikster and New Coke.