I couldn’t have been more prepared to hate — not love to hate, just hate-hate — the latest addition to the “Sex and the City” brand, “The Carrie Diaries.” The two “SATC” movies were egregious, and unnecessary, and hard evidence of how dummying up and reanimating characters after their stories have ended can stain the original show. Those movies were the walking dead. I’m praying for “Arrested Development”; please don’t let the 14 new episodes, due in May, put a lien on our memories.
But this new CW series, a “Sex and the City” prequel based on Candace Bushnell’s book about Carrie Bradshaw in high school, isn’t bad enough to despise. It’s a sweet, somewhat bland portrait of an Everygirl coming of age in suburban Connecticut in the 1980s, dealing with the class Heathers — here, they’re Donna LaDonna and the two Jens — and crushing on the cutie transfer student with long blond hair. The plot moves swiftly through familiar CW motions, as Carrie hangs with her three semi-nerdy friends in the cafeteria, deals with her bad-girl sister, and makes chic friends in New York. We’ve seen most of it before on other teen romantic comedies, and it’s easy to take.
Still, I wish the show were not connected to “Sex and the City.” Obviously, the “SATC” link makes sense on a business level, since the name recognition will bring added curiosity and an automatic viewership. But the CW’s Carrie Bradshaw, played by the likable AnnaSophia Robb, could so easily have been Carrie Smith or Jones, and her love of fashion could easily have been just normal teenager behavior. Except for her deluxe mop of curls, Robb barely resembles Sarah Jessica Parker, both physically and in her general demeanor. She’s not as small and angular, and she has a softer temperament. I spent too much time during the premiere, which airs Monday night at 8 on Channel 56, trying to morph Robb into Parker in my mind’s eye. “Sex and the City” gets in the way.
Also, the “SATC” roots mean we know how it will all turn out. We know who will remain in Carrie’s life when she’s a columnist in Manhattan. Sure, on some level I understand that many teen best friends drift apart in later years. But when watching a high school series like “The Carrie Diaries,” I like to pretend that the friendships are for life. I want to pretend that when Carrie and her crush Sebastian (Austin Butler) finally get together, which, I’m assuming they will do sooner or later, it will last forever and ever. And yet, because this is an origin story, we know that Carrie will have a new guy and a new group of BFFs in her 30s, that the innocent Mouse (Ellen Wong), the closeted Walt (Brendan Dooling), and the extroverted Maggie (Katie Findlay) will disappear. Does Carrie dump them? Do they dump her? And Carrie’s sister, Dorrit (Stefania Owen), what of her? I wish I hadn’t been wondering.
The writers, including showrunner and executive producer Amy Harris, make a few overt references to the HBO show, most obviously to the title sequence, with Carrie walking on a thriving Manhattan sidewalk. They’re fun, inessential Easter eggs for the faithful. But they don’t succeed in making the link to “SATC” feel more essential.
When we meet 16-year-old Carrie, she’s adjusting to the death of her mother a few months earlier. Dorrit is acting out with pot and alcohol, and their father, Tom (Matt Lets-cher), is struggling with the fact that he needs to become the family disciplinarian. The grief story line gives the writers a lot of opportunities for armchair psychology, and they take full advantage of them — including one scene with an emo version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the soundtrack. Carrie gets a one-day-a-week internship in the city, and on her first trip she meets a madcap British woman named Larissa (Freema Agyeman) who works at Interview magazine. Suddenly, Carrie is hanging out at a nightclub with crazy artsy types and seeing vague outlines of her future materializing. Her love of clothes is heightening, although the fashions on “The Carrie Diaries” don’t quite work as they did on “SATC”; they look too much like forced ’80s nostalgia.
“Sex and the City” was a wonderful sitcom for its time. I can’t quite imagine it working as well right now, when most ensemble urban comedies about singles such as “Happy Endings” and “Girls” are rougher around the edges, not as steeped in fashion, professional lives, and money. But it was a series that captured a moment and a market, as it drew a lasso around the younger women demographic. It’s time to let go of the show, stop running the material ragged. Free “Sex and the City”!