As a straight man, I wasn’t necessarily in the primary demo that seemed to be most drawn to HBO’s famed 1998-2004 series Sex and the City, which was inspired by the writings of Candace Bushnell and followed the romantic adventures of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her gal pals in the Big Apple. I tuned in enough to be able to appreciate the writing and acting, but I didn’t fully connect with or relate to, I suppose, the women, or their glamorous Manhattan backdrop. So when I first heard that The CW was creating a series out of The Carrie Diaries — based on Bushnell’s novels The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City, with another one in the works, and which serve as a prequel of sorts to the series, showing how Carrie found her adult life in New York — I figured I might have the similar lack of interest.
However, at the Television Critics Association (TCA) Winter Press Tour recently, I had the chance to screen the pilot of the new hourlong drama The Carrie Diaries, as well as rough cuts of the second and third episodes, and I have to say I was intrigued enough to want to see more.
The Carrie Diaries, which, like its inspiration, mixes humorous and dramatic elements, is set back in 1984, when Carrie (AnnaSophia Robb, whose popularity should really take off in this role*) is a 16-year-old high-schooler in the Connecticut suburbs, living with her father and sister. When we meet her, she is beginning the school year after spending the summer grieving the loss of her mother. She discovers that over the summer, her friends have had romantic adventures, and that out of her group, she is now the resident virgin. The arrival of sexy transfer student Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler) might spice things up for Carrie, but she is developing an attraction of another sort — for the city of Manhattan, into which she occasionally jaunts for an internship at a law firm. As she meets some of the interesting characters of mid-’80s New York, we start to see the genesis of Carrie’s infatuation with the city that she chronicles in the later series.
The Carrie Diaries does an interesting job of straddling traditional CW-type romantic teen drama with tastes of what will come in Carrie’s life as a grown woman in SATC. One of the things CW president Mark Pedowitz said about the show at a TCA session registered with me as something similar to what I had felt when watching the screeners: “We believe that it’s a bimodal show … Those who were around in 1984 and [those] who were Sex and the City fans will come back to nostalgia and see what the origination is of the Carrie Bradshaw character, coupled with, we also believe it’s a coming-of-age story, which is timeless. So we feel that it works on both levels for a lot of audiences.”
I believe it does, too. As someone who was “around in 1984,” I appreciated the fact that the show felt like it was set back in that time, but did not beat us over the head with a Rubik’s Cube to give us that impression. Given an era prone to some outrageous trends like the 1980s, it can be easy and tempting to parody it and come across looking obnoxious (think back to That ’80s Show) but this show carefully avoids that. And, it turns out, that was a conscious decision.
“Our whole idea for this when we started,” co-executive producer Amy B. Harris (who was also a writer-producer on SATC) said, “was I didn’t want it to feel like the ‘joke’ version of the ’80s with people in those, sort of, thin glasses or parachute pants where it’s, like, even in the ’80s, we were a little bit like, ‘Is this a mistake? I think it might be.’ So my whole idea was, sort of — we had coined it — [co-executive producer] Stephanie Savage beautifully coined it – ‘aspirational authenticity.’ So we are really kind of mixing and matching.
“Luckily, there’s actually been a lot of clothes out there this year that have been sort of ’80s-inspired, the very bright-colored denim jeans. … Shoulder pads have come back in a big way. … So we are really trying to have fun mixing and matching, staying true to the ’80s while also, you know, keeping the clothes as aspirational and inspirational as possible.”
The ’80s are certainly there in The Carrie Diaries, but in one of the more subtler ways than we’ve seen in a while, and as someone who came of age in that era, I can appreciate that. I actually felt some twinges of nostalgia in the look of the show, as well as in seeing — in addition to the clothes Harris mentions — the matter-of-fact ways in which rotary phones are used, the old New York area codes, some of the music (’80s tunes feature in most episodes, including one episode in which The Cars’ “Drive” is listened to, and Mark Mothersbaugh contributes a musical score to the show).
And, of course, there is the legendary ’80s hair. At TCA, star AnnaSophia Robb told a gaggle of reporters about the “big hair” featured in the series. Carrie herself wears a pretty big perm, and Robb also laughingly told us, “We do a lot of side parts. The side ponytails are probably not such a good look.”
“It was very important to us,” said Harris at one point, “that [Carrie’s hairdo] looked like that kind of ’80s hair that is unstoppable. So … I don’t think it’s getting toned down.”
If this were just a teen drama set in the ’80s it would be good enough to watch at that. But Sex and the City fans will also have much to look for as Carrie’s journey begins in this series. While the teen drama-themed parts set in the suburbs may fill in the gaps left by the departure of Gossip Girl from the CW, and appeal to the CW base demo, Carrie’s periodic visits into New York, where she begins to sense the bigger world out there, lend a more adult feel for the viewer, as they do to Carrie herself, meeting the unique characters in the art, club and magazine scenes of Manhattan. There is a bit of the carefree, SATC feel to these city scenes, and while Robb says that producers did not want her to emulate Sarah Jessica Parker’s performance as Carrie, there are nods in both similar re-creations of familiar SATC shots, such as Carrie hailing cabs, and in body language, that should show the Carrie of the future to SATC fans. In a way The Carrie Diaries is almost like an origin story for a famed character; a common technique for comic-book characters, and Harris even referenced one of the most famous of these in comparing her vision of how viewers will watch Carrie’s story develop.
“Smallville is a very good example, where you’re meeting Clark Kent before he realizes he has super powers,” said Harris. “If you’re meeting Carrie Bradshaw, I wanted to meet her before she had sex, before she fell in love, and before she met Manhattan. … Let’s set her on those paths, and Manhattan was such a huge part of it. I really wanted to explore that in the first season.”
It’s likely that SATC fans have long wondered what sorts of relationships shaped Carrie’s outlook on romance, and her choices in men, and we will start seeing the seeds of those in The Carrie Diaries. Regarding Carrie’s first sexual experience, Harris told us, “We’ve definitely been talking about it a lot because that’s obviously a first that means a lot to everybody, whether it’s because you did it in the back of a car or you made it a romantic experience. It — shapes you. And we’ve been talking about it.”
Among other iconic elements from the later series, Harris said that eventually we should also find out how Carrie meets Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, but probably not for a while.
“I felt like let’s get to know Carrie, see her world really develop, this new world that we’re in. And then, yes, I’ve definitely thought about different ways that we will meet her three other friends, but I really felt like, at least initially, just let people enjoy this new universe, kind of get sucked in, and then hopefully we can have a lot of fun with how they get introduced, and I’ve thought a lot about that.”
One other iconic element from SATC that has been thought about, Robb laughingly told us, is that, “We see Carrie get her first pair of Manolos.”
The Carrie Diaries, from what I’ve seen so far, effectively, dramatically and at times humorously straddles a line between ’80s nostalgia, teen drama, coming-of-age story and Sex and the City mythology/backstory expansion. Tonally, there are some elements — especially in the New York scenes — that anticipate the adultness of the series to come, but nothing nearly as mature as Sex and the City. This is probably the TV equivalent of a young woman starting out with Seventeen magazine before diving into Cosmopolitan as she further matures. Like all coming-of-age stories, it involves some fits and starts, some spreading and folding of wings, some running off and coming home, some mix of the childish and the mature, before a personality can be fully formed. Even for Carrie Bradshaw.
The Carrie Diaries airs Mondays at 8pm ET on The CW beginning Jan. 14.
[*While AnnaSophia Robb is very good as Carrie, one of the classic moments at TCA came during the CW executive session when a reporter asked president Mark Pedowitz about his network’s tendency to hire only conventionally beautiful people, especially when one of the original appeals of Sarah Jessica Parker was her unconventional attractiveness coupled with confidence and fashion sense. “If you look at it,” said the reporter, “you know, I mean, we know what Carrie looked like in 1984, because we can see Square Pegs.” Mr. Pedowitz went the “we looked for the best actor” route as a response.]