(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
I tend to view The Carrie Diaries from a purist’s perspective—I was a fan of the original Sex And The City franchise, before it all fell apart catastrophically, in flames, covered in Manolo Blahniks and Jimmy Choos. I doubt I’ll be able to fully appreciate The Carrie Diaries on its own merits, as a result—I’m going to be comparing to the source material the whole time, and that does make a critic rather whiny. Plus, there is a continued sense that I know how this story ends—perhaps I won’t get every detail right, but I know what happens to Carrie, and in some ways, it makes watching her naive teenage version harder.
Carrie Bradshaw is a character fueled by self-delusion who ends up dedicating her life to attempting to tell the truth about herself. That central contradiction is what drives forward the story of Sex And The City—it provides tensions for the show to work through. She’s a work in progress—then and now. The way she learns how to deal with the world is through her romances with men—and, to be honest, her romances with her friends, too. Carrie is a hyperbolized soul, a girl and then a woman so entranced by the connections she creates with human beings that she follows them heart and soul to whatever end. It leads her to very happy friendships and also to bitter heartbreak. The Carrie Bradshaw in The Carrie Diaries is embarking on a life that will be primarily about exploring herself, and putting that story out in the world for everyone else.
For what it’s worth, I don’t really see that feverish self-exploration and then publication in The Carrie Diaries. Perhaps it’s that the show’s a little too nice. Carrie doesn’t do ecstasy in “Fright Night,” and she threatens to turn Dorrit in for smoking pot in tonight’s episode, “Endgame.” Seems a little straightedge for New York’s resident party girl. But in part, that is because Carrie, in both shows, is preoccupied with status so subversively that it rarely makes it past the show’s subtext. You see it in her impeccable fashion choices, her obsession with appearing put-together and at-ease, her loosely drawn perfectionism that extends to the city she chooses to live in, and the places she hangs out at. These are all extensions of her idealized self-image, and the anxieties of it dominate her character, especially in “Endgame.” From a distance, it looks okay, when Carrie is tying on a cute apron or attending a hot party, but Sex And The City, in particular, is about how much that image fails Carrie. She isn’t perfect, and life isn’t perfect, and she’s looking for something entirely undefined that may or may not exist.
“Endgame” is about how that image fails Carrie, too, but the issue of perfectionism is too central to the show to take on in just one episode. Add a subplot with Walt and Maggie and the overarching continued story of Carrie and Dorritt dealing with their mother’s death, and the episode gets too crowded. That being said, it’s nice to see the show taking on those same themes, and staying faithful to the character.
What I get frustrated by is The Carrie Diaries’ need to not just perform the plot but to also have Carrie narrate it to us, in the treacly, faux-philosophical way that made her older version so irritating at times. It’s more understandable that a teenager would talk to herself about her life in such a heavy-handed way. But I don’t buy that Carrie is truly learning any of the wise truths she’s dropping. Carrie Bradshaw doesn’t strike me as a character who was gaining important perspective on the world and talking about it to herself when she was 17 years old. This is digressive, but when I do think of young Carrie, I’m more apt to consider the irresponsible, emotionally intense experiments undertaken by the girls in Girls—that frustrating, delusional self-absorption is exactly what Carrie Bradshaw is made of. The main difference appears to be what kind of clothes their ideal selves want to wear.
Personally, I’d be happier with a protagonist who was a bit more freewheeling. Right now Carrie lives a very structured life, and tends to radiate a wisdom beyond her years that doesn’t give her much space to make mistakes. I love it when Carrie is brutally honest with herself and those around her—in this episode, her meltdown at the oven is written and acted really well—but I wish the show would embrace the flawed, messy Carrie, who wears ballet tutus and smokes cigarettes. That unplanned romanticism is I think what wormed Carrie Bradshaw into our hearts in the first place. AnnaSophia Robb is clearly talented enough to pull it off, too.
But I’ve enjoyed the bits and pieces of The Carrie Diaries I’ve seen so far. The cast is somewhat phenomenal, especially the teenagers. AnnaSophia Robb is almost eerily reminiscent of Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw, and Ellen Wong is dear to me since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Plus, the show has a capacity for subtlety that surprises me. Appearances were always paramount on Sex And The City; it’s no surprise that identity, as expressed through fashion and status, should come into play in The Carrie Diaries, too. Of course there’s Carrie’s monologue about her apron, but clothing comes into play much more subtly in Maggie and Walt’s storyline, where the couple (newly reunited) has Thanksgiving dinner with his snobbish parents. Mags goes all out, carefully styling her hair and wearing pearls and lace. Her occasional lover, Officer Byrnes, remarks that she looks like Nancy Reagan. Mags sticks her nose in the air a bit about it, but as soon as we see her at Walt’s family’s dinner table, it’s clear how uncomfortable she feels. Walt, meanwhile, is in a ridiculous green ski sweater, dutifully laughing when his parents require him to do so. They’re both playing roles, but neither is terribly comfortable.
So largely, my optimism for the show comes from seeing that The Carrie Diaries is tackling some of the same themes. After all, Carrie’s image-consciousness and perfectionism dominates “Endgame,” in which Carrie somehow tries to take on making the perfect Thanksgiving dinner with her new boyfriend George present. She does not succeed, of course. That plot is not really the point of the episode, though it takes up too much narrative space. Instead the strongest moment of the episode is in the third act, when Carrie and Dorrit finally manage to connect over their shared trauma at getting through Thanksgiving without their mother. While Carrie reacts by throwing herself into it, Dorrit reacts by trying to sabotage it. Two completely understandable teenage reactions to a fraught family holiday (I think I’ve done both, in my day). I’d be more able to enjoy it if the show didn’t keep telling me how significant everything is, and instead let the characters breathe a bit.
- Shaun Cassidy!
- I rather dislike George.
- Sebastian’s moment bonding with Carrie’s dad over hating the Cowboys is really lovely.
- “Man, it’s not bad, not having a wife!… I didn’t mean that.”
- “I want to be a people surgeon! Not a turkey surgeon!!”