Matilda Dixon-Smith on “The Carrie Diaries”: Before the Sex…and the City

Posted on February 11, 2013

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How much more can we milk this Single New York Gal thing? After Candace Bushnell’s column in the New York Observer was turned into a book, it was turned into a successful HBO TV series and then into two lucrative films. And now, here comes another: the prequel to that Sex and the City phenomenon , The Carrie Diaries.  TCD, a young adult novel about young Carrie Bradshaw, an innocent Connecticut teen desperate to pop her big city cherry in New York, is now a teen soap. The series is being produced by Josh Schwartz’s sudsy production company, Fake Empire (The O.C.Gossip Girl), for The CW (Fox8 in Australia).

To be honest, it’s a match made in heaven. Bushnell (and Michael Patrick King and co. at HBO) introduced us to that version of femininity that is swinging a Dior clutch and clomping down Fifth Avenue in $485 heels. Schwartz and his posse brought us “XOXO, Gossip Girl” and “Welcome to The O.C., bitch.” It’s two generations of pop culture idolatry melding together.

That totally unnecessary question: are you a Charlotte, a Carrie, a Samantha or a Miranda?

TCD’s fifth episode will air in the US this week, and though the ratings are decent, there is still pretentious contention. It seems like no one wants to see what Carrie was like before she fell in love with New York; the world is desperate to preserve the Altar of Bradshaw. As I watched TCD, I got to thinking about the original series and its intense popularity. True, at the time SATC premiered I was much too young to understand why a series about funny-tasting sperm and your boyfriend’s skid marks was so popular, but I have since grown up in a world where disliking SATC is considered sacrilege. So I watched a little bit of TCD, and a lot of SATC, and I couldn’t help but wonder, why should we care about Sex and the City before the sex and the city?

Here’s the situation: Baby Carrie Bradshaw (Annasophia Robb) is sixteen years old and living in Who Cares, Connecticut. Get ready for it, folks, Baby Carrie’s mother is dead (The CW loves its orphans and semi-orphans), which means her hopeless father and her grumpy little faux-Goth sister Dorritt are going through some rough times at home. So Baby Carrie gallivants around with her three best friends: Mouse (Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), a Brunette Baby Samantha (read: slutty friend), and Closeted Gay Walt. Because this isn’t just an SATC prequel, but also a show for teenage girls, there is a cute boy: Sebastian Kidd. This part is fun, because Austin Butler (who plays Sebastian) is stunning to look at; and he and Carrie exchange precious looks around the school halls, and saliva at the local swimming pool.

So there’s the “sex”, or the teenage version of the “sex”; but what of the “city”? Carrie’s father gets her an internship at a law firm in New York City. Carrie is excited about this, because she loves New York City. On Carrie’s first day, she bumps into a gabby British magazine editor, Larissa. Because Larissa is stupid, she thinks Carrie is an actual grown up; and so she drags her around New York, invites her to grungy loft parties and vagina-themed gallery openings, and feeds her drugs.

Annasophia Robb’s Carrie Brashaw strut in “The Carrie Diaries”.

At the moment the series is setting itself up as a coming-of-age thing, where Carrie struggles to balance her comfortable life in comfortable Connecticut with her undeniable attraction to fabulous New York. The series has a lot of little winks at its predecessor: Carrie still narrates her life with “witty” word play and Annasophia Robb can do a convincing Sarah Jessica Parker strut through the streets of NYC. The show is advertising to SATC devotees: “you’re watching Carrie Bradshaw become Carrie Bradshaw.”

Except, that’s not really what TCD is, and I’m not convinced that’s what it should be. SATC devotees are now in their 20s, 30s and 40s. They don’t want to watch a show on The CW. And isn’t Original Recipe Carrie Bradshaw enough? Love her or hate her, Sarah Jessica Parker is one of a kind, and her Carrie was an inimitable, infectious performance. She was charming (though sometimes frustrating), excitable and sentimental. Parker had an odd, unconventional beauty; there’s no doubt that she was a commanding screen presence for her six-season run.

As Baby Carrie, Annasophia Robb has hints of that commanding presence. She is certainly a proficient actor, and it’s clear she has studied Parker enough to get Original Recipe Carrie’s little ticks into TCD. But Baby Carrie the character is dull as dishwater, so Robb’s talents feel a touch squandered. The show is so concerned with connecting to the SATC audience, it’s forgetting to be an enjoyable series in its own right. Which is a shame, because it’s practically a revelation in the American teen soap world. I enjoyed the sleazy brat culture of shows like Gossip Girl and 90210, because they were indulgent and silly, but that’s not what teenage life is. And as a result of the popularity of those shows, a series like TCD or Degrassi reads as juvenile when it tackles the reality of adolescence.

Robb and Austin Butler (as Sebastian), showing off their undeniable chemistry.

Most of  TCD is about that confusing and terrifying time when you change from child to adult. It’s those bits—where Carrie is crushing on Sebastian, or poor Walt is jerking it to pictures of Rob Lowe, or when Dorritt feels left out or unwanted—that are lovely and different. Then, Larissa swirls in with a tube of ecstasy pills and a fashionable zebra, and the show becomes a farce. I’ve seen enough of 25 year-olds pretending to be 15 year-olds who dress like hookers and never get carded, or Pretty Little Liars who date good-looking pedophiles and solve murder mysteries. If you took the New York nonsense out of TCD, it would be less glamorous (and we wouldn’t get to see any porn stars “reclaim their vaginas”) but it would be a much more interesting series.

For the most part, I think that Josh Schwartz produces bold television: The O.C. was a teen soap, but it was sharp as nails and witty as hell; Chuck was a proud, quirky nerd explosion; and Hart Of Dixie is unabashed romantic comedy brilliance. These shows are great because they’re okay with being what they are. I think The Carrie Diaries is using Sex and the City to mask what the creators really wanted to make: a dorky, wholesome teen drama where everything is everything because, when you’re a teenager, that’s how life is.

Sex and the City may have been pretentious—and, at times, a problematic representation of femininity—but it was a bold, refreshing and warm series. What The Carrie Diaries should be borrowing is the attitude, not the concept.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor in chief. Her weekly column, Fantasise or Perish, where television is everything and Carrie Bradshaw is a real person, is released on Mondays. 

Readers, make a judgement about The Carrie Diaries. Should it sashay away, or can it stay? To the comments!

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