The early months of 2013 are bringing with them a number of new series – some of extreme high quality, others less so – that may prove engaging but aren’t exactly feel-good or lightweight escapist fare. These include Fox’s “The Following,” NBC’s “Do No Harm,” ABC’s “Red Winter” and “Zero Hour,” The CW’s “Cult,” CBS’ “Golden Boy” and many more on cable, from Showtime’s “Ray Donovan” to A&E’s “Bates Motel.”
Fortunately, there's one new series that seeks only to entertain, and while it is at times quietly dramatic, it’s so youthful and hopeful and by design nostalgic that it practically shines as a beacon in the increasing darkness of the television landscape. It’s also one of the most interesting new broadcast series to come along in months and, arguably, one of the best, for whatever that’s worth in this largely unremarkable season. I’m talking about “The Carrie Diaries,” the new comedy-drama on The CW that is engrossing and thought-provoking in so many different ways because it functions on so many different levels.
A side note: Over the holidays I came upon the unerringly insightful 1982 comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” on The Movie Channel and couldn’t help but wonder why no network lately has taken a shot at a series about teenagers in the’80s, when kids were still free to be kids and were not perpetually encumbered by the demands and complexities of digital media. Then I remembered the pilot for “The Carrie Diaries,” which is set in 1984, and realized that while it is primarily the run-up to HBO’s modern classic “Sex and the City,” it also has the potential to be a broadly appealing, nostalgic comedy the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while.
Based on the young-adult novel series by Candace Bushnell, “The Carrie Diaries” can’t be considered a true prequel to “Sex and the City,” which was also adapted from a Bushnell book (actually a collection of columns she wrote for The New York Observer), because it alters some basic facts about future columnist Carrie Bradshaw’s youth that we had learned in her adulthood. On “Sex,” for example, Carrie’s issues with men had a lot to do with the fact that her father had left the family when she was young. On “Carrie,” as in Bushnell’s book, it’s the death of her mother that forces her to grow up fast and compromises her emotional maturity. But why quibble? “Carrie” is a loving look at the tumultuous teen years of the iconic heroine of “Sex” -- who fully loved her friends, her city and her shoe collection but could never fully commit to a real relationship (until “Sex” ended its run on HBO and became a problematic movie franchise).
Over time, it is the intent of Bushnell and the other executive producers of “Carrie” to illustrate what made her the fascinating woman she ultimately became in “Sex.” They struck gold in the casting of AnnaSophia Robb, a spirited young actress who absolutely could be a young version of the Sarah Jessica Parker who portrayed Carrie in “Sex” (as opposed to the Sarah Jessica Parker who played Patty in the short-lived but unforgettable ‘80s sitcom “Square Pegs”).
There was something very relatable about the adult Carrie and her friends in “Sex” – not to mention the flawed men who came and went through their lives – even though they all seemed to live fantasy lives of leisurely lunches, long walks on sunny city sidewalks, beautiful clothing no ordinary person could ever afford, easy entry to VIP parties and the continuous consumption of cocktails without weight gain, financial strain or serious inebriation. Similarly, the life of the young Carrie in “Carrie” is way beyond the norm, particularly the ease with which, at the tender age of 16 and in the pre-digital world, she slides back and forth between the daily challenges of high school in Connecticut and the fast-lane lifestyle she simultaneously enjoys in Manhattan, where her dad arranges an internship for her at a law firm. Carrie loves New York from the start, but it’s the city people she meets when she’s young and vulnerable who seal the deal.
The young cast in “Carrie” is uniformly appealing, and each and every one of their characters is rich with the possibility of profound personal growth, much more so than the toxic teens of the recently expired “Gossip Girl.”
My only complaint with the series so far is a sequence in the third episode when the 16-year-old Carrie attends a performance art party in the city and is encouraged by dozens of adults to expose her vagina to the room. (Happily, Carrie declines.) New York City was pretty wild in the’80s, but I’m pretty sure that the exploitation of minors was frowned upon then as now, if not grounds to land all those adults in jail. Regardless, it’s an icky scene in a dreadful subplot that adds nothing to the series or our appreciation of its characters. I hope the show’s writers and executive producers will take better care moving forward, because “The Carrie Diaries” could become every bit the treasure that “Sex and the City” turned out to be.