Fans of the "Sex & the City" franchise won't find much they recognize in "The Carrie Diaries," the prequel that kicks off in 1984. It's pretty much just the name and curly hair of our heroine, Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb), her love of fashion, and her lifelong affair with the Big Apple.
And it's just as well. Comparisons to its R-rated parent wouldn't have served either show, and "The Carrie Diaries" is plenty likable on its own.
We meet Carrie, her Dickensianly named sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen), and her father Tom (Matt Letscher of "Brothers & Sisters") in the fall of 1984, just three months after the death of Carrie and Dorrit's mother from cancer. We also meet Carrie's friends Jill, a.k.a. "Mouse" (Ellen Wong), possessor of a super-cute bob haircut and a Mickey Mouse phone; Maggie (Katie Findlay, "The Killing"), who likes to drink and make out with cops; Walt (Brendan Dooling), Maggie's boyfriend, who's a little too intense on the subject of Rob Lowe's "Interview" cover; and their social nemeses, super-popular Donna LaDonna and "the Jens," her wingwomen. So, we suppose Mouse is the Charlotte, Maggie the Samantha, and Walt the Stanford Blatch. Or maybe Mouse is the Miranda? …This is why comparing the shows doesn't really work. Oh, and Carrie is the only one who hasn't lost her virginity yet.
Girl gone wild
Anyway, it's back-to-school time, and Carrie, being Carrie, is excited by the prospect of shopping for fall clothes. (Eighties fall clothes. Some of the fashion is pretty out there -- and we remember it, cringing, from when we wore it the first time around -- but mostly it's clothes that have come "back in" in the intervening years. We'll see how that develops as the show continues.) Dorrit is not excited by anything; she's Gothing out, throwing attitude, and shoplifting. She hides her haul in a giant stuffed bear; she's also hidden a contested handbag of Mom's in the bear, and when Carrie finally finds it, it has nailpolish all over it.
Naturally, Carrie saves the sitch by splashing other nailpolish colors on the bag, along with her name in script (in a nod to the nameplate necklace). Since her father is overwhelmed by the idea of clothes shopping with a teenage girl, Carrie's also given access to the previously-off-limits sanctum of her mother's closet to select a few items, though he won't let her take a green frock Mom wore on her last birthday. Armed with a sweet pair of vintage sunglasses, Carrie heads to school, only to have a Sandy-and-Danny moment when she spots Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler, reminiscent of a young Charlie Hunnam), a guy she hung out with over the summer and shared her first kiss with. He's transferred to her suburban-Connecticut school, of course, and when she's trying to ask him out, she spots her father in the school hallway… and faints.
Turns out Dad just wants to suggest an internship at a law firm in Manhattan one day a week; the script couches the opportunity as a form of grief counseling, but it's just an excuse to get Carrie 1) into the titular city and 2) over to Century 21, where she meets an "Interview" photo editor who loves what she's done with the handbag, wants to photograph it, gets Carrie to help her shoplift a hideous jumpsuit, and invites her to a bash at Indochine with lots of champers and men kissing each other. Carrie's head is spinning, and it's not just the headache the rest of us got looking at her pink polka-dotted bubble dress. She's skipped a school dance to party it up in the city, leaving Sebastian to fall into the clutches of Donna (and marijuana), and on top of that, Dorrit's run away from home. But, she says, she's "fallen in love with a different man: Manhattan," so we guess they're keeping the horrendous single entendres the original show flung about with such abandon.
When little sis creeps into the house, still drunk, the next morning, Carrie has a meltdown about having to co-parent Dorrit, wailing, "Do you think I like this?" Dorrit looks chastened, but it kicks off a somewhat strange montage in which Dad utterly fails to punish, or even speak to, Dorrit; Mouse, whose college-intern boyfriend is suddenly not calling her back, stares at her spirit board and cries; Walt stares guiltily at Rob Lowe's picture; and Dad decides to pack up Mom's closet. He offers Carrie the green birthday dress, and she takes it… and hands it to Dorrit.
A strong beginning
Pilots always have a lot of work to do, and "The Carrie Diaries" did a great job setting an iconic character apart from the grown-up version we're used to. It's not perfect -- we get the feeling the entire music budget got spent in the first episode, and the wink-wink fashion references, like glittery fanny packs, got old fast.
But Robb is charming as Carrie, and the casting agents did a fantastic job choosing actors who look like sisters. We also enjoyed the way "the Jens" winks at "Heathers," one of our favorite dark comedies about high school; Carrie putting on a scrunchie as she settles down to one of her mother's blank journals and begins to write ("S&TC" completists may recall Carrie getting into an argument with Jack Berger over whether New York women wear scrunchies); and Mouse's crass but on-point description of her first time as "like putting a hot dog in a keyhole." As the episode ended, Carrie and Sebastian splash-fighting at the swim club, then Carrie walking down a city street in a silvery dress and leopard cardigan, we wanted to see more.
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"The Carrie Diaries" airs Mondays at 8 PM on The CW.