Based on the book series by Sex and the City scribe Candace Bushnell, The Carrie Diaries feels less like a prequel and more like a mediocre parody of ’80s teen dramedies. Set in 1984, future chain-smoking sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb) is a teenager living in suburban Connecticut and coping with the death her mother three months earlier. Her love interest, Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler), is part Blane McDonough from Pretty in Pink and part Jake Ryan from Sixteen Candles, and her best friends are a nerd (Ellen Wong) reeling from first love, a sexually precocious troublemaker (Katie Findlay), and a gay boy (Brendan Dooling) who’s yet to come to terms with his sexuality.
Fashion, which always functioned like a fifth lead character on HBO’s adaptation of Bushnell’s column turned book, feels like a distraction here. Instead of authentically replicating the style of the era, costume designer Eric Daman delivers an odd wardrobe of pieces that look like if they’re straight from the aisles of modern mega-retailers like Forever 21 and TopShop. DayGlo colors and tutus do not the ’80s make, and these anachronisms only add to an overall sense that she show’s creators seem undecided on exactly what tone they want to strike: an edgy, modern teen drama or a nostalgia trip for fans already familiar with Bushnell’s heroine.
The humor is lukewarm, the drama can be comically over the top, and while Robb is charming, if a bit conventional, in the lead, she’s incapable of overcoming the bland plotlines. Mostly Carrie is seen jumping from crisis to crisis, from fighting with her rebellious drug-dealing little sister to having an Afterschool Special heart to heart with her father about Mom’s death, accompanied by an indie-rock cover of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Her budding romance with Sebastian is compromised by an internship at a law firm in New York and her highly unlikely initiation into the glamorous fashion world thanks to her mentor, magazine editor Larissa Loughton (Freema Agyeman). On her first day in New York, Carrie is invited to dance the night away at Indochine and write for Interview magazine in the space of a few minutes.
It’s a lot for a small-town girl to juggle—hell, it’s a lot for a half-hour series to juggle, but Carrie doesn’t break a sweat. She ties up all her loose ends too quickly and too cleanly, so that it never feels like anything is really at stake—not her job, not her friendships, not her relationship. And save for numerous mentions of how much she loves to write, plus the wig-like mass of blond curls on her head, it’s hard to see how this totally together version of Carrie would ever grow up to become the frazzled version of the character from Sex and the City. While it’s not surprising that The Carrie Diaries is unlikely to appeal to fans of the HBO franchise, it’s still disappointing that much of what made that series work has given way to cliché and oversimplification.