January 17, 2013

When Sex & The City was big, I was in high school. If I’d been living in New York, the show may have left the same sour taste in my mouth that Girls does, with the mention of Sarah Jessica Parker. Instead, the show was exotic. The wilder girls watched it with their mothers, leading to (I imagined) frank discussions about sex and the consumption (gasp!) of white wine. High school was innocent; the show was not. Filthy, knowing and occasionally brilliant, it was something to aspire to.

The Carrie Diaries is not.

The premise of this half-baked prequel intrigued me: high school Carrie makes mischief in 1984 New York—the last days of decadence, when Brooklyn was but a whisper and cocaine was king. The version of The Carrie Diaries that I imagined—not knowing the source material, mind—was dirty and dangerous, with Carrie misbehaving, making mistakes, and washing up like hungover flotsam on the shores of every famous touchstone of 80′s nightlife. In the first episode, we get a glimpse at Indochine, but there is not a whiff of Bolivian marching powder in sight. This New York will never give Carrie a chance to make bad decisions. Oh well.

Hoping, meekly, for Sex & The City with none of the nudity but some of the wit, I got neither. I should have expected nothing better from the network that made the Green Arrow into yet another Revenge rip-off. The formula for this toothless prequel was to subtract the sex, divide the humor by ten and quintuple the narration. It makes the show even worse than it ought to be. You remember the voiceover from Sex & The City, don’t you? It was the worst part of a good show. Carrie stares out the window, a blank look on her face, and asks herself an inane rhetorical question:

“Does that sense of adventure still flicker inside of us, or when it comes to being carefree single girls, have we missed the boat?”

“Why do we let the one thing we don’t have affect all the things we do have? Why does one minus a plus one feel like it adds up to a zero?”

“What’s the harm in believing?”

When she’s not thinking, Carrie’s voiceover is dimwitted but harmless—limiting herself to backbreaking puns and the odd bit of exposition. This is apparently a bad habit remaining from her high school days. As The Carrie Diaries shows, young Carrie can’t let a moment pass without her telepathic idiot-brain screaming it out to the world. The first episode has more narration than dialogue, and it tells us nothing we can’t already see.

Partway through the pilot, she’s stumbling to ask out her crush—played by the ghost of James Spader—when she sees her father appear in the high school. She stares at Daddy, as confused as a dog in calculus, but to make sure we understand that she does not know why her father is here, she asks us, “Why was my father here?” Hold your horses, girl. Wait two seconds and we can all find out together.

Only once does Carrie rise to her future level, delivering a pun so bad that it should be tried for war crimes: “Maybe it was the realization that I might have just lost my innocence—my virginity. And not to the guy I had hoped, but to a different man—Manhattan.”

The bad narration is not the show’s main problem, but is symptomatic of brutally lazy writing, which has given us a Carrie as dopey as we remember, but with none of the energy. Again, I shouldn’t be surprised. But as Carrie herself might vacantly ask, I had to wonder: who in hell is this show for? If it isn’t targeted at fans of the original, why the winking nods to the woman Carrie will become? Or maybe it is targeted at those elderly souls, and serves as further evidence that people who once rejoiced in an adult comedy have, in their dotage, signed their leisure time over to young adult claptrap like The Hunger Games.

More likely, this is like the rest of the CW’s lineup: a scrubbed-clean, drama-free drama that, in a concession to an audience that can’t be bothered to look up from its iPhones, crams 22 minutes of content into a 44 minute show. It’s probably both—a kids show for kids who want to feel like kids, and for adults who can’t bother to act their age. Ten years ago, teenagers watched a TV show to make them feel adult. Now adults watch shows that make them feel thirteen.

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