My approach to reviewing “The Carrie Diaries” (7 p.m. Central Mondays on The CW) will be different from most since I’ve never seen a single episode of “Sex and the City.” Granted, these voiceover-laden early adventures of Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb), based on Candace Bushnell’s books, are not intended to dovetail perfectly with the established mythology (similar to “Smallville’s” relationship with prior “Superman” works), but most viewers will be thinking of Sarah Jessica Parker’s portrayal and seeing this as a prequel anyway.
To me, the most intriguing aspect is the 1984 setting. I love shows set in the past, when they are done well. I was disappointed when a “Gossip Girl” prequel starring Brittany Snow never materialized beyond a backdoor pilot. “The Carrie Diaries” captures the ’80s vibe better than that episode did, from Carrie’s funky fashion sense — she designs her own purse — to snippets of songs from the era (including “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” natch). There’s a fun scene where Carrie’s boss at her law-firm internship warns her that her dress reminds her of Madonna, and — while it’s intended as a criticism — Carrie is thrilled.
The pilot episode has a slight “Almost Famous” vibe in that Carrie is a high school junior but she is taken under the wing of Larissa, the Interview magazine fashion editor, who seems like a nice young woman who has cool bohemian friends (none of whom realize Carrie is only 16, perhaps because of her new mentor’s gift of a cool dress). The downside is that Larissa is a kleptomaniac — she steals dresses for the thrill, not the frugality, but I suspect it’s a sign of problems to come in future episodes.
On the high school front, things are decidedly cliched. Carrie’s best bud, affectionately called The Mouse but actually named Jill, loses her virginity over the summer but the guy won’t call her back. A couple in the group is falling apart — Maggie lost her virginity over the summer (yes, sex is a central theme of “Diaries,” although not to an obnoxious degree, thankfully) but not to Walt. He’s either gay or secretly in love with Carrie; hints are dropped in both directions. Sebastian (Austin Butler, best known to me as Jones on “Life Unexpected”) is the Jordan Catalano to Carrie’s Angela Chase. And Donna LaDonna is shaping up to be Carrie’s nemesis; she quickly gets her claws into Sebastian.
Telephones could end up being the most fun aspect of “The Carrie Diaries.” In one sidewalk scene, we see a guy with a giant cellphone, which — no matter how big it is — has gotta be apocryphal for a show set in 1984, right? Carrie’s younger sister, unfortunately named Dorrit, purposely takes the house phone off the hook so she can go out all night and then claim that she tried calling home. (There’s a bit of a “10 Things I Hate About You” vibe, too, as the Bradshaw girls are raised by a single dad, Tom; their mom died recently, and the handing down of her clothes allows the girls to stay connected with her while moving forward.)
Robb’s wide-eyed portrayal of Carrie as she experiences things for the first time — seeing the dreamy Sebastian, being swept up in New York City and the fashion industry — is what makes the pilot work. The first-episode heartache is given to Jill, but certainly “Diaries” will want to dump a lot more pain on its title character as it goes along. Generally, this is a pleasant hour that offers nothing original in terms of the story or themes but does stand out from the teen soap pack due to being set in the Eighties. The draw isn’t nearly as powerful to me as “American Dreams” (1960s) or “Swingtown” (1970s), because those were deeper shows. “The Carrie Diaries” is, however, significantly better than its current IMDB rating of 3.9; I’d say it’s about a 7.