Review: CW’s ‘The Carrie Diaries’ takes ‘Sex and the City’ back to the ’80s

Carrie Bradshaw walks down a Manhattan sidewalk in slow-motion. It’s a gorgeous day, her curls bounce with each high-heeled stride, and she is mistress of all she surveys.

A familiar scene, no? Only this is the 15-year-old Carrie in the mid-’80s, not the thirtysomething one in the late ’90s; the glorious moment is ruined not by the splash of a bus hitting a puddle, but by the realization that it was all a daydream; and the show isn’t HBO’s “Sex and the City,” but the CW’s “The Carrie Diaries.”

Same character, different network. Same city, but no sex yet.

“The Carrie Diaries” (it debuts tonight at 8 on the CW) is based on a pair of young adult novels by “Sex and the City” author Candace Bushnell, adapted by writer Amy B. Harris (who was a writer in the HBO show’s later years) and producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage. And the adaptation pulls off a neat trick: it evokes the Sarah Jessica Parker version of Carrie just enough to feel rewarding to fans of the first series, while still standing enough on its own that it should appeal to CW viewers who were little girls – or not even born – when “Sex and the City” debuted back in 1998.

The template seems less Michael Patrick King (there are, blessedly, no puns in the pilot, though a few creep into the second episode) than John Hughes, that master of teenage heartbreak and hilarity,  whose “Sixteen Candles” was released in 1984, the same year in which “The Carrie Diaries” begins. Carrie, played appealingly by AnnaSophia Robb, lives with her father Tom (Matt Letscher) and younger sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen), all three of them grieving in different ways the recent loss of Carrie and Dorrit’s mother to cancer.

Carrie has a pack of best friends with whom she gossips at the lunch table, and a bad boy love interest (played by Austin Butler, whose stints on “Switched at Birth” and “Life Unexpected” always suggested he had time-traveled forward from a Hughes film) who I wouldn’t be surprised to see turn out to be a teenage version of Mr. Big, and someone Carrie will date off and on for the life of the series.

But despite the parallels to the “Sex and the City” Carrie’s life – plus other Easter eggs like an explanation for why Carrie never wears stockings as an adult – this could in many ways function as an unrelated series about a protagonist who shares the same name (and fashion sense) as the one from pay cable. Already, by giving Carrie a family – when in the HBO show, she had no need for any but the one she created with her friends – it’s a radical departure from what we know(*), but the changes go well beyond that. The tone is warmer and the emotions more naked – even if Carrie herself hasn’t yet had sex, in the city or the suburbs.

(*) And one that may require some finessing down the line, if “Carrie Diaries” has a long run, to explain why the adult Carrie seemingly has no contact with the father and sister she cares so much about as a teen.

The series splits time between the two locales, as Carrie’s dad gets her an internship at a lower Manhattan law firm to help take her mind off of her mother’s death. The job’s a snooze, but it gives her entree to a bigger, bolder, more adult world, particularly after she’s mistaken for an adult by magazine editor Larissa (Freema Agyeman from “Doctor Who”), who invites her to party at all the hottest nightclubs of the era. (At one, she’s surprised to see two men kissing, saying she doesn’t have any gay friends; they politely tell her she almost certainly does, even if the friend doesn’t know it yet.)

In the pilot, it’s the scenes back in Connecticut that are more compelling, particularly in the rapport between Robb and Letscher. But New York is where the character is heading, and hopefully “The Carrie Diaries” can keep pointing towards that future without feeling beholden to the legacy of “Sex and the City.”

When the second “Sex and the City” movie came out, I realized that the films had so poisoned those characters and that world for me that I couldn’t stand to watch reruns of the show anymore, even though I had enjoyed it more often than not during its original run. “The Carrie Diaries” is the first time in almost three years, then, that I’ve had a warm thought for Carrie Bradshaw – not because it gave me flashbacks to that time that Sarah Jessica Parker quoted “The Way We Were,” but because the new series succeeds on its own nostalgic terms.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at