Time After Time: The Carrie Diaries’ Creative Complications

CarrieDiariesTitleThe Carrie Diaries: Season One (So Far)

March 18, 2013

CarrieDiariesTCAI hadn’t seen the premiere of The Carrie Diaries before I was in attendance for its panel at this Winter’s TCA Press Tour. It was during my final day at tour, which meant that I had sat through dozens of similar panels, and I had seen producers and stars who were disengaged with the proceedings. Admittedly, “doing press” is not always going to be particularly natural, and so I’m not necessarily judging those who didn’t acquit themselves in the best possible fashion. However, it makes people like The Carrie Diaries‘ Amy B. Harris all the more unique: someone who came to the event not just with something to say, but rather with something to contribute.

I have no relationship to Sex and the City beyond a few stray episodes: I was a bit too young when it premiered to be watching premium cable series on a regular basis, and it never rose to the top of a list of shows to catch up on. And so I approached The Carrie Diaries less as an extension of a franchise (although see Courtney Brannon Donoghue’s recent piece for more on that), and more simply as a coming-of-age story in the CW mould. However, Harris’ comments during that panel very much shaped how I approached the series: she seemed to anticipate the kinds of questions she would be asked, and had come prepared with answers that were confident without seeming infallible. It wasn’t the kind of panel that was laugh-out-loud funny, but rather a panel that instilled confidence in the creative vision of a show I hadn’t yet had the chance to watch.

I watched the first three episodes of The Carrie Diaries on the trip back from Los Angeles, and enjoyed them. I’ve watched the six episodes since then, and I’ve mostly enjoyed those as well. However, as I’ve been following along with Carrie Raisler’s great reviews over at The A.V. Club, I’ve also realized that I’ve yet to find that moment where I feel the show has become everything that panel made it out to be. There have been moments, and storylines, which have reaffirmed the confidence I had after leaving that panel; there have also been moments that have shown a show still finding its footing, still aspiring to something it hasn’t yet achieved.

And yet I’m not sure my confidence has waned, necessarily. Some of this has to do with the fact that I was at the TCA panel, and watched the show within that context, and may be more apt to focus on the parts of the show that speak to that potential. However, additionally, I’ve come to understand The Carrie Diaries‘ first season as less a cohesive statement of what the show wants to be, and more an uneven platform to explore the question of its identity before moving forward with a greater sense of itself, something I want to explore briefly as the season heads into its final four episodes of the season (or the series, should it sadly not be renewed).

The Carrie Diaries is in a difficult narrative position. As Harris has discussed, the decision was made to tell a year of Carrie’s life within the first season before the decision regarding the show’s episode order had been finalized. If they had been shooting eighteen episodes this season, or even fifteen episodes, it wouldn’t have extended the show’s narrative; rather, it simply would have given them more space to tell stories. Instead, the show has jumped from holiday to holiday, season to season, creating significant gaps in time and burning through a whole lot of narrative in the process.

It’s created a weird scenario in which the show is moving very quickly and very slowly at the same time. As Carrie Raisler points out writing about last week’s “The Great Unknown,” it seems like Carrie has too quickly transitioned back into her internship, only a week (in our time) after being banned from New York forever by her father; and yet, Carrie—the colleague, not the televisual teenager—also notes that Walt’s storyline has often seemed glacially slow, perhaps an accurate depiction of one’s gradual discovery of their sexuality but also one at odds with how fast other storylines on the show are moving. It hasn’t helped that Walt and Maggie have been occasionally alternating episodes, a budget constraints that has meant Maggie and Walt’s narratives have felt less like lives being lived and more like vignettes that could add up to something but often feel unsubstantial when placed within the fast-moving train of the school year.

It takes me back to a comment that Carrie—the colleague again—made about Walt’s storyline earlier in the season, suggesting that his sexual awakening was refreshingly non-linear. Walt doesn’t just go to the city and discover he’s gay, nor does he share his first kiss with another guy and suddenly come to terms with who he is. He is constantly brought back to a normative center, his journey sending him back to Maggie, and then to Donna. The latter development seemed farfetched at first, but it nicely reiterated that Walt isn’t ready to talk to his friends about who he is. Donna gives him someone with whom he can be honest, someone who can help him navigate something that doesn’t follow a linear path. It’s been the show’s strongest storyline, albeit with a few hiccups along the way (as I posted to The A.V. Club following the show’s fourth episode).

The problem, though, is that the main narrative thrust of the show is incredibly linear. While Carrie’s storyline suffered a similar setback with the brooding Sebastian replaced by the snorefest that was George, it’s all part of a very typical coming-of-age story that is being forced to move quickly by the compressed season. There’s no time to stop and explore a particular moment in Carrie’s life, as the narrative requires her to move from one major life event to another without the ability to tell a non-linear story. It isn’t helped by the show’s voiceover narration, a carryover from Sex and the City that often works too hard to put a button on particular story developments or tie together disparate storylines that aren’t ultimately cohesive enough to justify it.

And yet when I take a step back from all of this, it feels like a problem that could be solved in future seasons, or rather a particular creative choice that seems tied to a first season. In more ways than one, The Carrie Diaries functions as an origin story, both for fans of Sex and the City and for potential fans of the show being built on The CW. Like other origin stories, a lot of what has taken place in the show’s first season has been about getting various “firsts” out of the way, but this feels like a burden subsequent seasons could easily move past. Everything about this season has been the first time Carrie has done something without her mother (who died only months earlier), or the first time she went to Manhattan, or her first job as a writer, etc. That sense of “ticking off boxes” has been the season’s biggest problem, as it has made Carrie seem more like a construction than a human being. But if the show were to earn a second season, Carrie’s world opens up; her “first year” of her new life will be over, and the narrative freedom this offers could help the show reach its full potential.

On some level we always think of first seasons as experiments, although we’re always looking for evidence that it’s just a case of growing pains and not a fundamental failing. This gets especially dicey with shows like The Carrie Diaries which have short, but not too short, first seasons: it’s easy to give The Office or Parks and Recreation or Scandal a pass for weaker first seasons when they only have a handful of episodes, but thirteen episodes is standard for a cable drama and not uncommon among network dramas either. And yet the finite nature of the episode order—a back nine was never a possibility with the midseason start—does mean that this season was planned as a singular unit, as a long-form journey that would function as a platform for the show’s future. As much as the linearity of Carrie’s journey has clashed with the non-linear reality of some of its support characters, and as much as I have occasionally wanted to break into the editing bay and take out some of the voiceover, nothing has suggested that this isn’t the kind of show that could break out into something great if it’s given the chance.

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