With the second season of Girls premiering one day before The Carrie Diaries, it’s doubtful anyone is still comparing the dark, unredemptive, messy tone of Ms. Dunham’s creation to the chirpy, pun-obsessed world of Sex and the City. As Peter Stevenson, who edited “Sex and the City” at The Observer, told us, “Girls makes SATC look like Downton Abbey.” It was as much an iconic snapshot of New York in the ’90s as Bonfire of the Vanities and Wall Street were of the ’80s.
And that’s how we arrive at The Carrie Diaries. Stuck in its era and unable to move forward without drastically changing its protagonist’s lifestyle, the SATC franchise had to rewind. The show, based on Bushnell’s 2010 book, takes place before Bradshaw ever moved to the city and scavenges the picked-over bones of ’80s nostalgia to bring us the story of Carrie’s formative years.
The “origin story” idea doesn’t really work. The show so clumsily belabors its ’80s milieu that episodes have more pop-culture references than a VH1 flashback. (Space Invaders! Madonna! Interview magazine!) And woof, the early-Bradshaw metaphors: “It’s then that I had the realization that I had just lost my innocence, my virginity. And not to the guy I had hoped, but a different man. Manhattan.”
It’s not a bad show—its premiere showed promising chemistry, and AnnaSophia Robb does a serviceable pre-Sex-Bradshaw. But maybe actress Freema Agyeman, who spoke on the red carpet during the New York Television Festival, said it best: “The best part is the fun costumes!”
“I know some people think it’s a cynical move,” showrunner Amy B. Harris told The Observer by phone. “‘Oh it’s a franchise, you’re just trying to wring some more money out if it.’ But this is a time of my life I feel so strongly about, it was my life. My hope is that women will want to go back to their experience.”
Ms. Harris recognized the irony of The Carrie Diaries now competing with a show like Girls for an audience. “Lena told me Girls wouldn’t exist without SATC,” she said. “I’m totally prepared for the comparison, but I would be lying to say it wasn’t a concern. I hope people will stay with [The Carrie Diaries] because they feel like its their own.”
Ms. Bushnell herself might not be among them. “I really relate to Girls,” she told us. “I feel like it’s what my 20s were like.”
A common theme in The Carrie Diaries and Summer and the City (Ms. Bushnell’s sequel-to-the-prequel novel) as well as the author’s own self-narrative is the conviction that one could come to New York and make it as a famous writer. Not out of sheer willpower or hard work, but because of destiny.
“I do think there’s something in people’s DNA,” Ms. Bushnell pondered while we made some coffee and settled in. “The decision to leave your small town and leave your city, that’s a certain type of person.”
By way of explanation, Ms. Bushnell asked us to consider the lowly ant: most of them, she said, lived and worked in the colony. “But the colony would die if there weren’t ants that ventured outside their little box,” she said. “The human population would either die or be living in a dark age if some people—the right ones—didn’t move to big metropolitan areas and bring us all culture.”
This is not the story, of course, provided in the TV show The Carrie Diaries. If anything, that “certain type of person” that Ms. Bushnell described was Lena Dunham’s stubborn Hannah Horvath, who moves to Brooklyn from Michigan and founders in underemployment. Much like Ms. Bushnell, Hannah has minimally tried her hands in other types of work, but is convinced that her path is that of a writer. Specifically, one who only writes about her own life. She’s “a voice! Of a generation!”
Too bad Carrie Bradshaw has already claimed the title as the voice of every generation. About as far away from a banquette at Moomba as one can get, Ms. Bushnell acknowledged the grip her creation still holds on American culture. “Of course they’re saying Girls is like Sex and the City,” she said dryly. “It’s a TV show involving women.”