“Before there was sex, before there was the city, there was just me: Carrie, Carrie Bradshaw, from Castlebury, Connecticut…”
Once upon a time, in the harrowed television landscape of 2013—a time when network television was just starting their struggle to compete with the original content launching to streaming services—I fell in love with a short-lived and ultimately long forgotten teen drama on The CW called The Carrie Diaries, a Sex and the City prequel series following Carrie Bradshaw’s teen years based on a book series of the same name by the column’s original author, Candace Bushnell. I was fifteen at the time and had never seen a single episode of Sex and the City (and thank goodness), but my enthusiasm and budding passion for popular culture had already taught me about the acclaimed and beloved HBO series that became an early third-wave feminist classic. So, naturally, when I heard that The CW was debuting a teen drama all about Carrie Bradshaw, portrayed by the endearingly versatile AnnaSophia Robb, I was very much on board.
I almost instantly fell in love with teenage Carrie and her group of childhood friends in the year 1984, a cast of characters who felt loveable and compelling: “Mouse” (Ellen Wong); a self-described brainiac whose entire future rested on getting into Harvard, Maggie (Katie Findlay); a feisty but insecure teen who dreams of somehow escaping their small town, and Walt (Brendan Dooling); Maggie’s boyfriend of two years who is secretly gay. And we can’t forget the charming and heartachingly gorgeous Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler), the new bad boy at school and Carrie’s main love interest. There’s also Carrie’s younger sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen); who’s entering a rebellious stage, their father Tom (Matt Letscher); still reeling from the death of their mother and his wife a year before the series begins, and Donna LaDonna (Chloe Bridges), the popular it-girl at school the longtime frenemy of Carrie’s friend group. And last but not least, Freema Agyeman made her U.S. television debut as the fabulous Larissa Loughlin, a style editor at Interview magazine in New York City who eventually recruits Carrie as an intern.
The Carrie Diaries became much more compelling to me in its second season as the characters deal with both intensely relatable and even life-threatening situations. I was absolutely devastated when it was cancelled due to low ratings in the spring of 2014, as it had quickly become my favorite show on TV. I waited for years for a potential DVD release to no avail, and despite the fact that it has since been available to stream on several platforms in the United States, it has yet to appear on any in Canada. Thus, after nearly a year of being stuck at home and finding renewed comfort in rewatching old favorites, I took to browsing the dark corners of the Internet to finally locate a way to rewatch all 26 episodes of The Carrie Diaries. (No, I will not be sharing any further details at this time.)
Many things struck me watching the series again for a second time with fresh eyes seven years later: the most blaring being, unfortunately, that I’m not surprised it was cancelled when it was. As much as I enjoyed the characters, their actors, and their character development when I was fifteen and sixteen years old—in retrospect—nothing about the series really screams longevity in the grand scheme of things. That’s not to say the writers didn’t know what they were doing, since almost all of them worked on Sex and the City at one time or another, with Bushnell serving as an executive producer. However, I do believe that given the right circumstances and perhaps the right distributor to have faith in its creative direction, a teen drama set in the mid-‘80s as a group of loveable friends start finding their footing in the big city sounds like something that would succeed on present-day Netflix. But rewatching The Carrie Diaries was nevertheless a fulfilling experience since it allowed me to have some perspective on why it resonated so strongly with me seven and eight years ago.
Of course, Carrie’s initial storyline of falling in love with the Big Apple and all of its promises of successful adulthood struck a chord with me, an introverted misfit who never felt like he belonged among the suburban dreams of his friends, as well as the ‘80s setting—since, in a world where I felt rejected by the interests of my own generation and age group, I spent several years listening to only ‘80s pop divas and the disco CDs my mom kept in the car. But I’ve realized now that the reason The Carrie Diaries meant so much to me was because it was the first representation of a gay character that I’d seen that actually felt like me. Carrie’s friend Walt Reynolds felt exactly like me: from his cardigans, to the way he parted his hair, to the raging insecurities and anxieties that existed just beneath the surface, he was me.
Some might say that I should be thankful to have grown up in an era where heteronormativity is slowly but surely being challenged as the default setting for teenagers, but part of me still feels like I grew up in the aftermath of Walt’s era, where even the slightest mention of being gay would mean catastrophic and unexplainable results. (It didn’t help that, of course, I had been bullied and called gay before I could figure it out for most of my life.) This was also part of the reason I related so strongly to Walt: the way he was discovering his own identity felt exactly on the same timeline as mine, and when he begins dating Interview writer Bennet Wilcox (Jake Robinson) at the beginning of season two, it made me feel—for the first time—that a first relationship like theirs would one day happen for me, too. Ultimately, Walt and Bennet’s storyline in the second season takes a backseat to the hopelessly repetitive and exhausting to-and-fro that Carrie and Sebastian insist on playing, and it’s this inconsistent writing that is most obvious upon rewatching.
I suppose I also projected myself onto Walt because I wished I’d had friends like his who would have been there to hug and support me if I’d decided to slowly peak my head out of the closet in high school. I ultimately kept the closet door shut because my own friend group at the time proved to be relentlessly untrustworthy, and despite the fact that they proved this to me over and over, the compulsion to not appear friendless in high school knows no bounds. As Walt begins pursuing a romantic relationship with Bennet in New York, the audience can’t help but hold their breaths—as he is not out back home in Castlebury, and this is of course the mid-‘80s, when rampant ignorance (let alone a certain disease that shall not be named) was still running wild. We’re also distracted by Maggie’s storyline coming to a climax, when Sebastian takes the blame for an ectopic pregnancy caused by Simon (Josh Salatin), her former casual sex partner and a cop employed by Maggie’s father.
In the eighth episode of the second season and the last before Christmas, “The Second Time Around,” Walt’s parents have discovered his “deviant lifestyle” through a newspaper photo of him and Bennet at an event in the city. Disowned and kicked out, he arrives on Carrie’s doorstep. (It was this scene that was used as a promo for the episode accompanied by Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain,” which still lives on in my memory.) Carrie and her father agree to let him stay with them, and while Tom does want to support Carrie’s friend during a difficult time, he’s apprehensive and slightly uncomfortable since he claims to have never even met a gay person before.
Carrie insists that Tom put aside his own feelings in order to help him, and after an evening spent alone with Walt watching taped episodes of his new favorite show The Golden Girls—since he’s too scared to leave the house—Walt remarks that this one evening was closer than he’s ever been with his own father, and bursts into tears. Tom tells him that while he does not know much about being gay, he knows that it was wrong of his parents to disown him and that their unacceptance is their problem, not his. “You’re not doing anything wrong. You’re not a bad person,” he says. “You just don’t like girls.” Later, Tom commands him, through coded language, to borrow their car to drive into the city to spend Christmas with Bennet. (These interactions are also reminiscent of an earlier episode when Sebastian tells Walt he would never judge or treat him differently for being gay.) The eighth episode also sees Maggie’s father shamelessly put aside his disgust for premarital sex and still side with his daughter, firing Simon and telling him to never show his face again.
I rewatched “The Second Time Around” with the same cramp in my stomach and flutter in my chest that was present the first time around—on the last day of school before Christmas break in tenth grade, a friend in a group that I hadn’t been a part of for very long invited us all over to her house for a party. It was in big gatherings like these that people who I never considered friends forced everyone to play juvenile games like Truth or Dare, but having grown tired of the novelty of that arrangement, this time they insisted on a new game called Hot Seat, in which they are free to ask you anything they want and you are obliged to answer.
My playful questions like “what’s your favorite color?” were not what they had in mind and everyone saw an opportunity to force me out from behind my jokes. I was asked horrible questions about what parts of a woman I find most attractive and others that I have successfully blocked from memory. I felt nauseous for the rest of the evening and dodged questions about how the party was on the ride home. Later, I watched that evening’s new episode of The Carrie Diaries in a ball on the couch, tears streaming down the pillow, wondering if the embarrassment I felt meant I had to stop hiding, ignoring the fact that I was nowhere near ready to stop hiding.
Later episodes of season two find Walt increasingly uncomfortable with the explicit nature of some gay bars, pondering if he’s even the same kind of gay as those people. “You’ve had sex with a man,” Bennet tells him. “That makes you just as gay as anyone here.” When Bennet is informed that an ex-boyfriend has tested positive for the AIDS virus, Walt suffers a nervous breakdown at the thought that being gay means getting sick and dying just as his life is just beginning. He thinks the only way to avoid it is by breaking up with Bennet and asking his parents to come home. Carrie soon convinces him that he can’t hide from who he is any longer, and Walt confronts his parents over their disapproval of his sexuality. In a turn of events, his father pledges his support, and he and Bennet eventually reunite.
The concept of gay teenagers conflating AIDS and dying with being gay in the ‘80s is an incredibly complex topic, one that few fictions have accomplished well (We Are Lost and Found by Helene Dunbar being one of them), so despite the fact that The CW only allowed it to be seen for all of five minutes on The Carrie Diaries in 2014, its importance was immeasurable at the time for teenagers like me. As I said, I do think a funky teen drama set in the ‘80s would potentially do much better on a platform like Netflix in the year 2021 (especially Lindsey Gort’s incredibly underrated portrayal of young Samantha Jones), but I’m still thankful for the short time it existed in my life seven years ago. And even as I’ve grown out of most of the characters and their ambitions, I will still argue that it deserved better until the day I die.