“The Carrie Diaries” is officially a “Sex and the City” prequel, but it works a lot better as a TV show if you can forget that.
The CW’s new dramedy, premiering at 9 p.m. ET Monday (Jan. 14), follows the 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw (AnnaSophia Robb, “Soul Surfer”) in 1984 as she navigates high school and falls in love, both with the cutest boy at her school and with Manhattan. Through its first three episodes, “The Carrie Diaries” works quite well as a coming-of-age story, thanks in no small part to Robb’s winning performance and a pretty solid cast of young actors around her.
First-generation fans of “Sex and the City” might find some of Carrie’s biographical details out of whack. For starters, she lives with her loving, occasionally overprotective, recently widowed dad (TV veteran Matt Letscher, most recently of “Scandal”), whereas HBO Carrie had a father who abandoned her. (Author Candace Bushnell made that change herself in “The Carrie Diaries” novel, which forms the basis for the show.) She’s also younger than HBO Carrie, who moved to Manhattan at age 20 in 1986, and has a little sister, Dorrit (Stefania Owen, “Running Wilde”), who’s pretty much Carrie’s opposite.
This show, however, isn’t aimed at first-generation “SATC” fans. It’s squarely in The CW’s teen and young-adult wheelhouse with its stories of young love and the perils of growing up. In Monday’s pilot, Carrie’s dad gets her an internship at a Manhattan law firm, and pretty much the moment she sets foot in the city she’s spotted by Larissa (Freema Agyeman, “Doctor Who”), an editor at Interview magazine who simply must have Carrie’s purse — which belonged to her late mother and she salvaged after Dorrit splattered nail polish on it — for a photo shoot. Larissa whisks Carrie off for a night out with her fabulous friends, and it looks like the reality of New York is living up to her dreams of it.
At school, meanwhile, Carrie is falling hard for Sebastian (Austin Butler, “Life Unexpected”), a charming (and hot, naturally) new guy — new to everyone else, anyway. Carrie knows him from her swim club, which instantly makes everyone curious and/or jealous, most notably Carrie’s popular-girl nemesis, the wonderfully named Donna LaDonna (Chloe Bridges). She soon trains her sights on Sebastian, triggering a wave of insecurity from Carrie.
Refreshingly, though, Carrie doesn’t dance around her worries too much and actually asks Sebastian what’s going on, rather than endlessly analyzing it (a la adult Carrie). This version of the character still has a tendency to overthink and over-verbalize (and like “SATC,” “The Carrie Diaries” is narrated to within an inch of its life), but she seems more emotionally honest and forthright than the grown-up Carrie. It’s a nice touch by writer Amy B. Harris (an “SATC” veteran herself) to make her that way.
Carrie’s friends, too, aren’t just Samantha-Charlotte-Miranda stand-ins. Smart girl Mouse (Ellen Wong), adventurous Maggie (Katie Findlay, “The Killing”) and her boyfriend, Walt (Brendan Dooling), have their own personalities and their own problems, including Walt’s growing realization that he’s gay.
The show also gets its period details mostly right. The clothes, the cars and the music cues all pass the ’80s test (there’s a Talking Heads song in episode 2 that wasn’t released until the following year, but that’s a minor quibble).
“The Carrie Diaries” will probably get a good-sized tune-in from people wondering what a young Carrie Bradshaw looks like. If they can get past the “SATC” connection, they might see a show worth watching on its own merits.