Candace Bushnell Defends ‘The Carrie Diaries’
Battling disappointing ratings, the writer of Sex and the City wants you to give her CW prequel a chance. She talks to Ramin Setoodeh about all things Carrie Bradshaw, including how AnnaSophia Robb channels Sarah Jessica Parker and why there won’t be another movie.
When Carrie Bradshaw returned to TV in January, looking younger than ever before—she’s in high school now—The Carrie Diaries was expected to be a hit for the CW Network. Critics raved about the Sex and the City prequel set in 1984 with a 16-year-old heroine. Its star, AnnaSophia Robb, is appealing and the story lines are like the original HBO series filtered through John Hughes.
But with its first season almost over, The Carrie Diaries has been battling disappointing ratings—each episode draws an average of 1.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The show might not be renewed for a second season. Candace Bushnell, whose New York Observer column became the inspiration for Sex and the City, hopes that it is. “There’s so much that can happen,” says Bushnell, who conceived of The Carrie Diaries as a 2010 young-adult novel. Bushnell defends the series to Ramin Setoodeh and talks all things Carrie.
The Carrie Diaries is a good show. Not enough people know that.
You know what? It is a really good show! And interestingly, last weekend, I had a couple girlfriends over, and we were watching Sex and the City, and then we watched some Carrie Diaries. There are a lot of surprising similarities in terms of tone and the kinds of antics the characters get into. So I think they’re doing a good job.
Why aren’t the ratings better?
I don’t know. The reality is, Monday night is an incredibly difficult night on TV. We were up against The Bachelor, which had the highest ratings it’s had in years. Those kinds of reality shows are like a sporting event. People watch them live. But The Carrie Diaries has huge streaming numbers. I don’t know if they told you that.
I also think you need to give the show some time to find a following. It’s not the same as Sex and the City. It’s trying to do something different.
I have to tell you, TV is an incredibly difficult medium. The most challenging show to do is the hourlong dramedy. It’s a very tricky format. Other shows that kind of have that same format are maybe Deception, Scandal, Nashville, or Smash. Those shows have ratings issues as well.
Let’s talk about AnnaSophia Robb’s performance as Carrie.
I love AnnaSophia. She just holds the screen. She’s a very cool girl in person. I think that comes through. That’s something that’s key to Carrie. Carrie has to be cool. And it’s funny—I’m going to say this, and it’s going to come out the wrong way, and I’m going to sound like an idiot—there are so many different shadings of iconic female characters in her performance, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz or Nancy Drew.
I see a lot of Sarah Jessica Parker.
I do too. She channels Carrie from Sex and the City as well. Sometimes I’m just taken aback. Like, wow, that is in a sense a young Sarah Jessica Parker. I know we think of a young Sarah Jessica Parker as very different, because she was in Square Pegs. But if Sarah Jessica Parker had played a 16-year-old Carrie Bradshaw, I see the connection.
I wonder if it’s hard for Sarah Jessica Parker to see that.
The reality is, that’s showbiz. Sarah Jessica’s first part was somebody else’s part. She played Annie on Broadway. She understands how these things work.
And Carrie is still a virgin in high school.
The first time you have sex when you’re a girl, it seems to have some impact on you, and it colors the way you look at sex in the future. I was thinking about it. I thought Carrie Bradshaw deserved to have a really good first experience, in the sense that it should be something that she’s in control of. I want it to be absolutely a decision she makes. It’s not up to circumstances; it’s not up to being drunk at a party. I just thought she deserved better than that.
This week’s episode is mostly set in New York. Without giving away the end, can we talk about it?
I’m calling it our “lean in” episode. Carrie decides to spend her spring break working at Interview. There’s some discussion with Maggie. Maggie can’t imagine spending her free time working. Maggie just wants to be married and have kids and be a mom. Carrie wants to work. The fact that working at Interview is her passion causes conflict with her boyfriend Sebastian. I hate to use the word “message,” but I think we’re showing teen girls exactly the kind of messages that I love to get out there. When you’re young, it’s really great to pursue work and not put a boyfriend ahead of your future.
With the character of Walt, the show does a really good job of capturing what it’s like to be gay in the ’80s. There were no gay-straight alliances in high school back then or gay characters on reality TV. It was so much harder to come out.
It was a different world. It was very fraught. It certainly wasn’t as acceptable to be gay in the ’80s as it is now. If you were gay, there was a chance you could be rejected by your family and friends, and we get into the things in The Carrie Diaries, but Kelly the publicist doesn’t want us to give away any of Walt’s storyline.
OK, but I’m not! Will Carrie from The Carrie Diaries ever connect with Carrie from Sex and the City?
It would have to be on the air for 15 years for her to connect to Carrie. I don’t think it’s necessary for the two Carries to connect up. If you read a biography of Michael Jackson, we know where he ends up.
Hopefully Carrie doesn’t end up in the same place Michael Jackson did.
Absolutely. It’s still fascinating to find out how people became the person they end up being.
Do you think there’s going to be a third Sex and the City movie?
No. Look, Sarah Jessica Parker is 47. I think with the second movie, Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t be an ingenue anymore. But I think they were stuck doing what the audience wanted. Realistically, a middle-aged woman who was married without children would be much more focused on her career and less focused on this Mr. Big: “Does he love me?” ... “Does he still not love me?” I mean, I think it was coming to the end of what they could do with the character.
It wasn’t the best idea to make them leave New York.
If it were up to me, the second movie would have been Carrie Bradshaw decides to run for mayor and Samantha helps her. It would get into some real issues of what happens when you’re part of a relationship and the woman is ambitious. What does that do to her relationship with Mr. Big? To me, that would be interesting. But they were not going to go there.
Did you suggest that to them?
So she would have quit the column?
In real life, it doesn’t seem realistic to me that character would be writing that column for 15 years. It doesn’t make sense! To me. But people love the character, and I think they felt they were doing the movies for fans, and they just wanted to give fans what they wanted. Or what they thought the fans wanted.
Do you think she would have ended up with Big in real life?
[Long silence] I don’t know. In real life, I don’t think women end up with that character, and if they do, they usually get divorced after a year.
Because he wouldn’t commit to her?
He couldn’t commit. Here’s the thing. I think the character Carrie and Mr. Big, it became in the audiences’ mind a very romantic story.
What was it like when you first got to New York?
Well, I actually arrived in the very late ’70s. New York was rough. Muggings were common. If you drove a car into the city, your car would be broken into, and your radio would be stolen. There were a lot of homeless people. There was a lot of music in the streets. People would carry boom boxes around—at some point they had to ban boom boxes from the subway. There was a sign, “boom boxes,” and a red slash. It was a crazy time. Young people were coming to the city to pursue artistic and creative lives. There were a lot of young fashion designers who were making clothes out of their tiny apartments, and all of those worlds were kind of exploding—the literary world, the fashion world, the art world. And the music world with Madonna.
When did you start writing?
I started writing about New York as soon as I arrived. I was 19. I used to write short stories and send them out. I wrote a children’s book. I wrote for—oh God—the tiny little papers: Knight magazine, a newspaper called New Jewish Times, the SoHo Weekly News. There was a real sort of entrepreneurial air to New York, because nobody had any money. People really didn’t have anything to lose. They were starting newspapers and starting little fashion labels. I don’t know if you ever watched that movie After Hours with Griffin Dunne. It was very much like that, a lot of parties in secret spaces. It was just the city was sort of bursting at the seams with creativity.
Then you had your column at The New York Observer. How did you start writing about sex?
It really wasn’t about sex. It was called “Sex and the City.” I think it was more about sexual mores, mating and dating rituals in the city, cultural anthropology.
Why do you think Sex and the City became such a cultural phenomenon?
It tapped into this idea of single women in their 30s. In the 1990s there was an explosion of single women. These were women who had come to the city in the 1980s, as part of “the working girl.” The ’80s was all about this idea that women could have it all. You could have a career, and you could have a husband, and you could have children. Then all of a sudden, you had the 1990s, you had all these women in their 30s who had the careers but had not managed to find a husband, and they were single. And there really was no model for how to live your life and even what this life was. It was a lifestyle where women were very reliant on girlfriends, and it was this idea that when you come to the city, you make a new family. That’s what Sex and the City was really about. And now, as time goes on, the idea of women delaying marriage, having careers, has become in a sense mainstream. So for young women, it’s a passage in their life that they relate to.