After two weeks of fiscal-cliff stories followed by that truly awful BCS championship game (Q. How do you make Eggs a la Notre Dame? A. Put three eggs in a bowl too big for them and then whip them for three hours...), I understand why we’re longing for the golden days back when the worst thing we faced was the Maya prophecy of the end of the world. But Monday night’s television is a good lesson in the perils of nostalgia.
The CW’s The Carrie Diaries is like a real-life video version of that old story The Monkey’s Paw, in which a mother’s wish for the return of her dead son results in a shambling, mutilated corpse knocking at her door. In this case, the body is that of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, who comes back as a puerile teenage version of herself in a misbegotten 1980s-era prequel.
And the cops-courts-and-corpses documentary True Crime With Aphrodite Jones turns its sights on 2011’s Casey Anthony murder trial to recall a grotesquely ugly chapter in American jurisprudence — or, rather, the public’s reaction to it.
The Carrie Diaries is based on the book of the same name by Candace Bushnell, whose mid-1990s newspaper dating columns were the basis of Sex and the City. This show is an attempt to provide an origin story for Bushnell’s fictionalized alter ego, Carrie. It starts in 1984, three months after her mother’s death from cancer, an event that has left the 16-year-old (AnnaSophia Robb, Soul Surfer), her younger sister, Dorrit (Stefania Owen, Running Wilde), and their father emotionally whipped.
In the first of a continuous stream of preposterous premises, Carrie’s dad tries to cure her mopery by letting her skip her suburban high-school classes one day a week to work as an “intern” at a Wall Street law firm. At lunch, of course, she’s discovered by the beautiful people of Interview magazine, who ask her to help them shoplift and hang out on their boozy, ambisexual club nights, where they’re awed by her because — well, it’s not exactly clear. Mostly she sits around wide-eyed and says stuff like “I don’t know anyone who’s gay.” Perhaps they’re mistaking her callowness for irony.
Michael Patrick King, the major creative force behind the TV and movie versions of Sex and the City, opted not to come along on this ride. The Carrie Diaries is executive-produced instead by Josh Schwartz, who was adept at exploring teen and twentysomething triumphs and tragedies in The O.C., Chuck and Gossip Girls but has lately misfired. (His Hart of Dixie, about a hip young New York girl trapped among Alabama hicks, is one long misanthropic eye-roll.)
Schwartz appears to have drawn his inspiration less from Sex and the City than John Hughes’ epic teen comedies of the 1980s: Carrie’s antics in New York are a kind of chick version of Matthew Broderick’s madcap adventures in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But Schwartz can’t cut the umbilical cord — perhaps fallopian tube is a more apt metaphor — to his original source material, and that’s where The Carrie Diaries goes off the rails.
In Sex and the City, Carrie’s highly literary narration of the show made sense; she was, after all, a successful newspaper columnist. But hearing the same stuff from a 16-year-old girl is a case study in cognitive dissonance. Even more fatal is the raunch factor.
When Sex and the City ignited on the tube in 1998, a significant part of its appeal was its titillating depiction of women thinking and talking about sex just as intimately (OK, dirtily) as men. Even for pay cable, it was raunchy stuff. Hearing it from teenagers on The Carrie Diaries — one of Carrie’s pals chipperly compares the loss of her virginity to “putting a hot dog in a keyhole” — is unpleasant and unsettling.
Oddly, the show’s best moments come in its poignant portrayal of the family’s hapless attempts to mend the hole at its center. A scene of Carrie and Dorrit silently packing up their mother’s clothes as a dirge-tempo version of Girls Just Want To Have Fun plays on the soundtrack packs a .45-caliber emotional punch.
That same song might serve as the theme for Casey Anthony, the party-girl mom whose casual admission that she was out clubbing and getting tattoos for a month before reporting the disappearance of her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee, irretrievably poisoned public opinion against her.
When the little girl’s body was discovered a half-mile from home, practically nobody saw the need for a trial: A CBS News poll showed two-thirds of Americans thought Casey was guilty. When an Orlando jury stunned the nation by acquitting her after a two-month trial in 2011, outrage boiled over, most of all among the phalanx of lawyers hosting TV shows where they had ceaselessly assured viewers that a conviction was inevitable.
One of those hosts, Aphrodite Jones, has taken a second look at the evidence presented to the jury and come to a surprising (and courageous) decision: “The jury got it right.” In Monday’s episode of True Crime With Aphrodite Jones, she argues that while Casey Anthony probably did kill her daughter, the evidence fell well short of proving it beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutors, Jones says, were arrogant and lazy, especially after learning Casey would be represented by an inexperience attorney. Going for the death penalty — a decision bound to sensitize jurors — they charged her with premeditated murder.
But that was nearly impossible to prove. Caylee’s remains were so decomposed that medical examiners couldn’t even establish the cause of her death, much less the circumstances that led up to it. Prosecutors offered a great deal of evidence that Casey covered up her daughter’s death, but very little about how the death occurred.
And when the defense countered that Caylee died accidentally after being left alone in a swimming pool, and that Casey concealed it for fear she’d be found negligent, prosecutors merely scoffed rather than rebutting with facts. One of the most revealing bits of video in True Crime shows a member of the prosecution team stretched back in his chair, smirking, as defense attorney William Baez argues his case. More sober heads realized that Baez was scoring points. When the jury’s verdict came in, says retired Orlando judge O.H. Heaton Jr., “The judges in the state of Florida were not surprised at all.”
The most profoundly disturbing moments in True Crime come not during its crisp recounting of the courtroom testimony, but in video of the crowds who gathered outside daily calling for Casey’s blood. What kind of parents bring their toddlers to a trial to hold up signs reading “HOW COULD YOU KILL A BABY LIKE ME?” Casey Anthony was undoubtedly a terrible mother. But she’s got plenty of company.