01/15/2013 02:32 am ET Updated Mar 16, 2013

'The Carrie Diaries' Series Premiere Recap: Life Before Cosmos

Spoiler Alert: Do not read on if you have not yet seen the pilot episode of The CW's "The Carrie Diaries."

There's a blonde, curly-haired girl running around Manhattan in mixed prints and heels -- but it's not Sarah Jessica Parker. And I think I'm okay with that.

As an obsessed "Sex and the City" fan who dispenses mostly-unsolicited relationship advice that's strikingly similar to the HBO series' episode guide, I reacted to the prequel novel and subsequent TV spin-off show with contempt. I still watch "Sex and the City" episodes on TBS and E! on a near-daily basis, and part of me really believes that I will pass by a diner and see Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha chatting over eggs.

Thus, I expected to watch CW's "The Carrie Diaries" and mourn what had become of my beloved show. But I found myself pleasantly surprised in more than a few ways.

Prior to its premiere, the Internet was abuzz with inconsistencies between the HBO and CW series. As Vulture's Patti Grego pointed out, any ardent "Sex and the City" fan can recall season 4, episode 17 titled "A Vogue Idea," in which Carrie tells editor Julian that her dad "quit" on her and her mom when she was young.

But in "The Carrie Diaries," Bradshaw's mother died while she was in high school. Not only is her father a central character in her life, but a loving and devoted paternal figure to boot. While the inclusion of a father is inconsistent with the HBO series, it's true to Bushnell's prequel novel.

The series opens in 1984 as a young Carrie Bradshaw's (AnnaSophia Robb) alarm clock rings in her upper-middle class Connecticut bedroom.

We learn that before Carrie ran in Manolos or sipped Cosmopolitans, she was a wholesome, earnest kid growing up in a town named Castlebury, dreaming about life in Manhattan. Her mom recently died from cancer. Carrie's younger sister Dorrit (Stefania Owen) is a troubled kleptomaniac, and her dad (Matt Letscher) is admittedly unprepared to parent two adolescent girls as both a mother and a father.

We learn that Carrie's obsession with fashion runs deeper than we previously understood, as her connection to clothes is really her way of holding onto her mother. I welcome this addition to Carrie's story. Because she spent her adult life writing about men, I wondered about her father while I watched the HBO series. But I didn't really consider how the relationships she forged might provide insight into the one she had with her mother.

Carrie has three best friends: Mouse (Ellen Wong), a geek who possesses the same sense of hopeless romanticism as Charlotte; Maggie (Katie Findlay), a blend of Samantha's promiscuity and Miranda's sarcasm, and Walt (Brendan Dooling), who is in the process of discovering that he will soon grow up to be Stanford Blatch.

On Carrie's first day of junior year, the presence of new student Sebastian Kydd (Austin Butler) has captivated her classmates' attention. But Carrie already knows Sebastian from the summer before, when the two 15-year-olds made out at the indoor pool.

I will admit that I did not think Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie grew up in such privileged circumstances (or was a swimming enthusiast). She seemed like a girl from more humble beginnings who wrote her way into the kind of life she wanted to live -- one filled with high fashion and high-rolling men. But I do think that Robb does a wonderful job in portraying one of Carrie's core characteristics: she feels like an outcast, even when she fits in.

This conflict manifested itself in her relationships in truly captivating ways during the HBO series. SJP's Carrie pretended to act like different versions of herself when she first dated Big. At times she resented some of her friends for having more money. Unfortunately both Mouse and Maggie seem like uninteresting sidekicks, and while there's hope for a well-developed storyline in Walt, it's unclear how the series will treat it.

As a way to shake up her routine, Carrie's father secures a weekly internship at his friend's law firm in downtown Manhattan. During her first day, Carrie enters discount heaven at Century 21 and meets Larissa (Freema Agyeman), a style editor from Interview magazine who takes her out for a night on the town.

As I saw Robb in posters wearing perfect curls and a poofy dress, I considered her an imposter. After I watched the pilot, I grew convinced of Robb's acting chops and will continue to watch her in this series. But I still don't believe she's Carrie Bradshaw before life on the Upper East Side.

It's not that "The Carrie Diaries" is an injustice to the epic HBO series. I've already watched watered-down episodes without the edge in syndication for years, and there were two pretty terrible feature films that did not help matters. It's just that the CW series can never live up to it -- no matter how many times young Carrie wears funky outfits, obsesses over love or ruminates over "finding her voice" as a writer.

Though moments of the show were reminiscent of the "Sex and the City" episodes that dictated our Sunday nights a decade ago (I found the final scene where Carrie pulls her curls back into a ponytail, sits at her desk, and writes in her journal truly adorable and charming), the CW version would ultimately work better if it actually found its own voice, separate from one we already love so much.

"The Carrie Diaries" airs Monday nights at 8 p.m. EST on The CW.