The Carrie Diaries takes great pains to capture the essence of its mid-’80s setting — from the music to the fashions to those cord-bound telephones that would probably be viewed as instruments of torture by today’s teenagers.
In this Friday’s installment of the charming drama (The CW, 8/7c), however, executive producer Amy B. Harris says she felt “a responsibility” to accurately depict another historical aspect of the era: the emergence of the AIDS crisis — and its impact on gay men, specifically — in New York City.
The episode, “Date Expectations,” follows our titular heroine’s gay high-school pal Walt (Brendan Dooling) and her Interview magazine coworker Bennett (Jake Robinson) during their first Valentine’s Day as a couple. “Walt’s not happy about their plans, because he was hoping to have a romantic night with Bennett,” explains Harris. “But we’re talking about the ’80s. Bennett’s attitude about [a mainstream Valentine's date] is, ‘They won’t let us have a lifestyle that looks like theirs, so we’re going to have our own fabulous lifestyle! We have to make traditions of our own.'”
Walt eventually comes around to the idea of celebrating the holiday with a group of friends at a hot NYC nightspot called Boy, when the duo bumps into an acquaintance who reveals a shocking secret: Bennett’s ex-boyfriend tested HIV positive, but went so deeply into denial that he couldn’t bring himself to share the news with Bennett.
Harris reveals that her team actually wrote and shot a scene where Walt and Bennett go to a clinic and get tested for HIV, but “we ended up cutting it from the episode. We wanted to be in the story with Carrie and Walt and how they were managing the experience as friends, and how Bennett and Walt would deal with it as a couple. Bringing the outside world into the test experience took away from that somehow.”
Instead, expect to see “heartbreaking” moments for Walt and Bennett from before and after they get their results.
While the character of Walt never dealt with HIV testing in the Candace Bushnell books on which the TV series is based, Harris says she felt as though the arc was a solid way to explore the larger issue of Walt’s personal identity.
“It’s terrifying on every level for an 18-year-old to think about dying when he’s barely started living his life,” Harris says of Walt’s reaction to the news. “And in Walt’s case, being a WASP has always trumped his gayness as he’s trying to come out of the closet. He starts to grapple with the notion of, ‘All these things we’re not allowed to have are things that I want: I don’t know how I can manage this life.’
“It’s crazy to think that 20 years ago, the idea of a gay couple getting married and adopting a kid wasn’t even thought about,” continues Harris. “But still, for a lot of kids today, it doesn’t feel that much different. Because if your family rejects you, or you’re in high school — where being different is not always what you want to be — it can still be very hard. So many gay kids in the world still feel like they’re giving up that experience of the white picket fence.”
Walt’s journey of self-discovery and struggle for self-acceptance has resulted in “lovely emails from so many kids struggling with what Walt is struggling with,” shares the executive producer. “That, to me, is one of the things I’m most proud of that we get to do on our show: To make some kid feel like he’s being heard, and that his experience is being told on television. Walt and Bennett are just a regular couple on the show — like Carrie and Sebastian — with their own set of problems and worries.”
Harris adds that as a general philosophy, The Carrie Diaries has attempted to sell the idea that “being safe is preferable, both emotionally and physically. Put your heart in the right person’s hands, and put your body in the right person’s hands, too.”
Ultimately, “we’re dealing with the intimate experiences of love and death in Manhattan,” she adds. “I hope people will feel the magnified experience of someone struggling not only with [the threat of] AIDS, but also who they are and how they want to be their most authentic self.”