In his review for Deadspin, Will Leitch labeled the film "gay history for straight people," complaining that it's a pandering attempt to pasteurize the story of the AIDS crisis and the fight for medical attention for an audience that might not want to see something that's too gay. Leitch writes that DBC is "obnoxious hokum, an important story so distilled and stripped of its essence that by the end, it's not about AIDS and the fight for new drugs at all." Though I disagree — where Leitch sees avoidance and cheap normalizing, I see a more catholic approach to discussing the disease — it does raise an interesting question.
Which, somewhat strangely, came to me while I was watching The Carrie Diaries. Yes. The Carrie Diaries. The first few episodes of the second season of The CW's winning little series about a young version of Sex and the City heroine Carrie Bradshaw have unfolded in the summer of '85, in New York City. Carrie is working at Interview magazine, meeting young Samantha Jones, and encouraging her gay bff Walt to pursue his crush. It's been a fun, bouncy season so far, clever in the sly, reference-y way the show has always been. And yet, something about these new episodes has been a bit troubling.
Again, we're in 1985. In New York City. Specifically, in the fashion industry. (Carrie works for Interview's fashion editor.) Carrie's gay friend Walt is crushing on her gay coworker Bennett, and in last Friday's episode, the two decided to start dating. The little romance is fumbling and cute, and the downtown New York gawking is always a hoot, even if it's not exactly the most accurate representation of the scene as it was. (Or so I've heard.) But let's think about that time and place, that milieu. Wouldn't something dark be seeping into this carefree, fun-loving idyll? Wouldn't there be some fearful whispering, conversations about sick friends and lost lovers? The AIDS crisis in the United States was reaching nightmare proportions by 1985, and it's just not believable that Carrie's world wouldn't have begun to be touched by it in some way.
Which isn't to say that The Carrie Diaries, a light romantic comedy meant for teenagers, should necessarily delve into what is deeply serious, heartbreaking history. But the experience of watching the show is odd, knowing that just outside this bright, mostly consequenceless bubble, an entire vibrant and varied community is being ravaged and decimated by a terrifying, incurable disease. As last year's galvanizing, vital documentary How to Survive a Plague so bracingly illustrated, America's big cities, especially San Francisco and New York, were angry, scary places in those days. Not for everyone, of course — plenty of people probably didn't pay much attention to what was happening in the gay corners of the city — but for the kind of people that Carrie Bradshaw hangs out with and aspires to be like, it seems entirely likely that the world they knew would suddenly begin to collapse right around the time of this cheery little summer.