Because I only became an HBO subscriber a couple of years ago, I witnessed the reputation of Sex And The City evolve from a distance. I remember when the show was an under-the-radar favorite, before it became a cultural phenomenon, and then, ultimately, Exhibit A in “Why They Hate Us.” Yet I’d never actually watched an episode.
I have seen the two Sex And The City movies—that’s one of the perils of being a DVD columnist—and didn’t like either one of them. The dialogue in both is insufferably quippy, the stories are overstuffed, the pacing is frenetic, and I could muster little sympathy for the four heroines as they obsessed over relationship, career, and parenting problems that most sensible adults handle every day without falling to pieces. Nevertheless, I winced at the tone of many of the reviews and columns about the SATC movies, which used them as a cudgel against “modern women” in general, and against “chick flicks” in particular. Most contemporary romantic comedies and melodramas are awful, true, but there’s nothing wrong with the genre in and of itself. A lot of true Hollywood classics (like The Philadelphia Story and Mildred Pierce) are what were then called “women’s pictures.” So given my affection for the genre, and given that I have respected friends and colleagues who were devout SATC fans during its heyday, I was encouraged to shrug off the movies and go back to the source. After all, if so many smart folks once liked the show, there must be something of value there, right?
As often happens with long-running TV series, I’d been warned by people in the know that Sex And The City’s first season is its worst, and would be a bad place to start if I only intended to sample a handful of episodes. So instead I went to various fan sites and dug up old magazine features on SATC to find some consensus on what people consider the best episodes. Then I picked one from each season:
• Season one: “The Drought.” Manhattan sex columnist and fashion victim Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) worries that her rich boyfriend “Mr. Big” (Chris Noth) has stopped having sex with her because she accidentally farted in bed. Meanwhile her three best friends deal with sex-droughts of their own: Predatory publicist Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) is dating a celibate yoga instructor; mousy art dealer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) has a boyfriend who’s taking drive-killing Prozac; and acerbic lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) hasn’t had a date in three months.
• Season two: “Shortcomings.” Carrie’s latest boyfriend turns out to be a premature ejaculator, a problem that is mitigated by his awesome family, with whom Carrie loves to spend time. Meanwhile, Samantha and Charlotte have a spat when the former sleeps with the latter’s soon-to-be-divorced brother (whom Charlotte is trying to steer back to his marriage), and Miranda starts dating a divorced dad with a spoiled, bratty kid.
• Season three: “Hot Child In The City.” Carrie dates the owner of a comic book store, Samantha deals with a bitchy 13-year-old client, Charlotte discovers that her impotent-in-bed husband masturbates to Juggs in the bathroom, and Miranda gets braces, as all four women revisit the wonders and horrors of adolescence.
• Season four: “Change Of A Dress.” Carrie has anxiety attacks about her engagement to hunky furniture designer Aidan, Samantha is horrified to realize that she wants to go exclusive with the womanizing hotel mogul she’s secretly dating, Charlotte tries to get over her divorce by learning to tap-dance, and Miranda wishes she could be as excited as everyone else about her pregnancy.
• Season five: “Critical Condition.” Carrie worries that the Saturday Night Live talent-booker whom Aidan dated immediately after they broke up is spreading vicious rumors about her, while Samantha stresses out about a busted vibrator, Charlotte hires a bulldog attorney to get her apartment back from her former mother-in-law, and Miranda is a mess because she can’t get her baby to stop crying.
• Season six: “The Post-It Always Sticks Twice.” Carrie’s latest boyfriend breaks up with her via a post-it note, Samantha is frustrated by what her boy-toy says about her on MTV, Charlotte gets engaged to her divorce lawyer (but can’t enjoy it because she’s done it all before), Miranda is thrilled to discover that she can fit into her skinny jeans again, all the ladies go out for a night on the town that turns into a quest for pot.
I acknowledge the limitations of taking a one-episode-per-season approach to this show. I’m missing hours of plot and character development, not to mention all the tiny details that accumulate over time and become endearing to devotees. Based strictly on these six episodes, for example, I’m inclined to complain that the show wastes Miranda and Charlotte in the fourth and fifth seasons, sticking them with go-nowhere divorce and baby stories—but that might’ve just been my bad luck of the draw. And while my least favorite episodes in this bunch were “The Drought” and “Shortcomings,” I can’t say definitively whether I disliked them because the show hadn’t found its voice yet in the first two seasons, or because by the third episode I was getting more accustomed to the show’s voice.
That said, “The Drought” and “Shortcomings” definitely display a lot more of what made the Sex And The City movies such a rough sit: the forced jokiness (when Carrie hears that Charlotte’s brother Wesley is married to a woman named Leslie, she asks, “Does he work for Nestle?”), the awkwardly earthy dialogue (when Charlotte finds a half-naked Samantha in her kitchen, she snaps, “Is your vagina in the New York City guidebooks? It should be! It’s the hottest spot in town! It’s always open!”), and the problems that aren’t really problems. (Carrie frets about her farting because “men don’t like women to be human,” which is the kind of concern better expressed in a feminine hygiene commercial, not a “tell it like it is” cable sitcom.) The first season episode also features scenes of Carrie talking to the camera, alongside person-on-the-street interviews about sex, which play like leftovers from the corny HBO docu-series Real Sex.
“The Drought” and “Shortcomings” do clarify three points, however: 1) This show delivers on what it promises, at least when it comes to explicit sex-talk. The ladies discuss masturbation and their own pleasure in ways that don’t reduce sex to a chore or a strategy, which sets the characters apart from 90 percent of the women on TV and in movies. (“The Drought” even has a very funny exchange about masturbation, when Miranda says she’s been doing it so much that “I think I’ve given myself carpal tunnel,” to which Carrie replies, “It’s all good until you get to know each other.”) 2) Miranda is the best Sex And The City lady. One reason why I was bothered by the bland baby stories for Miranda in the season four and five episodes I watched is that Cynthia Nixon’s portrayal of Miranda is full of such vibrant verbal and physical comedy, whether she’s challenging wolf-whistling construction workers to come back to her apartment in “The Drought” or she’s accidentally whacking her date’s young son head with a bathroom door in “Shortcomings.” 3) The chemistry between the four women is appealing, even when the scripts aren’t so hot. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to see four professional women make time to sit and talk with each other, even if (in the early going at least) they mostly talk about themselves, and barely acknowledge their friends’ problems.
Still, the first legitimately great Sex And The City episode I watched was “Hot Child In The City,” from season three. And even that one I wasn’t so sure about at the start. It opens with a smug Carrie pronouncement about how to spot a “real” New Yorker—it has to do with a sense of entitlement, which Carrie apparently sees as an admirable quality—and moves on to a scene in a comic book store that traffics in every comics-related cliché in existence, from the girl-averse customers to a clerk who’s working on a generic self-published super-hero comic titled Power Lad. The episode even has one of the nuttiest “our heroines share a meal” scenes of this block of episodes, as the ridiculously dressed ladies gab about their lives while dining in an upscale cafeteria.
But the dialogue in that cafeteria scene is fairly funny—especially Miranda’s line about self-diagnosing via the Internet by typing in a bunch of symptoms and waiting for the word “cancer” to come up—and as the episode plays out, the relevance of the lunch-location becomes clearer. “Hot Child In The City” is about otherwise mature and sophisticated adults who rationalize the ways in which they behave like teenagers, whether they’re hanging out at an arcade, sneaking back to their boyfriends’ room to smoke pot and listen to records, or feeling self-conscious about their new braces. Even Charlotte, when she tries to be an adult and confront the sexual hang-ups of her husband Trey (played by Kyle MacLachlan), gets stuck with a therapist who suggests they name their genitals in order to make sex more “whimsical.” And Samantha, feeling old because of the sexual frankness and cockiness of her wealthy teenage client (played Kat Dennings), learns to appreciate that as humble as her own childhood may have been, at least it was a childhood. The whole episode is rich with detail and thematic resonance, all sharply observed by credited writer Allan Heinberg.
Season four’s “Change Of A Dress” is another strong episode, even if sticks Charlotte with a lame storyline that has her melting down when her tap instructor asks her to dance to “Tea For Two” (a song that single people find “abusive” according to Charlotte). As with “Hot Child In The City,” “Change Of A Dress” uses Manhattan well, making “the city” as significant as the “sex” by having the characters walk and talk and eat in front of real place full of local color. And though I had nothing invested in the relationship between Carrie and Aidan (outside of enjoying Aidan-portrayer John Corbett when he was on Northern Exposure), it was still moving to track the dissolution of their engagement in “Change Of A Dress,” which climaxes with Aidan thinking he’ll reduce Carrie’s wedding-stress by suggesting they just run off and get hitched right away, only to hear Carrie admit that she doesn’t want to get married at all. The episode ends with a fake-out, as Carrie and Aidan sleep in separate rooms until Carrie comes to Aidan and lies down next to him. Then, in voiceover, she says, “The next day, Aidan moved out.”
My only qualm about “Change Of A Dress”—beyond it featuring another example of Carrie freaking out about something most normal people would find sweet—is that it shortchanges the rest of the foursome, which is a trend that continues in the season five and season six episodes I watched. Both “Critical Condition” and “The Post-It Always Sticks Twice” are driven by Carrie’s narcissism: In the former, she gets a good review of her book in the Times, but worries because the critic pegs her as a user of men; in the latter, she runs into her ex’s friends at a bar and goes out of her way to make sure they know that she’s not the bad guy. The likable young lady who bonded with her boyfriend’s mother (played by Valerie Harper) in “Shortcomings,” and who enjoyed having cookies and lemonade with her boyfriend in “Hot Child In The City,” becomes someone who’s both indecisive and controlling, a bad combo.
And yet I enjoyed “Critical Condition” and “The Post-It Always Sticks Twice,” because the vibe and structure of the show is so well-defined by the second half of its run: Between the location-shooting, the outfits, the endless supply of handsome-but-not-quite-right men, and the crazy new nightspots the ladies frequent from week to week, Sex And The City skillfully blends the outsized fantasy version of New York with characters who’ve become more complex. I can’t think of too many shows that could pull of a scene like the one in “Critical Condition” where the baby-hating Samantha agrees to watch Miranda’s little boy for a few hours while her friend gets her hair cut, and then has to use a “back massager” to repair the baby’s vibrating chair. (Miranda: “That better be brand-new.”)
It’s easy to pick apart Sex And The City. The heroines’ snobbery can be a turn-off (as in “Post-It,” where they’re appalled by the peanut shells on the floor at a downscale bar), and there’s rarely any subtext to their conversations. If Charlotte’s feeling melancholy because her second marriage isn’t as special as her first, she just tells everyone why she’s blue, and they offer advice. Not much bubbles below the surface.
But while the characters are often shallow, the show itself can be surprisingly deep. The movies fail because they take these women’s minor problems more seriously, which has the effect of making the characters look monstrously out-of-touch. The show more often makes them look foolish—and therefore more likable. Sex And The City works best when it takes its cues from its opening credits, which show Carrie strolling down a Manhattan street with confidence until she’s splashed by a bus bearing an even sexier photo of her on its side. Sex And The City is really about those multiple facades: the character in the bus ad, the real woman who’s trying to live up to that image, and the awkward gal who’s all wet.