Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through March: some of our favorite episodes of all time.
Sex And The City, “My Motherboard, My Self” (season four, episode eight; originally aired 7/15/2001)
In which a hard drive crashes and the girls go to a funeral…
Sonia Saraiya: Sex And The City has had its rehabilitation in the press—Emily Nussbaum’s column on it from last year is a must-read—which is a relief. Despite its numerous flaws, Sex And The City holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of the first shows I watched in its entirety, and it was a show that I looked to for guidance—especially in high school—when it came to the taboo topic of sex.
Now that I have lived in New York as a single woman, a lot of things about Sex And The City seem laughable. It is obsessed with social class, embarrassingly whitewashed, and stubbornly superficial. It took an entire season for the show to find itself, and two movies to trample all over its legacy. Sex And The City was always more groundbreaking than truly thoughtful—whatever insights it had were usually in spite of itself. Sarah Jessica Parker’s voiceover narration as Carrie is too eager to boldface the themes of the episode. Overall, the show’s producers, led by Michael Patrick King, were more invested in the frothy fun of sexual escapades than in the grittier work of character development.
But Sex And The City shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, and when I point to an episode that I think stands the test of time, it’s “My Motherboard, My Self”—one of the few episodes of this light, fun sitcom to deal with death. Up to that point, the characters’ families were largely theoretical; and after this, they largely remain that way. Furthermore, there isn’t anything remarkable about the construction of this episode: It’s written by two of the show’s regular writers, Julie Rottenberg and Elisa Zuritsky and directed by Michael Engler, a career television director who is talented, but not necessarily exceptional.
To my mind “My Motherboard, My Self” is the peak of Sex And The City—the episodes before it are good, more or less, and the episodes after it are bad, more or less. This particular episode aired when the show was at its most relevant, before things started to sour, after the ladies could comfortably rest on their laurels. It showcases the best parts of the series, offering moving performances from both Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon. Sex And The City was often guilty of paying lip service to female friendship more than actually exploring it. But this episode is built on the foundation of the relationship between Carrie and Miranda, and even now, rewatching it, their friendship feels solid and real.
It’s hard to discuss a single episode of Sex And The City, because more than a sitcom, it was a serialized romantic comedy—continuity was incredibly important. In “My Motherboard, My Self,” it’s possible to see so many traces of what had already transpired with these characters—Carrie is wearing a nicotine patch, because she’s trying to quit smoking now that she’s with Aidan; Charlotte is married and redecorating her house—and clearly so bored that she is obsessing over dimmer switches; and Miranda and Steve have broken up, but are still close. Underneath the plot, the subtext of the episode becomes increasingly clear, and it’s that these women provide a support network for one another—whether computers are crashing or parents are dying. Sure, they get sidetracked by their own issues along the way, but support each other they will. Carrie and Miranda’s conversations on the phone, as well as Carrie’s sudden, stricken dash to support Miranda as she walks down the aisle, feel more like real friendship than much else the show provided. The dialogue is authentic—even Carrie’s incessant barrage of quips feel real in this episode. It’s the best of Sex And The City. But I’m curious to know what you guys thought.
David Sims: I need to get a few things out of the way: One, I’m mad at you, Sonia, because I’m writing this an hour before I go on a date and this episode, which I’ve seen several times and agree is one of the show’s standouts, never fails to make me cry. Two, Sex And The City is a bad show—an incredibly watchable, occasionally clever, but almost entirely infuriating show that is now enjoying the largely crappy reputation it’s always deserved. That’s not to say I didn’t watch every episode and it didn’t play a part in my development as a TV fan, as I think it did for you, Sonia.
Though as much as I like parts of “My Motherboard, My Self” and always find myself moved by it (I’m a huge sucker for “death of a parent” episodes), it’s full of everything I find irritating about the show as well. The puns, dear God, the endless, merciless stream of puns substituting for actual witty dialogue are the worst. The jarring, wild shifts in tone from scene to scene only got worse as the show went on.
Worst of all, it features the character of Aidan, one of the most ludicrous love interests ever written for television, who seemed to exist only to point out all of Carrie’s emotional flaws. He’s essentially perfect—kind, handy, good to her friends, attentive to her needs—so any time Carrie slaps him down (which is all the time), it’s like she’s abusing a noble golden retriever who just rescued a bunch of babies. I can’t stand watching the guy, maybe because it’s painful to see him suffer, or maybe because he just seems a little too good to be real. That the majority of Sex And The City fans (including me) cheered the eventual triumph of romantic terrorist Mr. Big at the end of the series shows just how awfully written Aidan was.
“My Motherboard, My Self” tries to draw parallels between the loss of Carrie’s motherboard and the loss of Miranda’s mother, but not really, and it comes off as a botched metaphor at best. There’s also a C-plot with Samantha not being able to have an orgasm that highlights just how weirdly unrealistic this show’s approach to sex could be (although I do love that position 299 in her knockoff Kama Sutra appears to be that radical position of “woman on top”).
But oh, does the funeral scene get me, and the scene before with Miranda and the bra saleswoman. Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall were always the acting MVPs of this show, and their moment together at the end of the episode floored me during this rewatch, even though I knew it was coming. It’s nakedly emotional stuff, but it fits into the overall theme of accepting support well. For a show that struggles with realism, Nixon is very believable as Miranda in grieving. She’s a little glassy and distant, but she’s still the same person she was before.
I do think “My Motherboard, My Self” was the beginning of the end for this show, though. The soapier things got, and the more Sex And The City leaned on the larger life arcs of its four characters, the less liberated it became. In those earlier seasons where it’s more of an anthology show, the pure comedy of the sex and commentary works better. In the later seasons, characters would make decisions that made sense for them as characters, but reflected horribly on the show’s larger goals (I’m especially looking at where Carrie and Miranda end up).
One last thing: Au Bon Pain? You can’t find anywhere better to eat in New York City than Au Bon Pain!?
Brandon Nowalk: I’m with David. The best of the show can’t help being tangled with the worst. Take the dressing-room scene, which is easily my favorite part of the episode. Miranda needs to buy a black bra to go with her black dress, because she didn’t come to Philadelphia expecting to need funeral clothes, and the saleswoman, Lucille (Mary Pat Gleason from The Middleman), is pushing her to try a different bra size. She even barges into the dressing room and starts adjusting straps, which Carrie’s voiceover connects to Miranda’s apparently assertive mother. When Miranda snaps, she immediately apologizes and explains why she’s on edge, and Lucille wraps her in this big hug that looks doubly comfortable thanks to the mirror, and Miranda lets go. Cue Carrie: “And there behind the curtain, when no one was looking…” (The scenario, the performances and the shot are already choking me up—the scene is just nailing it) “…Miranda found a kind of support that actually fit her.” The moment’s gone.
Still, I found myself chuckling quite a bit, especially at the broad sex stuff. The first sex scene is this distant, almost-silent comic physical bit with Samantha and her wrestler friend indulging in some serious slapstick in singlets. The next sees her determined to get off: “Just hang on one more second, just one more second, just hang on, keep hangin’ on, stay with me,” she says, clearly not enjoying it in any of three not-that-radical positions. I love that close-up of Samantha framed by her blurry feet in the air, staring up at the ceiling like it snubbed her at a party while practically crying, “Don’t stop.” Later Charlotte interrupts her. “Charlotte, I’m masturbating. I told you I’d be doing that all day today.”
And in non-sex-related humor, I laughed at every accidental incest joke in the church. And I love Carrie’s reaction when Miranda asks about when she last backed up her hard drive. “You know, no one talks about backing up. You’ve never used that expression with me before ever, but apparently everyone’s secretly running home at night and backing up their work.” She’s wrong about the first part, but she nails that feeling of finding out everyone you know does something that you don’t.
I don’t find this to be an egregiously pun-filled episode—most of the groaners are packed into the already eye-rolling scene where Samantha tells her friends she lost her orgasm, although “one half nelson, one full orgasm” deserves special mention for seemingly witty nonsense. I’m impressed that the script manages to avoid underlining the fact that Carrie’s emotional transference (flipping out on Aidan because of other issues) revolves around a plot about file transference.
This brings us to the awful connection between Carrie’s computer crashing and Miranda’s mother crashing—should have backed her up, I guess. Carrie acknowledges her inanity in that line about why Miranda let her blather on about her computer when something truly serious has happened, but she has her cake anyway throughout the rest of the episode, endlessly connecting the two plot points like they’re comparable. It’s especially frustrating, because the episode doesn’t pull its punches regarding the death of Miranda’s mother. We feel that impact with Lucille, with the pre-church hugs, with that beautiful, spontaneous moment between Miranda and Samantha across the pews in church. This is an actual big deal. Losing all your files sucks too, but maybe hold off on the comparison for a few days.
Finally, a fashion question: What’s up with Samantha’s non-orgasm outfit, specifically the sagging jean shorts? Is that a thing (in the trend sense) or just an indication of Samantha giving up, the Sex And The City equivalent of Liz Lemon throwing on a baggy sweater and adopting Emily Dickinson the cat?
Pilot Viruet: It’s weird that I’ve never watched Sex And The City. It makes sense that I wasn’t a first-run viewer, because I didn’t have HBO, wasn’t interested in the concept, and went to the sort of small Catholic schools that tried to convince me watching “racy” programming is a mortal sin. It’s weird that I never watched it later because, as I’m sure you all know by now, I tend to go out of my way to watch awful television. Yet “My Motherboard, My Self” is the first episode that I’ve ever seen. There’s been so much written and discussed about the show that it’s nearly impossible to watch it for the first time in 2014 without any preconceived notions, but my knowledge is still limited. I do regularly watch (and secretly love) The Carrie Diaries, but I view it as a totally separate entity. Also, I once snuck into a showing of Sex And The City 2 (I have no explanation for this decision other than bum wine), but immediately hated it so much that I left within five minutes. So, I did go into this episode thinking that it would be horrible—but it wasn’t! I can’t say that I loved it, but I understand why people do.
I definitely can’t get behind that plot about Samantha’s lost orgasm. It’s the exact kind of story that I always imagined exists within the Sex And The City universe—which is why I’ve avoided the show for so long—and it just made me roll my eyes. I understand the need to have a light subplot in an episode centered on such a heavy subject as the death of a parent, but the balance here felt totally off. Even out of context with the rest of the episode, I just didn’t find it funny.
I’m glad Brandon mentioned the dressing-room scene, because I had similar problems with it. At first, it seemed like this would be the scene that redeems the show for me—I liked the realistic depiction of the way grief can pop up in unexpected ways and places; for Miranda, it occurred during the mundane task of buying a new bra. I can’t speak to how realistic Sex And The City strived to be, but Miranda’s breakdown felt real. That is, until Carrie’s voiceover interrupted with that cringe-worthy support line and exasperated the hell out of me. It’s a cutesy, poorly written line of dialogue—but it also feels like the show doesn’t trust the audience to make the connection, so Carrie has to explicitly state it. It’s like the scene where the tech worker talks about the compatibility issues of Carrie and Aidan’s computer choices. Is there anything about this show that is subtle?
This was also my problem with that silly motherboard/mother’s-death connection. What a dumb stretch! I say this as someone with a very unhealthy attachment to my computer—and as someone whose computer randomly shut off three different times while writing this—but it was completely inane to try to connect the two events in any way. Admittedly, I did enjoy the scene where Carrie first complains about her computer to Miranda who listens before breaking the news about her mother; it’s shitty on the surface, but I like that they have a friendship where Miranda can just calmly listen to Carrie complain about something without getting pissed off, even if she had the right to be. I don’t know much about these women, but the strong friendship between Miranda and Carrie really came across in this episode, especially during the funeral. The scene as a whole was done well (but like David, I’m a sucker for these kind of episodes) and was one of the few things that didn’t feel forced.
SS: I can’t say I really disagree with any of you—it’s my own fault that I chose an episode I haven’t revisited in years. When I first watched it, it was in an epic Sex And The City DVD marathon that came about because I bought seasons three and four on sale at Target. So those monologues and the ridiculous, raunchy sex scenes all blended together for me, as part of the general heady cocktail that is Sex And The City’s peak years. (And the 15,000th time you hear Carrie say, “I couldn’t help but wonder...” you learn to tune it out.) But I can see how the show’s overarching flaws stand out to a viewer seeing this episode (or this series) for the first time. I admit to having a loyalty to this show that stems, as David said, from how much I watched it as a teenager, which is separate from how I’d feel about it now, if I watched it on HBO. (I suspect I’d feel a lot like the way I feel about Girls, which is “extremely complicated.”) Rewatching this, there were so many things about “My Motherboard, My Self” that had me cringing. Samantha’s storyline feels entirely too broad to me, as it always does. The episode reveals how little character substance Charlotte has—she’s so wrapped up in being the perfect housewife that she has almost no authentic emotions whatsoever.
But then there’s that little “power catch-up” in Bryant Park, which feels juvenile, yes, but also extremely recognizable. Whether Sex And The City is, from a story perspective, any good at all, it certainly captured the zeitgeist of being a young woman in the freewheeling, pre-recession ’00s. (They thought the economy was bad then?)
I think a lot of appreciating Sex And The City is based on context—which means first of all, that it’s a weaker show than something timeless, and second, that without its context, its shelf life is extremely short. Nothing about this show seems groundbreaking or revolutionary now, but it was, which is important to remember. Stanford Blatch was one of the first openly gay characters on television, along with Will in Will & Grace. Nobody talked about sex like this on television, women in particular. There was a time when a lot of women used the confidence and independence expressed by the women in this show as guidelines for how to live their own lives.
Was it flawed? Certainly. I think of Sex And The City as being one of the first shows that was “not feminist enough,” for lack of a better phrase. It hit a certain threshold of interesting gender politics, and then stagnated, burying all the elements that made it controversial in consumerism and platitudes about love and friendship. But I will stand by the idea that it did what it could in a world that didn’t really have a place for it when it first started out, except for curious audiences in New York who had an expensive HBO subscription.
To be fair, that means that I’m looking at this show’s value entirely as it exists as an artifact, of sorts, and not really as the show it is. Which is, again, sort of how I see Girls. I’m not sure I want to watch Girls all the time, or that I’m fully supporting it as the show of our time. However, I’m glad it exists, just as I’m glad Sex And The City exists, because it taps into a lived experience that is still uncommon on television.
Also, David, Aidan’s character is too perfect, but he’s a brilliant character for the show. Carrie finally gets the guy she said she wanted, but she can’t stand him! I think that’s Sex And The City’s way of showing how terrible its own characters were.
BN: Thanks for bringing up Charlotte’s lack of substance, Sonia, because I’d been wondering about that. It’s been a decade since I’d watched any Sex And The City, and then only sporadically, so I wasn’t sure if this was just a light episode for her. As you said earlier, the show relies on a fair amount of continuity, and I know somewhere in there are marriage and fertility storylines. But whether it’s true in the long run or not, in this episode she’s a walking stereotype. Is there really not much more to her than uptight perfectionism? At least Samantha breaks some ground (“And beds,” Carrie adds in voiceover).
As for Girls (note: Becky Ann Baker throwing some shade about Charlotte’s obnoxious flower arrangement), for all its problems, it does achieve moments of perspective. There are obvious moments where Hannah, even though she’s the audience’s guide, is behaving in a way the show presents as obnoxious, entitled, and flat-out wrong. That’s often the joke. Sex And The City, or at least ”My Motherboard, My Self,” has no such clarity, with Carrie talking our ears off about how her hybrid intimacy-apartment-computer problem matches a death in the family. So instead of laughing at the ridiculous self-involvement, we’re frustrated by it.
Finally, since I mentioned everyone else, it’s nice to see Aasif Mandvi as the computer tech. Though it’s disappointing that the script has nothing funny for him, he does get some good mileage out of day-job brusqueness.
PV: For as much blind complaining as I’ve done about the show, I have very little doubt that I would have enjoyed watching Sex And The City had I been the right age when it first premiered, which is why I agree that context is important. I’m watching the show in an entirely different world where it all feels normal and watered down, especially in comparison to a show like Girls. It’s not a fault of Sex And The City itself, just a result of the evolving word of television—it’s like how rewatching the earlier seasons of Weeds seem so bland and tame after watching Breaking Bad.
I know I’ve been harping on the negative aspects of the show, but there were a few things that I did like, such as the dressing room scene (to a certain extent). I agree that the “power catch-up” was recognizable—definitely not the specifics of brunching in Bryant Park, but I did spend an awful lot of mornings talking about men and sex, while eating college cafeteria food with my friends. That’s fairly universal, I’d say. If the crashed computer wasn’t so frustratingly tied to Miranda’s mother or Carrie’s relationship (though I get being annoyed and shooting daggers at your partner while he helplessly tries to fix a laptop), it wouldn’t have been so bad. Yet I imagine this is a show where that story had to be used to make an overreaching connection to something bigger.
That said, I am glad that you picked this episode, Sonia. For the most part, “My Motherboard, My Self” wasn’t at all what I was unfairly expecting Sex And The City would be. I understand why it was such an event when it was on, and I wish I could have shared a similar experience with this show as you had. (Okay, fine, I know I’m going to marathon this entire series soon.)
DS: Good call, Brandon, on Carrie’s rant about backing up. I grew up in the days of zip drives, and I still have no fucking clue what those things were. Were they different from regular floppy drives? Aasif Mandvi, too, completely nails the role of the TekServe guy. I feel like I’ve met that TekServe guy (TekServe was the NYC Apple store you had to go to before the Apple Store existed). He’s not mean, he’s not even entirely disinterested; he just has to move quickly though Carrie’s pained gasps since he’s heard them a million times before.
I really liked Sex And The City when I was a youngster living in London (take a drink, Pilot). It made New York seem like a sexy playground of a place with an edge, but living there is like belonging to a secret special club only for cool people. Or is it white people? I’m just kidding, Sex And The City, it’s not like its horrifyingly glaring in retrospect that you had one recurring black character in your six-season run. Sonia points out that Stanford was one of the first out gay characters on TV, and that’s fine, but he’s largely given short shrift from a story perspective over the years, finally ruined when they marry him off to the other gay guy in the second movie, because why not, right?
For some reason, I can’t help but rag on this show. I can’t deny its impact on both the development of television in general and on my particular generation. But I also can’t deny that it’s rapidly become a cultural artifact, a bit of a fossil, which is a possibility for any formerly risqué television show. Forget the characters or the sex. The way this show presents New York City circa June 2001 is fascinating to this former and current resident. For me, that might be Sex And The City’s biggest legacy.