Sex And The City’s most enduring testaments to female friendships

Sex And The City cast in 2010
Photo: Samir Hussein (Getty Images)
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With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about.

Before it ever hosted Lena Dunham and her coterie of Girls, HBO aired the weekly misadventures of the thirtysomething women of Sex And The City. In 1998, Darren Star adapted Candace Bushnell’s eponymous collection of essays that had originally appeared in The New York Observer under the pseudonym Carrie Bradshaw, which became the name of the series’ lead, insomuch as it had one. Sex And The City’s focus covered a quartet of Manhattan single ladies, but as our narrator, Carrie was the linchpin. And as Bushnelll’s stand-in, the fashion- and men-savvy fictional columnist began the series as the most relatable member of the group, a premise that became harder to fathom the longer the show went on.

The series would vacillate between rom-com, dramedy, and scintillating comedy genres over the course of its six-year run. It’s pretty much an established fact that things got off to a rocky start in season one. The voice-over narration, which lingered throughout the series, was more intrusive early on, and Carrie sounded far too smug for the quality of puns she was delivering. And the fourth-wall-breaking bits were a little too silly (think Saved By The Bell’s time-outs) for a series that ostensibly featured second- and third-wave feminists. Those details were ironed out by the time the show really gained traction, which was right around when HBO’s original programming did.

Before his show was dismissed as “women-centric” programming, Star was making revolutionary television along with appointment viewing. Sex And The City never stood on the shoulders of The Sopranos or any of its other HBO contemporaries—it actually beat them to the punch in gaining an audience. The series won over viewers with the very themes and excesses that seemed frivolous prior to its success, the latter of which became mostly unpalatable by the time the second movie rolled around. But the honeymoon phase between the show and its fans lasted for most of its six seasons. Anyone who tuned in Sunday nights was met with lots of bawdy humor and titillating sex scenes, all at the behest of four single women who juggled careers and romance. Again, the puns Sarah Jessica Parker had to deliver were usually DOA, but there was plenty of other comedy to be mined from Carrie’s experiences.

But all the talk of blowjobs and rimjobs (Trey Macdougal was apparently a fan) couldn’t distract from the enduring friendships at the show’s core. Carrie, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) fought, shopped, and ate together to a degree that seemed to shut out everything else in their lives. And while some friends made greater demands on others, it was still refreshing to focus on the lives of adult women who weren’t mothers or wives. The four women came to represent different archetypes: Carrie, the everywoman; Miranda, the career woman; Charlotte, the prim WASP; and Samantha, who was basically everyone’s id. Fans embraced these character niches, but Star kept their roles a little more fluid, allowing Miranda to embrace motherhood, Charlotte to ditch her uptight upbringing, and Samantha to give monogamy a chance. Carrie regrettably devolved into a narcissist over the show’s run, but even that was a new approach for a female character.

The movies haven’t completely stripped the show of its good will; even the briefest of marathons (available via Amazon Prime and/or TBS edited versions) reveal how tightly knit this group was. Here we review the best displays of friendship, which we can’t help but wonder if Carrie & Co. would agree with.

1. “The Drought” (season one, episode 11)

The first season was pretty hit or miss, but it found its stride with this penultimate episode. Carrie’s been dating Mr. Big (though not exclusively) for a while now; it’s hard for her to imagine their relationship as anything but passionate and glamorous, which is why she practically kills herself to maintain the illusion. She rotates personalities—“Together Carrie” and “Sexy Carrie”—like outfits. The strain gets to be too much for her, and she lets a fart slip while in bed with her lover. Carrie’s brief gastrointestinal distress is nothing compared to the emotional kind she suffers at not being picture-perfect. But when her friends catch wind of just how much effort Carrie was putting into a relationship with a man she’d never referred to by his first name, they rightly snap her out of her funk. In lieu of a group hug, the ladies watch Carrie’s neighbors have some very athletic sex.

2. “Shortcomings” (season two, episode 15)

Despite an uneven introduction, the series picked up six additional episodes in its season two order. Coming in rather late in that lineup is “Shortcomings,” which would be entertaining enough just for its Carrie storyline. She dates a writer (Justin Theroux, who appeared in season one as a different character) whose bedroom romps are more short stories than novels. He attributes his premature ejaculation trouble up to his progressively minded mother (a radiant Valerie Harper), but Carrie befriends her rather than berates her for it. But it’s in the other A story that we see significant development between two of the friends. Sam sleeps with Charlotte’s newly separated brother, and the women clash over their different approaches to sex. The “prude versus sexually liberated woman” conflict plays out multiple times during the series, with Samantha emerging victorious more often than not. It’s to Charlotte’s admittedly rare credit that she’s able to see things from Sam’s side.

3. “Twenty-Something Girls Vs. Thirty-Something Women” (season two, episode 17)

Miranda and Carrie were more likely to wrestle with insecurity than Charlotte and Samantha, but all four of the women seemed content to be in their thirtysomething skin when the show began—for the most part. So when the four friends travel to the Hamptons for some R&R, it’s not to really recapture their youth; they’ve happily bid farewell to the previous decade. But they’re forced to contend with their younger counterparts in personal and business matters. Samantha’s livelihood is threatened by her former assistant, who’s become a hotshot publicist overnight, and Charlotte’s encounter with a feckless 26-year-old leaves her with crabs. But Carrie is dealt the weekend’s greatest blow, in the form of the willowy, young brunette who’s now paired up with Mr. Big. “Twentysomething girls are just fabulous” is the episode’s refrain. But it’s your thirtysomething friends who are there to help you get over your broken heart, even if it’s by holding your hair back as you throw up from rejection instead of intoxication.

4. “Running With Scissors” (season three, episode 11)

Several hard truths are faced in this episode, but they’re all made a little less scary because the characters confront them together. Samantha realizes that having such a swinging sex life means getting tested regularly, though she’s not precluded from safe sex. Most importantly, Carrie must own up to her most glaring flaw—she’s cheating on Aidan with Mr. Big, who’s cheating on his wife, Natasha, with Carrie. On some level, Carrie thinks her long history with Big justifies these moments of weakness. Samantha and even Miranda take the news in stride, but Charlotte feels betrayed vicariously as a soon-to-be-married woman. The tough love is administered sparingly, though, and it’s Natasha who ends up in the ER. But they all urge Carrie to make the right decision and break things off with Big, while also remaining mostly judgment free. In the face of all this, Sarah Jessica Parker plays it straight, showing Carrie’s guilt and regret.

5. “Frenemies” (season three, episode 16)

The titular term predates the series, but it gets double use here. Once again, Charlotte and Samantha clash over their contrasting sexual philosophies. Although Charlotte had previously remained passively judgmental about Samantha’s sexual proclivities, her sexless marriage gets the best of her here, and she tries to slut-shame her friend. Samantha fires back, of course, telling Charlotte to get over herself and Trey’s underperforming libido. So they start spending time with people they appear to have more in common with, but when Charlotte does finally (and briefly) get laid, she can only think of one person to call—Samantha. Elsewhere, Carrie’s asshole ex drives a wedge between her and Miranda, who happens to be his new girlfriend. The asshole reveals himself, and because Miranda wouldn’t take her word for it, Carrie gets to tell her three different words: “Told ya so.” The women’s codependence does reveal itself: Charlotte would rather appear virtuous around her Manhattan friends instead of slutty to her old sorority sisters, and Miranda admits she’s reluctant to date someone Carrie doesn’t like.

6. “The Agony And The Ex’-tacy” (season four, episode one)

The series might have won its Outstanding Comedy Emmy for the previous season, but the cast was at its most cohesive in season four, having weathered numerous romantic and intergroup splits on screen. Supporting a friend after the implosion of a serious relationship is introductory-level girlfriend stuff, which is why Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha all rally around Carrie following her (first) breakup with Aidan. But life gets in the way when it comes to planning Carrie’s birthday. “The Agony And The Ex’-tacy” has many surprising and sweet moments, from Charlotte’s growing rejection of her Waspy, repressive ways to Samantha’s attempts at embracing a nonsexual lifestyle. But the episode also features one of the series’ most iconic lines, from a most unexpected source. It’s where Charlotte first proposes the idea that their friendship is more important than any relationship with a man. The revelation ignores the rom-com environs of the series to focus on solidarity.

7. “My Motherboard, My Self” (season four, episode eight)

Within this tightly knit group, there was an even closer pairing: Miranda and Carrie. Technically, everyone had considered Carrie their greatest confidante at some point, but Miranda was probably the only one Carrie would give the other half of a “best friends” necklace. Miranda proves how supportive she is once more when she lets Carrie prattle on about her stupid MacBook while she’s in the hospital awaiting news about her deathly ill mom. But Carrie does stop thinking about herself long enough to head to Pennsylvania for the funeral with the rest of the girls, as well as Steve and Aidan. Luckily, Samantha finds a reserve of emotions she didn’t realize she had. Although Charlotte’s memorized all of Emily Post’s suggestions for how to behave at a funeral, Samantha doesn’t need the tips. She even manages to keep the puns to a minimum, unlike Carrie. Cynthia Nixon and Kim Cattrall are the standouts here, pouring so much sympathy and pain into a wordless moment at the service.

8. “Luck Be An Old Lady” (season five, episode three)

The fifth season was cut short by Sarah Jessica Parker’s real-life pregnancy, but it was full of getaways for the gang. They traveled for weddings, sex, and Charlotte’s 36th birthday (all equally good reasons). Although it’s hard to believe that Charlotte would want to go to Atlantic City to celebrate her “30-faux” birthday, that’s where they end up, courtesy of Samantha’s rich, adulterous boyfriend’s jet. The trip is a bust, in and out of the casino, as Samantha dumps the guy for what he might do again. There’s a supposedly great moment where Carrie leads the women in sticking up for Miranda, but that bravado’s really just rooted in Miranda’s once and future hotness. What’s far more moving is the fact that, despite having so much else going on, the four friends take the time to make the trip. They have to juggle nannies, cheating boyfriends, and jobs to do so, but when Carrie puts out the call, they all answer it. It’s not the bawdiest or flashiest show of friendship, but it’s one of the series’ most realistic.

9. “The Post-It Always Sticks Twice” (season six, episode seven)

Carrie’s ignominious dumping at the hands of Jack Berger (Ron Livingston, how could you?) kicks off the events here. She carries the Post-It with the apology/rejection around with her the whole time, using it to trample briefly over Charlotte’s happiness at being newly engaged to her former divorce attorney, Harry. It was pretty shitty, so the girls do what they can to cheer her up, including trying to buy weed from strangers and checking out a new bar called BED. It’s hard to believe Michael Showalter would hang out at such a place, but he is there and becomes the target of Carrie’s wrath, because he doesn’t find Berger’s actions that objectionable. Carrie’s breakup might be the central concern, but they’re all trying to avoid something. For Miranda, it’s her post-baby body, which is more appealing than she thinks. Samantha’s actually insecure about her standing with her not-boyfriend Smith, while Charlotte’s trying to downplay her excitement over her engagement. It becomes a night of executing many questionable plans, which don’t look so bad when you’re all in it together.

10. “One” (season six, episode 12)

In an episode full of new beginnings, Charlotte’s dealt a crushing blow. After two picture-perfect weddings and numerous doctors’ visits, she’s finally pregnant. It took six seasons to get there, but unfortunately, her happiness doesn’t last long. She initially retreats from her friends, who are gearing up for Miranda’s son’s first birthday. In true Charlotte fashion, she finds strength in a glamorous icon’s story—in this case, Elizabeth Taylor—and she manages to attend the party. It’s a surprising turn, since having a child is all Charlotte’s wanted for years. Kristin Davis’ portrayal of Charlotte’s desperation is moving and authentic; even the writers seem to have understood the gravity of the situation, keeping the jokes to a minimum in what’s still a heartwarming episode. Her friends don’t push her to power through it, and no one, not even the quippy Carrie, offers her any platitudes. On a show that usually tried to pack every scene with some kind of joke, Charlotte’s grief is allowed to fill those scenes.