And just like that…HBO found you can’t go home again. Reviews for their reboot of the once-vaunted Sex & The City have been brutal…but so too has been the show. Although I’m not convinced that is a bad thing.
Ahh Sex & The City. The protagonist in my novel Grace, Fully Living was obsessed by it. As were many women her age (early-30s) when I set the book, in the year 2000. It was a cable TV phenomenon. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was arguably the most sexually explicit (in dialog if not always visuals) “mainstream” show at the time, and the kicker, the women were the ones having the sex, talking about the sex, holding all the cards in the sexy relationships. No wonder it was a smash with the female half of my generation. It was office water cooler gossip gold, a ratings hit compared to other pay-cable shows of the era, it sparked a couple of spin-off movies later and gave many women new “strong” role models in so doing.
The show featured female friends. There was Samantha, the eldest and most successful, career-wise of the femme four amigos, a 40-something publicist who played the dominatrix in the bedroom and boardroom. Charlotte, the cute “girl-next-door” who happened to be born with the silver spoon in her mouth and cultivate appropriately expensive tastes. Miranda, the fiery redheaded lawyer, all-business. And the central character, Carrie, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, a smart, sassy writer with a taste for expensive shoes who wrote the fictional column that the show takes its name from. And of course there were the usual cast of supporting characters, like Stanford, the over-the-top gay bon vivant friend of the ladies; various boyfriends who largely came and went (take that any way you like it) and of course, “Big.”
“Big” was the nickname for the rich businessman, on-again, off-again boyfriend (and eventually in the movies, husband) of Carrie’s. Played by Chris Noth, I assume he was to women of a certain age the eye candy equivalent of the car combined with the girls in it from ZZ Top videos for guys. Sexier than Brad Pitt, richer than Bill Gates, rugged like an 18th-Century frontiersman…and always calling Carrie for a date, or late night, long-distance phone sex.
I never was a big fan of Sex & The City. Back in the day of its first run, I never saw it anyway… I never had premium cable. But some of the women I worked with did, and talked about it endlessly. Fast forward about a decade and I find myself with a lovely lady of my age who was, of course, a big fan of the show. She has the DVDs. I hated it at first. There were several things about it. First, I must admit that while I used to think myself very liberal, I had to cringe a bit at many of the scenes and conversations. I guess if you’re a young courier delivery guy, you might fantasize about the female customer giving you a tip…orally, shall we say, and if you’re a middle aged lady you might fantasize about having the courier guy be a stud and doing that to him, but I didn’t want to see it. Plus, it seemed rather outrageously unrealistic… but then, what mainstream TV show is that not true of? Carrie was young and vivacious, and wrote a newspaper column…in a small, left-wing paper. But she had a large, wonderful midtown Manhattan apartment and a closet full of (apparently) $500 and up shoes. I know a few people who wrote for such limited-circulation, weekly publications. They were driving pizzas at night to help pay for a 500-square foot basement in the suburbs, not living the Life of Reilly. Or Life of Carrie, as it were. Samantha was a middle-aged woman, not bad looking I would say for a middle-aged woman, but no 1950s Marilyn Monroe or 1990s Sports Illustrated swimsuit calendar Elle MacPherson. Samantha was bossy and rude, yet somehow had every man in every room she entered falling all over her, before somewhat “settling” for a guy who was supposed to be the hottest male model in the country. I knew some similarly nice-looking women of that age back then. Most of them were working in stores, complaining about their man and his pot belly and their kids they had to drive around in a rusty Ford – not jetting off to Paris on a whim to see a wealthy boyfriend. Not Samantha though. At least Miranda exuded some level of reality; a smart lawyer with a child who lived in a good apartment (she was a lawyer after all) but was bitchy much of the time and tired all of it. If I had to guess, I’d suggest Miranda was the least popular among the show’s female viewers. She didn’t live the total fantasy.
Over the years, I’d sometimes watch with my sweetie, and have to say that my hatred diminished to a mere “meh”-level indifference. Live and let live. No surprise though that when HBO decided to re-boot the series this year, she was very excited to see it. So too were millions of others like her. So I happily joined her in watching the two-episode premiere last week. I like it when she is happy or excited about something to watch.
Tellingly, it’s titled And Just Like That, not Sex & the City anymore, even though it still has the same characters. Well, except Samantha, who is talked about doesn’t appear. The actress, Kim Catrall, didn’t want to take part, so the writers had her move to London in a snit.
The title change perhaps represents that the characters are now all in their middle-50s and much of the sex in that city is not being had by them. In Miranda’s case, her kid is having a lot more conjugal fun than her. All three of the remaining ladies have, remarkably, stayed in the same relationships they were in at the end of the regular season…but not necessarily happily. It’s one of the many ways the new version is darker and altogether less cheery or uplifting to the female fans as the original. Charlotte has two daughters, one adopted, a young piano prodigy, the other her biological, a bit of a renegade who does what tweens do, act up and worry her parents. Miranda’s teenage son is a pot-smoking layabout who drops used condoms on her floor, prompting Carrie to suggest she should be happy the lad was being safe.
All that’s made Miranda’s hair go white; she and Charlotte (the only one looking even remotely younger than their real age) bicker over it, the latter complaining Miranda looks old and should do something about it, the former scoffing at Charlotte’s fake hair coloring. They all bicker and seem to pine for the good old days. Except perhaps Carrie, looking noticeably older herself, but seemingly at least happy with “Big”. Of course, he is a man of a certain age who’s libido isn’t quite what it once was, and has a heart problem. And, <spoiler alert> he has a massive heart attack in the first episode and dies in Carrie’s arms…a minute after she got home, found him on the floor but failed to call 911. It was about then viewers probably realized the fantasy had ended and Carrie and Company had entered real life. Episode two deals largely with Big’s funeral and the ladies’ complicated, conflicted relationships with each other… and their constant supportive cheerleader, Stanford. Unfortunately, the actor who played Stanford, Willie Garson, passed away in real life recently, leaving a veritable sword of Damacles hanging over his head every time he shows up on screen.
Then there’s the backlash the women feel as aging people in an increasingly young world. Sound familiar? It should, since it is the story of generations that has played out for centuries, time and time again, and each time the aging generation is as surprised as the previous one was that they would eventually be seen as out of touch. Carrie’s doing a podcast with a couple of raunchy young potheads who scold her for being too conservative in her commentary. Suddenly she’s the “square” not wanting so share every detail of her sex life with strangers. Suddenly being a female who likes males makes her the object of derision to people who don’t even believe that gender is a scientific concept. Miranda fares even worse, taking a university class in race relations to try and be more “woke” and alienates every one of the kids a third her age by being surprised the professor is a Black lady with braided hair and by referring to a young man as “he”, provoking horror and disgust from the class. Micro-aggressions! How did this happen, the gals wonder. We used to be the cutting-edge, cool ones.
My sweetie said she felt depressed after watching the two episodes that have aired so far. She wasn’t alone. Actress Kristen Davis (Charlotte) has lashed out at fans and the press for pointing out that the characters who are supposed to be 55 and up look, 55 and up. The Atlantic lament “the show doesn’t seem to like or respect its characters much anymore.” Fox News called it “grim and cringe-inducing.” The Guardian, “terrible.” “Grim” was also used in the New York Times description, in a story that suggested succinctly it was a “flop.”
A flop it probably is and will be, unless the creators whole point was to show that even fantasies come to an end eventually. Or else to make it clear the makers of Friends were genius in having a reunion merely by having the actors sit around and watch clips of the show back when. Because they at least realized no one needs to see Ross hiding his Viagra from Rachel or Chandler looking for his glasses so he can find his phone only to find out its one of the twins calling from jail.
My guess is soon And Just Like That viewers won’t be viewing, turning instead to reality shows like The Bachelor… to get away from on-screen reality.