Cineplex and the City

Photo: Superstock; Everett Collection

In Manhattan’s gimlet eye, the long-awaited Sex and the City movie might be old news from the start. We’d even half-forgotten about the Kim Cattrall drama that held it up this long. But then, the show’s own popularity guaranteed its obsolescence: Over six years on HBO, the sitcom terraformed the city in its image, turning Manolos and Cosmos and those damned floppy flowers into icons, then something so clichéd as to be oppressive, almost regimented. Three years later, the Zeitgeist, having writ, has moved on: to milfs and grups, among other things. And Brooklyn.

But, God, how we need this movie and need it to be good. In the three years since Carrie and her pals disappeared, TV has desperately tried, and failed, to replicate what was so addictive about Sex and the City. There was The L Word: SATC plus lesbians. There was Entourage: SATC for boys. My Boys: SATC for male-identified ladies. And then there was Love Monkey. Nothing felt right.

In its heyday, Sex and the City was at once beloved and disdained. It was the show HBO subscribers smirked at (while analyzing episodes like gushy Talmudic scholars), the money-minting series that earned the ratings but never the respect of The Sopranos. But there is a case to be made for Sex and the City as truly fantastic TV, risky beneath its candy shell. It had genuinely flawed characters, debates no one won, and a structure more subtle than it got credit for. (It’s rewatchable even in edited reruns, in which Samantha is merely an enthusiastic kisser.)

And its strengths were those of good episodic TV: It made a virtue of consistency. For one thing, there was that four-plot rhythm, with each script weaving together two “serious” relationship plots with two smutty farces—the equivalent of cars blowing up in an action movie. And then there were the characters, who could be so off-putting at first. Stylized abstractions with rich(ish) inner lives, Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte were at once real people and placeholders in a Socratic dialogue, one centered on the show’s main question: What is the worth of a single woman’s life? The show could be nearly mathematical in its precision: four characters, two women each slotted neatly along three ideological axes. There were the romantics (Carrie and Charlotte) versus the cynics (Miranda and Samantha). There were the libertines, who saw sex as something fun and adventurous (Carrie and Samantha), versus the prudes, who saw it as grim or chaotic (Miranda and Charlotte). And there were the second-wave egalitarian feminists (Carrie and Miranda) versus the third-wave “power feminists,” who believed men and women were at war and women needed to use their feminine powers as a wedge (Charlotte the Rules Girl and Samantha the Power Slut).

Could the show’s best qualities—that deceptive archness, those characters who were simultaneously waves and particles—work outside the confines of a half-hour? Could they work in today’s New York, itself a sort of Sex and the City theme park? Then again, the show’s final season may hint at a bridge to the future: Charlotte mothering her adopted kid, while Miranda gentrifies out in Brooklyn. Samantha could be relevant, even with arthritis: She’s a publicist at the height of tabloid culture. It’s Carrie for whom a future is hard to imagine: She may have dominated the nineties, but her milieu always felt set somewhere earlier, in a forties fantasy New York, with cocktails and sassy career gals, but not an iPhone in sight.

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Cineplex and the City