THE SETUP: A new season of HBO’s brazen and explicit hit show Sex and the City (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET) has begun, and once again, we are privy to the gossipy minutiae of the sex lives of four single Manhattan women. Promiscuous Samantha (Kim Cattrall), a public-relations executive, is unabashed in her fondness for low-cut dresses and one-night stands. Good girl Charlotte (Kristen Davis) is a hopeless romantic in search of Mr. Right. Sharp-tongued lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) has a tough, cynical exterior that masks her frustration. And everygirl Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) pens a newspaper column in which she details her own sex life’s ups and downs (the show is based on Candace Bushnell’s column in The New York Observer). Real-life Manhattanite and entertainment editor at Good Housekeeping Kate Coyne trades notes with Los Angeles-based writer/actor Adam Drucker on why, despite the cheap thrills and shallow insights, they can’t stop watching.
DRUCKER: Moments ago, stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard, I was given the opportunity to study the Sex and the City billboard looming large over L.A. More specifically, I was given the opportunity to study Sarah Jessica Parker’s curvy, tight little gymnast’s body pasted into a black dress with a phallic Empire State Building shooting up the length of it.
Sex and the City is Ab Fab reality good for a laugh but basically nothing but gay camp. The show irritates me. It’s too knowing, too fashionista/Manhattan-centric, too self-satisfied and myopic. Of course, those are also the same things that attract me to it. Darren Star has captured a NYC vibe that really feels authentic. But I don’t even find it, as many do, a “guilty pleasure.” It’s like reading Vanity Fair I always feel dirtier, angrier, stupider after reading it and swear I won’t pick it up again. But then the next month . . .
COYNE: What’s awful about S&TC from my perch as a supposedly feminist woman is that it says we’re equal to men because we’re just as capable of sleeping around indiscriminately, and being total assholes. But clearly, any proto-feminist outrage I may feel while watching has yet to make me change the channel. I’ve seen just about every episode, and I can’t wait for more. Because ultimately, I do enjoy it as a well-scripted, well-acted comedy, which I think is what truly makes it watchable, since it sure as hell ain’t how well most of the world relates to the characters (because if so, what the hell is my dad doing watching it?) S&TC is laugh-out-loud funny, chock-full of zingers and one-liners that I tell myself I’ll remember the next time I find myself in the unfortunate situation of dating a man with too small a dick, asking the new Yankee player to go out with me, going to a party with a guy who grabs his balls incessantly or screwing a bartender who only wants to have sex at midnight.
Oh wait, that’s right. That’s never going to happen to me. Which is another point: the show portrays some aspects of New York single life pretty well the neuroses, the drinks du jour, the xenophobic belief that New York is Manhattan but I can’t remember the last time I saw four girls “out on the town and livin’ it up” together at Chaos unless they’d arrived via a bridge or tunnel.
DRUCKER: I assume it is all fantasy. There are probably very few to no women or men living the lives that SJP and her posse live. How many single post-college girlfriends of yours have sex with a different guy every week?
COYNE: It’s unrealistic and often offensive, but the show is also so funny, both in the way it says things and in the things it chooses to say. (Did you see the one where Samanatha feared she had slept with everyone in Manhattan because she was on re-run sex she slept with the same guy, only two years later, and didn’t realize it until they were already in bed?) And it’s in the comedy where the show often rings most true for me, like when Miranda realized with equal parts horror and excitement that her boyfriend wanted her to talk dirty to him, and then hilariously agonized over what to say.
That’s why the episodes people remember usually have something madcap as their core: the fuck-buddy episode, the episode in which Carrie’s partying all night lands her on the cover of New York magazine. The show tends to bore me when it tosses in the obligatory moments of pontificating and navel-gazing, most often in the form of Carrie’s newspaper column, which seems to consists of nothing but rhetorical questions (“Is it possible to be single and fabulous?” “How much are we willing to change for a man, before we find we’ve completely changed ourselves?”). I almost never feel these girls have any true insight unless it’s insight about what to do when your diaphragm gets stuck.
DRUCKER: There’s something heartless about the show, too. It offers me the occasional cheap thrill, the “I can’t believe they got away with that” moment (e.g. when the women attend a sex workshop and the old lady jerks off her old man husband and the come hits one of them in the face or the great “If you don’t eat pussy, you’re not a lesbian” line) but like the world it depicts, the show can be cold and mean and sad.
COYNE: What do you make of the peculiar niche of the Miranda character she’s not nearly as sexy, interesting or amusing as the others, and twenty times more neurotic, difficult and destined to be miserable and alone. One of these things is not like the others, one of these things does not belong . . .
DRUCKER: I definitely like Miranda. Nixon seems real, natural, plausible. She is the least fun, the least fuckable, the least silly but she’s necessary. She’s not a whiner, and she’s self-reliant. I know many Mirandas and they do hang out with Carries. They are the ones who chose security and independence above all, yet still occasionally do ecstasy at weddings and toy with the idea of moving to Sante Fe to paint but never do. (And Cynthia Nixon is good. She is not over-the-top Kim Cattrall and one-note, SNL-skit Kimberly Davis. Okay, I know they’re directed that way, but they still seem like cartoons.) I like her. But she’s the last of the four that I would call, and I know that her wryness would wear thin after awhile. I’d want to get her drunk. There was a really good episode in which Miranda realizes she’s growing old alone, and she had to use her parents as her emergency numbers (because she didn’t have a significant other). And she started having panic attacks. Miranda needs the other three to blunt her edges, to lighten her up.
Frankly, I like all four of the main characters. As is the case with most women I know, while they can be grating and self-absorbed to the extreme, they are so full of color and humor and insight and strength, that I’m basically crazy about all of them. Do you have a favorite S&TC character?
COYNE: When I’m tuning in on Sunday nights, it’s because I want camp, I want hilarity, I want over-the-top raunchy sexiness in short, because I want Samantha. I can hear you groaning all the way over on my side of the continent. I grant you she’s a drag queen, and shows no true emotional depth at all. But if I wanted realistic shadings of character, I wouldn’t be watching S&TC in the first place; I’d watch Once and Again or any of a number of shows my mother keeps raving about.
Speaking of which, just how old do we assume Carrie and her pals are? In case I missed it, there seems to have been very little agonizing among these gals about the appropriateness of coming home at dawn when you’re pushing forty.
DRUCKER: I think a large part of the show’s appeal is the fact that, except for Charlotte, they are not constantly biological-clock-counting. You know, the first person to be booted from CBS’s new show Survivor was Sonya, and I couldn’t help but see that as a societal statement that women over fifty are the most dispensable, the first to be put out to pasture. Manhattan, of course, is the most brutal island there is.
What’s great about S&TC is that (besides from the occasional moment of alienation) it doesn’t harp on this it celebrates their lives and, most importantly, their independence. Again, except for Charlotte, they don’t seem to be unhappy about being unmarried or without children.
COYNE: The show wants to have it’s cake and eat it too. It wants to be a show about four women searching for a suitable man in the big bad city, but it also wants us to know these women don’t need men, half the time don’t even really want men and most likely would be better off without men.
Having viewed the first episode of the third season, I noticed that not once but twice are the words “every woman in her thirties . . .” uttered. Apparently the show is no longer attempting to hide its ambition to speak for womankind: according to the show, we all live in fear of needing help. Maybe it’s because of this cathartic purging you and I have been undertaking, but I watched the premiere episode in a state of crankiness. When Charlotte, hung over, wailed, “I’ve been dating since I was fifteen! I’m exhausted! Where is he?” all I could think was, Sweetheart, I’m exhausted just listening to you whine.
DRUCKER: The most hair-pulling part of the show was when Carrie says so earnestly: “Did you ever think that maybe we’re our own white knights? We have to save ourselves?” If this were 1973 maybe, maybe that would be an insightful comment. Are we really to believe that these supposedly sophisticated, world-weary, well-traveled New York women of a certain age have never thought or heard that before? Of course all women want to be rescued and of course all women don’t want to be rescued. I think writers have been mulling this contradiction over (far more interestingly) since Shakespeare.
COYNE: It’s starting to get like a Nightmare on Elm Street movie: as soon as a fetching young love interest appears, you know that character’s doomed. In the season premiere, one potential Mr. Right doesn’t last two scenes. Overall, the caricatures have sunk to new lows. The entire Charlotte plot seemed like a complete re-run of what I’d seen for the last two seasons: at last, Charlotte has found the perfect WASP prince, but lo and behold, there are amusing and unforeseen catches he grabs his balls! He’s uncircumsized! He’s too femme! He punches people out! I don’t even pay attention to the plots with Charlotte anymore because I know they’re not going to withstand three scenes.
DRUCKER: What I most dislike about the show is simply that, unlike you, I think it’s often badly written. Samantha in general had the majority of the “ugh” lines in the season premiere: “I’d like to show him my lower Manhattan.” “Hello, 911. I’m on fire!” But we may have missed a very basic appeal of the show: hot tits and ass.
COYNE: Granted, the Samantha sex scene was fairly decent. When she looked up at him and said, in awe, “You’re so big,” he responded by flipping her on to her side and going at it with renewed gusto. That, I had to admit, made my evening.
DRUCKER: I bet that most heterosexual men are only tuning in to see Samantha purr and Carrie lounge in the tightest of Daisy Dukes. I imagine that many couples watch together, in bed or on their way to bed. Whether it’s sexual titillation for men or fashion titillation for women, the show does make pulses race. Who doesn’t want to look at those bodies in those clothes (or no clothes) in those beds (or cabs, or clubs)?
COYNE: Oddly, I’ve never really found the actresses titillating in the slightest, with the exception of Kim Catrall, who seems wildly eager to show off how well those Pilates classes have been going. The rest of them seem oddly buttoned-up for a show that, technically, shows so much skin. I’ve never watched a sex scene on the show that’s turned me on one-tenth as much as what I can find on Skinemax on any given night. Maybe I’ve just been raised on too many movie sex scenes with flowing chiffon drapes and silhouetted tongues, but I find the sex of Sex and the City to be almost always camp.
The season premiere of Sex and the City re-airs Wednesday, June 7, at 9 p.m. ET.
DRUCKER: This episode, at least, provided not much humor just a chance to see some Cattrall tit. But, I liked looking at it, and I’ll be watching next week. And it’s still one of the best shows on television.
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