They can never really knock you off your feet as long as you’re wearing Blahniks
“Carrie, it’s me! Pick up! I know you’re there! Carrie, don’t you dare screen me! Listen, Carrie! Big is no good for you! He’s just no damn good! Pick up, Carrie! I know you’re there!”
OK, maybe I am a little late to the party. Carrie and her crew have split, gone to heaven, leaving nothing but a little star dust behind. Star dust, cigarette butts, the bill for hundreds of gotta-have-it outfits, and the tab for a thousand Cosmos. Hey, you’re only young once.
There’s no denying that Sex and the City was not to everyone’s tastes. “Everything I hated about New York!” said one of my cousins, who spent some time in the Big Apple.1 The greed, the pushiness, the obsession with status, the compulsive ranking of everything, from restaurants to gynecologists, on the basis of exclusivity! It’s such hell, after all, living in a democracy! You bust your ass just to get east of the Hudson, and when you do get there, what do you find? Eight million more people you’ve got to get ahead of!
Fortunately, our gals don’t have to use their knees and elbows to get ahead. They’ve got it made. The right shops, the right restaurants, the right hairdressers, the right gynecologists — they’ve got all that. We don’t have to see all the blood, sweat, and tears, the humiliations, the failures, and the hatreds, which frankly is pretty boring shit in the first place.
No, Sex and the City is soap opera. How likely is it that these four gals would be friends in the first place? How likely is it that four New York career gals would have the free time to explore each other’s emotional dramas in such excruciating detail? And how likely is it that they would all end up in blissfully happy marriages to fabulous men that in real life they would be unlikely even to date? Okay, not very likely. This is about fun, not reality, and the two rarely coincide.
As Star tells it, he was in New York working on location shots when he became “obsessed” with Candace Bushnell’s column Sex and the City,3) and decided that he’d liked to do a show based on it, a show with more edge than network TV could handle. Besides, he thought he might look cool with a beard, so he went to work for HBO.4
Anyone picking up the “real” Sex and the City5 expecting a joyous reunion with Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte is in for not a cold shower but an acid bath. The model for Bushnell’s columns is Bright Lights, Big City — New York as the city of the damned. Everyone is one step away from suicide. Samantha’s life isn’t a continuous round of mind-blowing sex — the poor bitch can’t get a date! Stanford isn’t an adorable gay leprechaun who materializes whenever Carrie needs an escort. He’s a ruthless film producer whom everyone hates and fears. Carrie and Big are together, but it only makes them miserable. They need each other, and what could be worse than that? Needing someone is the ultimate weakness!
In the HBO version of Sex and the City, when Carrie’s unhappy she sits alone in her darkened apartment and stares out the window, smoking a cigarette, like poor little Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.6 In the Bushnell version, when Carrie’s upset she drinks herself senseless: “Carrie kept drinking and smoking pot7 until she could hardly walk, then she went into the bathroom and threw up and lay on the floor. . . . Eventually she crawled into the bedroom. She lay on the floor next to the bed for awhile, and when she could lift her head, she crawled into bed and passed out, knowing that there were little chunks of vomit in her hair and not caring.”
It gets worse: “Carrie stayed in Mr. Big’s apartment. Sometimes Stanford Blatch came over and he and Carrie would act like high schoolers whose parents had gone out of town: They smoked pot and drank whiskey sours and made brownies and watched stupid movies. They made a mess, and in the morning the maid would come in and clean it all up, getting down on her hands and knees to scrub the juice stains out of the white carpet.”
Carrie puking! Carrie going to bed with puke in her hair! Carrie making a mess for someone else to clean up! No way, José!
In the Beginning, There Was the City
Star deserves high marks as a producer for pulling together a team, largely of young women who surely saw themselves as leading Carrie-like lives,8 along with a slew of first-rate writers, and of course the phenomenal cast that managed to hold the series to a remarkably high level over six years, despite the obvious strains that success can put on an ensemble show.9 Most remarkably, the show contrived story lines — the long romances between Carrie and Big and Miranda and Steve in particular — that managed to generate and maintain emotional interest throughout the series.10
Absolutely central to the show, of course, is the image of New York, and specifically Manhattan, the New York of New York — Carrie striding down Fifth Avenue, a Manhattan princess with a perfect dress, perfect shoes, perfect everything, and yet alone, a perfect flower blossoming somehow unseen and unknown amid those great canyons of steel and stone. If only the City could see her and hear her story!
The first episode is unique in that it actually quotes from Bushnell’s column about hard-hearted New York — those gorgaceous early-thirties millionaire bachelors who romance you on their yacht, introduce you to their parents, and then drop you without even a goodbye. Yeah, we’ve all been there, but it still hurts!
Fortunately, a girl does have resources, even when she crosses that scariest of all divides and enters the thirty zone: her friends! Because you’ve gotta have friends, and Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Samantha (Kim Cattrell) form an unbreakable four-babe phalanx against that great destroyer of chicks, low self-esteem. It’s not your fault! It’s his fault! You’re thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty whatever, and you look great!
It’s a very good bet that the original selling point for Sex and the City was, well, sex — gorgeous chicks talking about sex the way hip young chicks actually do talk about sex. And we get to listen!11
The setup for the first episode is that since men just aren’t going to stick around the way they did in the old days — why should they? — women need to take the same attitude. Feeling a little restless and ornery? Don’t go to a shrink! Don’t even redecorate your apartment. Hop in the sack with some smooth, soulless stud and three hours later you’re as good as new!
Yeah, that’s the hook, but in real life, one-night stands are only good for, well, one night. After one afternoon of blissful, no-strings sex in the very first show, Carrie never does the trick again. She doesn’t know it yet, but with all her tough talk what she really wants is love, love, love. Because isn’t that what all girls want? Absofuckinglutely.
Then there are some other hassles — Carrie going home with this totally gorgeous young guy, but then encountering the downside — waking up in a totally gorgeous young guy’s apartment, with like, you know, no coffee, no food, no toilet paper, no privacy. In other words, hell.
Mingled in with the dates from hell are the “wouldn’t it be fun to do this just once” bits, like the time that Carrie was, well, a whore. She didn’t know! She didn’t know! The guy was this fabulous French architect, and he took her to the Plaza! It wasn’t until afterwards, when she found the envelope full of C-notes on the bureau, that she realized! And she never did it again!12
Because the basic pitch of the show is that it’s going to be all about screwing, when we first get to know them, Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda aren’t terribly well differentiated. They’re all pretty round-heeled, all going on dates from hell, all getting laid a lot but not always enjoying it, or at least not enjoying the aftermath. Samantha, on the other hand, is well established as the über bad girl, who regrets nothing and can swallow anything.
Yet even from the get-go there are superior bits — Charlotte, in the second episode, determined to recruit a legendary painter for her gallery, agrees to be a model in a series of paintings that, after his death, will surely be known as his richly elegiac “Cunt Period.”13
The only real downer for the first two seasons is Skipper (Ben Weber). Skipper is too real. Skipper, with his smudged glasses, his terrible hair, and his complete and utter lack of success, well, he’s just like us. It’s like staring into a mirror. Get him out of here!14
Yeah, I will have another Cosmo. Or are we drinking Blu-tinis15 tonight? If you can’t tell the difference, is that a good sign or a bad one?
There are very strong suggestions, conscious or unconscious, that Big is the ultimate father figure for Carrie, the father that she never had.16 Big is very much the city itself for Carrie, infinitely glamorous and infinitely withholding, always responding to a question with another question, always leading her forward but always retreating along a road of infinite recess.
The pursuit of Big provides a remarkably satisfying arc — satisfying for me, at least — for four full seasons. It’s not easy to sustain a non-consummation for that long, of course, which means that Big is very frequently cast in the role of a big dick, while Carrie, embarrassingly, looks like a loser — easily the harshest word in the Manhattan dictionary — the low-self esteem gal whose obsessive devotion feeds on mistreatment. “He doesn’t need me at all! That is so cool!”
If you’re a sucker for the show, as I am, your willing suspension of disbelief will survive Big’s inconceivably dickish behavior and Carrie’s inconceivable gullibility and will thrive on the high points — the glamour and mystery of Carrie’s first dates with Big, her assertions of independence, her romantic gloom, her despair over the impossibly perfect Natasha (Bridget Moynahan), her adulterous affair with Big, which ranges from wicked elegance to tawdry humiliation, as well as her long dalliance with sweet, yielding poppa bear Aidan (John Corbett), the perfect man, the man she should have married and yet let walk away. And he did walk away, completing himself with a wife and child and leaving her alone. You’ll ignore the fact that Big would have to be a complete cad to treat Carrie the way he treats her, that Aidan would have to be a complete chump to take Carrie back after she cheated on him, and you’ll have to ignore the seriously dumb things — like when you’re staying in the country with your boyfriend you probably wouldn’t invite your ex-boyfriend to come along as well, just because he had his heart broken by some movie star (“She could reach me, but I couldn’t reach her”), and if you did invite your ex-boyfriend along, he probably wouldn’t want to come, and if he did want to come, your current boyfriend probably wouldn’t let him.17
Fortunately, the other subplots are up and clicking. Charlotte finally loses Trey,21 hooking up with nice Jewish boy Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler), one of the two Jews in all of New York City, if you believe the show (and Charlotte’s slept with both of them22). Harry’s sweaty pursuit of shiksa goddess Charlotte is pretty funny, particularly since Charlotte, to her frequent confusion, really doesn’t want to get away, but do nice Jewish boys really sit naked on the good furniture? That seems so totally not Jewish to me. But, hey, it’s a fantasy.
More important is that Miranda and Steve, finally, finally, are getting married. In an obvious indication that an era is ending, they move to Brooklyn.23 In a very touching episode, Miranda gives Steve’s demented, Irish working-class mother a sponge bath, touching that worn, weak, weary, abused flesh, everything she doesn’t want to be, and earning, at last, the respect of her Ukrainian peasant housemaid Magda (Lynn Cohen), whom I’ve kind of forgotten about up until this point.
Samantha develops breast cancer, naturally. Well, someone had to get it. Before that, we get to see her snatch — obviously a stunt cunt, but good for a laugh. And she hooks up with heavenly stud Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), as endowed as he is sensitive and as sensitive as he is endowed. There’s a very funny bit, to me, when Samantha, desperate to avoid being seen holding hands with Smith in public, manages to fall into one of those sidewalk elevators in New York that everyone is always afraid of falling into.24
And so the show, whose point was supposed to be that modern women don’t need a man to take care of them, ends up with all four of its characters enwrapt in monogamous bliss. And in a final, final touch, which almost redeems the protracted clumsiness of Big’s Parisian rescue of Carrie, we learn Big’s name via Carrie’s cell — it’s “John.”
Okay, a few things. It’s a bit much that Carrie lives the life of the ultimate Upper East Side gadabout on the income derived from writing one 800-word article a week, an article “researched” by hanging out in the hottest hotspots in town. Unlike real celebrity journalists, she never has to promote herself — never undergoes the drudgery of appearing on radio or TV talk shows, never has to push for interviews or access, never has to do anyone any favors, never catches shit from her editor, and never, never misses a night out on the town with the gals. She’s far more likely to use her column as an excuse for getting out of something she doesn’t want to do than suffer the forfeit of not doing something she does want to do.
The “Sex and the City goes to LA” episodes have a rather mean-spirited flavor. In LA, apparently, everyone is a great big phony.27 LA is place where people openly buy and sell knock-off designer handbags — not actual counterfeits, which would be too much, even for LA — but well-crafted replicas that lack the designer label. Samantha buys one, but Carrie refuses. “When I buy a [insert fashionable label here], I want it to mean something,” she says, though what paying $3,000 for handbag could mean other than “I have so much money I can spend $3,000 on a handbag,” she doesn’t say.28
In a final, cautionary episode, the gals go to the Playboy Mansion to visit Hef, only a hundred years old when the series was filmed, where Samantha learns what happens to girls who buy knock-offs, which is that, while visiting the Playboy Mansion, you will accuse a Playmate of stealing your handbag and it will turn out that it is really her handbag and you will be humiliated and kicked out on your ass, without, I guess, getting to screw Hef.29
Then there’s the “fashion show” episode (officially called “The Real Me”), basically the basic chick fantasy of being “forced” to walk down the runway in a shameless outfit with tout le monde watching and, of course, carrying it off superbly, which Carrie does, even though she’s broken the heel on one of her four-inch Blahniks. Sorry, but I don’t think even Carrie Bradshaw could walk gracefully with a busted heel.30
Oh, and what’s the deal with Stanford’s boyfriends? How does a bald, glasses-wearing thirty-something come up with an endless succession of shaggy-headed, adoring twenty-somethings? I don’t know anything about gay dating, but I’m guessing that, gay or straight, the same fearful symmetry applies — to those that have it shall be given, from those that have not it shall be taken away.
Yeah, and what’s with the “no maids” bullshit? Charlotte really takes care of her “classic six” all by herself? That’s bullshit.31
But since most of the fashion is just an excuse to have the gals parading around half-naked, it doesn’t grate on you, unless you’re exceptionally fussy. Smartly, the show mingles fantasy and reality. It’s a very welcome touch that Carrie’s pad, other than the fact that it’s on the Upper East Side, is completely undistinguished.33 Big, of course, lives in a “perfect” apartment, but it isn’t the fantasy Manhattan apartment that we often see in films — “hardwood floors, twenty-foot ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows, spectacular view.”
No one has a view, no one has a terrace. Miranda has a terrific apartment, but when she isn’t out with the girls, she lives like a real New York career gal, eating Chinese night after night on her sofa with the real man in her life, Jon Stewart.
I guess I’m back to talking about what I do like, aren’t I? Okay, one more thing — the “hard” ending to Carrie’s determined effort to make an honest apology to Natasha, which only leads to more humiliation when Natasha coldly refuses to accept it: “Not only have you ruined my marriage, you’ve also ruined my lunch.”34
Sex and the City The Movie, Take 1, and Sex and the City The Movie, Take 2
I am, apparently, the only person with a penis who will admit to liking Sex and the City The Movie. Even Andrew Sullivan didn’t like it.35 I admit the plot contrivances were ridiculous, and any film whose comic highlight consists of an Episcopalian shitting her pants can’t be rated too highly, but somehow I managed to enjoy it. Never underestimate the credulity of a fan.
The same goes for Sex and the City 2, which in many respects was truly awful, not least because our gals, except for Kristin Davis (Charlotte), are starting to show some serious mileage.36 Compulsive conspicuous consumption — the four Maybachs, the $22,000 a day hotel suite,37 the obsequious, uniformed butlers — yeah, it’s tacky, but getting old (and, therefore, ugly) is the only true sin.
The Sex and the City TV series continues to be available on disc in that awful fall-apart transparent plastic packaging — easily the worst DVD packaging I’ve ever seen — as well as the pink plush complete edition box set, which is way too gay for my pad.38 The movies, well, I don’t think they’re worth owning.39
It’s hard to say what future generations will think of Carrie and her crew — the whole capitalism thing doesn’t seem to be working out too well these days — but for me this series will always have the romance of the big city, and the thrill and the joy of sex, which is no small thing. With all the encomia going to existential bloodbaths like The Sopranos and The Wire, it’s nice to see Cupid take a bow. The winged bowboy just doesn’t get enough airtime these days.
- She was Canadian, of course. Canadians! They’re so Canadian! [↩]
- It’s the power of three, dude! It’s the fucking power of three! [↩]
- Whether Star was really obsessed with Bushnell’s column I leave to younger and more athletic critics, though he certainly knew a title when he saw one. My “research” hasn’t carried me past my easy chair, and is basically limited to two books, Sex and the City: Kiss and Tell, a glossy fan book written by Amy Sohn and Sarah Wildman (the poor drudges don’t even get their names on the cover) and reading sex and the city, a collection of “serious” (i.e., often hilarious) essays collected by Brit lit crit chicks Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, who basically decide that it’s okay to watch the show — pretty much, at least — even though it’s, you know, really, really capitalist. (All that stuff about frocks! It’s so wrong! [↩]
- I made that part up. [↩]
- Bushnell’s columns have, of course, been collected in book form. [↩]
- Or like Holly Golightly, Capote’s “gamine” in the book. But I liked the movie better. [↩]
- For some obscure reason, pot is used as a euphemism for cocaine in the book. Maybe the New York Observer wouldn’t run columns about coke sniffers. [↩]
- And probably did so. The list includes Cindy Chupack, Julie Rottenberg, Eliza Zuritsky, Jenny Bicks, Amy Harris, and surely a host of others, along with non-chick but “openly gay” Michael Patrick King. [↩]
I’ve read in People (so it must be so) that at some point Kim Cattrell (Samantha) started causing trouble, which may explain the truncated fifth season. It’s true that both Sarah Jesssica and Cynthia were pregnant, but, come on, gals, that shouldn’t slow you down. [↩]
- According to what I’ve read, Team Carrie was often tempted to drop Big (Chris Noth), simply on the grounds that no fractured relationship would continue so long (perhaps also feeling that Carrie was starting to look like an idiot for letting Big manipulate her the way he did), but that every time Noth came back on the show the audience went wild. More Big! More Big! More Big! [↩]
- Listen and look. For chicks, of course, a lot of the show is about fashion. If you watch Sex and the City with your girlfriend, she will say “Look at her!” two or three times a show, as Carrie hits the streets in yet another “Teen Sluts Gone Wild” outfit. Which, of course, is the whole point. [↩]
- Still, it was more than a little tacky for Carrie to keep the cash. She should have given it to the starving artists, or the starving shoe designers, the starving pigeons. The starving somebodys. [↩]
Charlotte’s interaction with the old guy’s elegant, gray-haired wife is particularly funny: “You’re such a charming child. I’m sure you’ll be magnificent.” [↩]
- Skipper appears and disappears throughout the first season and is brought in for a reprise in the second season. He’s a success now! He knows who he is! But we’re not fooled. It’s just old Skipper, that schmuck, that putz, our semblance and our frère. Get him out of there! We don’t want reality, damn it, we want magic! “Skipper eventually disappears from the show in later seasons with little explanation,” remarks Wikipedia. That’s because we don’t want an explanation. We just want him gone. [↩]
- I’ve never had a Blu-tini — can’t you guess? — but a recipe I got off the Internet calls for Absolut mandarin, peach schnapps, blue curacao, and a dash of fresh squeezed orange juice, which is what I would call a chick drink. But it’s still not as bad as a key lime martini — bacardi vanilla, triple sec, lime juice, a splash of butterscotch schnapps, and a splash of cream. [↩]
The show deliberately provides virtually no backstory for the girls. Unless I missed it, we don’t learn anything about Carrie at all, except that her parents separated when she was very young. We do meet Charlotte’s brother, who naturally gets laid with Samantha, but he disappears after a few vodka martinis and doesn’t bother to show up for either of her weddings. We know that Samantha worked in a Dairy Queen when she was fifteen, that she was one of three kids, and that her father was a drunk. We get the most backstory about Miranda. She’s from Philadelphia, more or less, and her family hates her, because she isn’t married. There’s a definite gay vibe to all this, of course, although you don’t have to be gay to be an unmarried woman whose parents want her to get married. Despite jumping into bed with dozens of men during the course of the show (there are so many different types of dates from hell that you need four very active chicks in order to track them all down), Miranda often affects a masculine appearance and Wikipedia describes her as “borderline misandric,” which isn’t even in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, though “misandry” is, and if you thought it meant “hatred of men,” you guessed right. [↩]
- But how else would Aidan and Big meet? And Aidan’s dog does bite Big on the ass, which is pretty funny. And I think it’s this episode when Samantha (how did she get out there?) sees some strapping young lad in bib overalls with no shirt, which strikes me as pretty much a gay thing. [↩]
Eigenberg’s performance as the loyal, boyish Steve who never gives up on his love for Miranda is one of my favorites in the show. Unfortunately, he gained five pounds (maybe ten!) in the first Sex and the City movie, which made him look not so boyish, and thus not so lovable. In the second film, he scarcely had a line. [↩]
- MacLachlan, achieving major, major impact on the cultural ionosphere in 1990 as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, never quite recovered his original velocity, but, since his stint as Trey, continues to play the similarly dickish yet occasionally admirable Orson Hodge on the semi-hemi-demi Sex and the City knock-off, Desperate Housewives. [↩]
- What particularly got my back up about poor Berger, aside from his general runtiness, was that he was a writer with a house in the Hamptons. A writer with a house in the Hamptons is not a writer. He is something else. [↩]
- Trey, like Aleksandr, suffers from a plot-driven personality, a jumble of quirky, contradictory vices and virtues that scarcely add up to anything human, a dickless WASP mama’s boy (doubly redundant, I know) who often comes through in the clutch. Big is similarly self-contradictory, of course, but Big is Big, Cary Grant with a schnoz. It’s like the difference between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan: some guys got it, and some guys don’t. [↩]
- She has an affair with an Orthodox artist (that is, a painter who’s an Orthodox Jew) early in the series. It doesn’t work out. [↩]
- “There’s no one to talk to in Brooklyn,” Harvard Law School Miranda whines. Since she and her fancy Manhattan friends talk about nothing but fashion and men, this rings a little hollow. [↩]
- Samantha, of course, takes a lot of pratfalls during the course of six seasons, but we never worry. That big, beautiful ass can take a lot of punishment. [↩]
- Unless, of course, her name is Chelsea Handler. [↩]
Of course, we never see Carrie naked either. Favorite almost naked Carrie outfit: that totally see-through ribbed wife-beater she wears in Season 3. Sheer heaven! [↩]
- Still, Matthew McConaughey has a nice appearance as a golden boy actor who assumes every attractive woman in the world wants to fuck him. Give this guy five seconds of eye contact and he’s pulling down your panties. After S&TC ended, Matt and Sarah J were reunited in the eminently forgettable Failure to Launch. [↩]
- The show’s loyalty to, and obsession with, the New York fashion industry, which must have supplied S&TC with a million freebies — always a bit shameless — here threatens to decline entirely into obsequious lickspittle. [↩]
- Why having a real designer handbag would prevent this from happening isn’t clear to me. [↩]
- But we do get to see her, a lot, in what are basically gold-mesh panties, so the show isn’t a complete loss. [↩]
- But probably necessary bullshit. Otherwise, those of us living in classic twos simply couldn’t identify. [↩]
- Oh, and why, oh, why, in the show dedicated to shoes and sex like no other, does the phrase “Fuck Me Pumps” (or the more schoolgirlish “Fuck Me Please Pumps”) never appear? I have always felt this phrase was the ultimate in chick talk, but I’ve never seen it in the popular media, except for a throwaway reference to “fm pumps” in an old L&O episode involving, of course, teen tramps on the Upper East Side. LATE BREAKING UPDATE: In one of the last episodes of Season 4, Samantha makes a passing reference to “Come Fuck Me heels,” but it’s not the same thing. [↩]
- But the fact that when she buys it and the place next to it the down payment is $30,000? Come on! Don’t you mean $300,000? [↩]
- Still, you have to wonder why Carrie showed up for her apology vacuum-sealed and braless in a skin-tight silk dress: “Remember your ex-husband? He used to fuck this.” [↩]
- I guess Andy wasn’t a fan of girl talk when it involved, you know, real girls. [↩]
Thanks to the wonders of modern pumpitude, faces go before figures these days, Sarah J in particular still looking firm and fabulous from the neck down. The sight of a worn, wrinkled, all too human face atop a perfect bod can generate some severe cognitive dissonance. For extreme examples, see Jamie Lee Curtis’s nude scene in True Lies and Clint Eastwood’s nude scene in Pink Cadillac. [↩]
- Particularly irritating is the booming soundtrack that we hear as we’re given the walkthrough of the place. I guess the genesis of this shtick is those wretched “Summer in Provence” flicks where the principals are shown a centuries-old villa of baronial magnificence that is somehow all theirs for free. Those films stink too. [↩]
- Is it too much to hope for Blu-Ray? Carrie’s nipples in HD! Think about that! [↩]
- I’ve read that S&TC1 made over $400 million, and S&TC2 has already made over $280 million. Since the films only cost about $100 million each, S&TC3 is more than a possibility. But, frankly, I think I’m about ready for Sex and the City: The Next Generation. [↩]