17 December 2011

Sex and the City: Retrospective from a Latecomer

It's been impossible to be unaware of Sex and the City.  Even if you didn't watch the show on HBO, you inevitably heard about the surges of popularity for things like the nameplate necklaces (modeled after the protagonist's "Carrie" necklace).  But even more than that, Sex and the City was the show discussed around the water cooler, neatly arriving in 1998 just as Seinfeld ended its reign.  Even after the actual television program ended - after seven years of critical acclaim - two movies sustained the franchise's cultural relevance with great success.

But I'd never really watched it.

I was aware of the basics, of course, and I had seen a few episodes.  A New York columnist and her three friends try to balance love and their lives, etc.  It didn't seem so remarkable, and the segments I had watched were tedious.  I admit that I just chalked it up as a "chick thing," a short-sighted and stupid judgment.  Virtually every other television show is created and marketed for men, yet women look past that to see the real value behind the idiotic window-dressing.  Why should I think that Sex and the City, ostensibly designed to appeal to women, would be magically opaque?  Did I think that Carrie Bradshaw emitted testicle-destroying radiation or something?

Over the past few months, my wife and I have watched the entire series.  And it is good.

I'll start with the obvious: the theme of female empowerment.  Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha each approach modern feminism in their own way.  The artificial nature of their distinct paths is a little silly (they each have their own shtick), but only in the manner of all "wacky bunch of friends" shows.  Miranda is a vocal and sardonic working woman, Samantha is sexually liberated, Charlotte pursues traditional goals with a clear sense of her own worth and stature, and Carrie pursues a protagonist's muddled blend of the three extremes.

The less obvious is even more interesting.  Consider the fact that the girls have no apparent family and few other close friends.  Their closest bonds are with each other, a fact driven home partway through the series when they worry about ever finding a soulmate.  "We will be each other's soulmates," Carrie assures the others in the second season, as they hold hands.  The strength of their friendship, as performed for the audience, is derived in part from the lack of other social webs.  No parents, no siblings, and not even any friends from work.  They have each other, and the show emphasizes that by removing any competition.  It's intentional and clever.

Sex and the City has other carefully-designed elements, as well.  The first season's plots are all reflective of the larger growth experienced by the characters later in the series:  Carrie first becomes involved with Mr. Big but struggles over trying to resolve long-term happiness from short-term passion; Miranda dates sad-sack Scooter, a pleasant but unremarkable fellow whose steadiness appeals to her (a carbon copy of husband Steve); Samantha tries to work around her focus on sex to forge a real relationship, as with Smith later in the show; and Charlotte dates a commitment-minded man whose own ideals about the future don't mesh with her own, despite expectations.  The show's creator and writers had a plan with where they wanted to go, writ small during those first episodes in a way that's almost funny (Scooter and Steve are indistinguishable).

The satisfying nature of the show comes from striking a balance between meeting audience expectations and confounding them.  It's not fun to watch something completely predictable.  A character's development, the future of the plot, the setting - something has to be different.  Yet at the same time, it's uncomfortable to always be surprised and never get an anticipated pay-off.  In large part this is where Lost went wrong: when everything changes all the time and there don't seem to be any real rules, then it's hard to keep yourself oriented and know what is meaningful.  Sex and the City balanced these two needs of the audience.  For example, Charlotte does eventually find marital bliss and gives us that warm satisfaction, but in a way that is novel enough to be interesting.

There are flaws, of course.  The character of Carrie is the most prominent one.  It's hard to tell how deliberate is her appalling nature - did the writers intend for me to hate her?  (I doubt it.)

  • She is terribly, surprisingly self-centered.  If a conversation stops focusing on her, drifting to some other topic, she inevitably makes a rude comment or simply demands to be the center of attention again.  My wife began mocking this halfway through the second season, chanting "Me me me me me!" whenever Carrie interrupted another character or steered discussion back to her needs.
  • Carrie is not a very good friend, and is just a bad person in general.  Of course there are big things, like when she cheats on Aidan with a married man.  But every episode is also like a display of her essential thoughtlessness.  For example, near the end of the last season she invites her friends to meet her beau, and gay buddy Stanford is just delighted - until she tells him that he can't come. So why invite the girls in front of him?  Just to rub it in the face of a guy she consistently treats more like an accessory than a friend?
  • Given what we hear and see, she cannot possibly be a very good columnist.  This is hard to forget when a large part of the fifth season is devoted to her great success as a writer.  Nearly every column pivots on the phrase, "I had to wonder...", followed by the metaphor du jour ("...are all the good men taken?", "...can any woman have it all?").  That is not a formula for literary success.
The problematic protagonist aside, it's a great show both because of its importance and on its own merits.  If you haven't seen it, perhaps for the same reason as me, you are doing yourself a disservice.  I have seen it all, and I regret that it took me so long.  Luckily, I'm still not done: I still have two movies to get through.

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