Essay: How Good Was ‘Sex and the City’?

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Sex and the City There’s a cultural debate going on right now that kind of reminds me of those silly ESPN talk show arguments about whether or not a particular NFL quarterback is “elite.” Except instead of arguing about Joe Flacco or Eli Manning, it’s about Sex and the City. 

TV critic Emily Nussbaum has an essay in the New Yorker this week on “How Sex and the City lost its good name,” which looks back on how the HBO series, which ran from 1998 through 2004, doesn’t have quite the same reputation now that it did when it was on the air, and isn’t looked back upon with nearly the same reverence as some of its HBO contemporaries:

 Even as “The Sopranos” has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of “Sex and the City” has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure,” to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series débuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no “Sex and the City,” they say. As if that were a good thing.

When TV critics talk about the “golden age” of TV, they’re mostly talking about the three other prestige HBO shows of the early 2000s: The Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood– all of which were crime stories, about male antiheroes, and were created by middle-aged men with the first name David. Over the years this “elite TV” category has expanded to include Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Shield, Justified, and other series, nearly all of which feature a male antihero as protagonist. (Homeland is one exception, although most critics agree it lost its elite status in season two.)

There are two books out in the last few months about the recent golden age of TV- Alan Sepinwall’s “The Revolution Was Televised” and Brett Martin’s “Difficult Men,” and neither included a chapter about Sex and the City. The latter book, as Nussbaum notes, even trashed the show, comparing it to The Golden Girls. 

Nussbaum writes, and I agree, that ‘Sex’ was as bold in its time as some of its contemporaries- and that even though Carrie Bradshaw never murdered anybody, she too was an antihero, just like Jimmy McNulty, Al Swearengen and Tony Soprano:

But “Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone and in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run.

No, Sex and the City isn’t talked about, by most opinion makers, in the same reverent tones as some of these other shows. We can chalk it up in some ways to sexism, and in other ways to critical bias against comedy. But the truth is, its highest highs never reached those of  The Sopranos or The Wire. 

I admit that I’ve long had a complicated relationship with Sex and the City. I lived in New York City in my 20s, during the majority of the show’s heyday, and used to frequently stumble upon the show filming around various Manhattan locations.  I dated multiple women who were obsessed with the series, although my now-wife, who I started dating not long after the show went off the air, was never a fan. (No, that’s not why I married her.)

There was a lot I liked about the show. For one thing, it was New York to its core and unabashedly proud of that fact, always making great use of the city’s locations. In 1980s pop culture, “New York” meant David Letterman joking constantly about how dirty and dangerous the city was. By the Sex and the City ’90s, “New York” meant beauty, glamour and luxury.

The show clearly touched a nerve in the culture at the time, and tapped into things that no one else was tapping into, telling specifically female stories in a way no one had before, especially not on TV. The characters were, in Nussbaum’s words, “pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved.” It took until the late 1990s for a TV show to exist that was primarily about women’s sexual needs and desires.

The writing was often witty- though not always, especially those awful, pun-filled voiceover narrations- and the show was usually very funny when it tried to be.

But there were flaws, of course, most of which have been well-documented. Like Seinfeld and Friends before it, it showed New York through the eyes of upper middle class to upper-class white people, and not really anyone else, although at the same time, nobody on a newspaper writer’s salary can afford a huge Manhattan apartment and hundreds of pairs of shoes.

The show was unapologetically and often garishly materialistic, and you could always see that any piece of clothing or any restaurant mentioned on the show would soon be consumed or patronized by just about every woman in New York City. And the show often resembled, in Lindy West’s memorable phrase, “a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.”

The boyfriend characters were often shallow and one-dimensional- although you could say the same thing about just about every girlfriend on Seinfeld. In fact- whether it’s the New York location, the four protagonists, the new-love-interest-every-week structure and the often sexually explicit plots- Seinfeld and Sex and the City always had way more in common with each other than fans of either would probably like to admit.

So why doesn’t Sex and the City have as positive a reputation as its HBO contemporaries? A few reasons. As listed above, it was quite uneven, and went through some pretty weak periods (Nussbaum defends that whole arc where Carrie dated Mikhail Baryshnikov, but I can’t, nor the show’s unfortunate Charlotte/Kyle MacLachlan period.) At its very best, it was never quite as brilliant as some of those other series.

Is there some sexism here? Absolutely. Most TV critics are men, and most men forming opinions about these things could relate to The Sopranos and The Wire and Breaking Bad and not Sex and the City. As we’ve seen before, there’s certainly a whole lot of aggressive misogyny in the way TV shows and characters are often judged.

Nussbaum doesn’t mention this in her essay, but there are two other things that have harmed Sex and the City‘s legacy: The first and second “Sex and the City” movies. The first was mediocre, but the second- set mostly, for some reason, in Abu Dhabi, was legitimately one of the worst movies of the last ten years, an odious celebration of consumerism released right in the middle of the worst recession in decades.

Even though a lot of fans wanted it, David Chase wisely stuck to his guns and never made a Sopranos wrap-up movie and now, of course, we know he never will. And while the Sopranos writing staff graduated the creators of Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, none of the people on “Sex”‘s creative team produced anything particularly memorable ever again- and its longtime showrunner, Michael Patrick King, is currently responsible for the atrocious sitcom 2 Broke Girls. 

So, does Sex and the City deserve to be described as “elite”? Much like with quarterbacks, judging TV shows as “elite” is subjective, reductive and ultimately meaningless.

Was it as good as The Sopranos or The Wire? I don’t think it was. Was it as important and groundbreaking? Absolutely.

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  • L E I

    Thank you for this.

    Also, on how SATC destoyrd NYC.

  • Eric Deamer

    Okay, I’ll bite and try to start some discussion here, though I’m hesitant since I haven’t read the Emily Nussbaum essay yet. I mostly agree with your take here, but I think something that’s often forgotten when people talk about SATC (don’t know if this is dealt with in Nussbaum’s essay) is that there were multiple distinct eras and cultural products under the broad SATC banner. First, there were Candace Bushnell’s columns in the New York Observer which were excellent and were nothing like the show, let alone the movies. Then, when the show debuted, before the “golden age of television” really got going in earnest, it was pretty much just HBO’s answer to the Red Shoe Diaries. There was barely any serialization. Each episode pretty much just consisted of the four protagonists going on four separate dates in getting into various sexual situations, as much nudity as possible, and a bunch of sex puns. That was it. After the first season it gradually started morphing into this sort of dramedy with ongoing arcs and the women having longer term relationships. This also coincided with the Sopranos, the Wire and Deadwood all being on HBO and at the time SATC was considered in keeping with these other shows. I don’t mean it was considered to be a substantive drama on the level of those shows, but I just mean it was still considered “quality TV” and to be a worthy part of the HBO Sunday night lineup. If Nussbaum’s essay explores how that’s totally been forgotten and now it’s considered to be this “guilty pleasure” sort of thing, that does sound like something worse exploring. I agree that the movies had a lot to do with it. I saw her talk about that on twitter though. She seemed to think that the criticisms of the movies were all pre-loaded and the mostly male critics were just saying stuff they already said about the show all the time.