Are we sophisticated television viewers, in our embrace of the Don Drapers, Tony Sopranos, and Walter Whites, giving short shrift to Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha?
Emily Nussbaum thinks so. The tv critic at The New Yorker, she argues that Sex and the City doesn’t get its due:
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. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, Sex and the City was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show.
I think The Sopranos, a show I could never train myself to sit through, has been overly lionised. And SATC was my introduction to appointment television. In its early seasons, I had yet to move to D.C. and my then-boyfriend and I would take turns driving to see one another on the weekends. “Getting to make dinner and watch Sex and the City” was our shorthand for domestic bliss, the some-day of spending Sunday evenings together, instead of on the highway.
But for all of that, I have to disagree with Nussbaum. SATC is like a car; as soon as it aired, it began to lose its value. Part of its problem is what was, on those initial viewings, a strength: It was, robustly and unapologetically, of its time. The fashions, the clubs, even the gentrification — they were spot-on, of the moment. This isn’t unusual, of course, particularly in television, but the sad fact is that the early 2000s were a particularly charmless period. Perhaps, as with the gray-flanneled ’60s of Mad Men, time and distance will add a gloss to the era. But now it’s brittle and garish.
The more fundamental problem, however, is the one-dimensionally of the characters. Nussbaum’s right in suggesting that SATC is an edgy take on the romantic comedy, but it shares what, to me, has always been that genre’s signature failing: Its characters are types who follow predictable paths, not fully realised individuals. You have the Sexpot, the Romantic, the Bitchy Striver, the Every Woman. Each has a fatal flaw that is her undoing, but, in a tidy arc, ultimately, she triumphs. They have adventures, they fall out with one another, they face trials — but in the end, each gets her happy ending. Did any one, really, ever doubt that Charlotte would get her husband and child, that Samantha would be a sexy cancer survivor, that Miranda and Steve, Carrie and Mr. Big would find their way to a Happily Ever After?
By contrast, The Sopranos ended as a blank slate, a canvas for viewers to project their conclusions. Six Feet Under killed off its hero several episodes before the finale — and then offed the rest of the cast in the last minutes for good measure. And can anyone seriously believe that Mad Men will end with a big fat valentine for Don Draper? No way is anything good coming that man’s way. More than that, I care about these characters’ fates. I sobbed for the Fishers because, while they weren’t always likable, they were real. Don and Peggy and even Betty — real, too.
But Carrie Bradshaw, nah. She was just a hologram, with no depth, no shading. She was like Greenwich Village Barbie, dress her up in her Manolos, with her silly little flower pin, and send her off to have cosmos with
Skipper and KenSamantha and Mr. Big.