‘Sex and the City’ didn’t change. We did.
The consensus on the recent sequel to “Sex and the City,” entitled “And Just Like That,” seems to be that the old show’s spirit and thread have been lost. And indeed, as the episodes were released each week from December 2021 to February 2022, I watched each one with a near-perpetual cringe that bespoke my visceral agreement with the prevailing view: “And Just Like That” is just bad television.
The show is not particularly funny. Some of the dialogue is awkward and tedious. Depending on one’s perspective, the new inclusion of racially and sexually diverse characters either bumps up against or epitomizes tokenism. Inevitably, attempts at so-called antiracism reflect the worst of what used to be called limousine liberalism. Even more inevitably, attempts to negotiate between aging gracefully and staying relevant are strained.
Still, despite my broad dislike of the show’s presumptions and plotlines, something kept me tuning in week after week. Perhaps it was just my peculiar fondness for these characters, with whom I spent many comfortable hours, despite my repugnance for much of what they stood for.
HBO's “And Just Like That,” like "Sex and the City" before it, is an exaggerated funhouse mirror of its viewers’ world.
Like many of my contemporaries (I am 34—an old millennial), I have watched the original “Sex and the City” series (1998-2004) far more than once. (It remains my laundry-folding show of choice, and three young kids create a lot of laundry.) The explicit ideals of “Sex and the City”—sexual promiscuity, denigration of young marriage and motherhood, irrelevance of religion and centrality of fashion—were always antithetical to what we as Catholics might call the good, the true and the beautiful. Moreover, its implicit ideals—the exclusionary presumption of whiteness in one of the most multicultural metropolises in the world, and the even more exclusionary presumption of money and status as indicative of characterological worth—were always equally central to the show and equally abhorrent.
Yet I both appreciate and like “Sex and the City” for exactly what it has always been, and what I am arguing here that “And Just Like That” is also, at bottom. Both shows are exaggerated funhouse mirrors of their viewers’ worlds. They douse the elite aspirations and shibboleths of their own times in sufficient glitter that they are not just reified but also—intentionally or not—revealed and ultimately challenged.
In 1998, “Sex and the City” took on the question whether women really could “have sex like men” in a 1990s New York City that had turned the page on the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and fully absorbed the sexual revolution—not in its earlier iteration as 1970s youth culture, but as the sophisticated woman’s approach to a post-romance world. The question was answered with ambivalence, in the show as in the culture: “Well, yes and no.”
“Sex and the City” provided a great deal of fodder not only for laughter but also for thought.
Meanwhile, “Sex and the City” provided a great deal of fodder not only for laughter but also for thought—about similarities and differences between the sexes, and about the strained coexistence of modern and premodern iterations of femininity. Most of all, the show highlighted romantic and sexual behavior among elites, in a world where the conventions of Edith Wharton’s upper-crust New York were simultaneously so long gone as to render the landscape utterly unrecognizable and yet recent enough to haunt the ornate hotel lobbies and brownstone homes with the whiff of their very absence.
Early in the original series, in those waning days of the 1990s, well-funded hedonism reigned supreme. Of course, there was a melancholy emptiness lurking underneath all the labels and shoes and fancy lunches: Our protagonist, Carrie Bradshaw, just couldn’t get the man she loved to love her back. But the unconditional love of her friends, the unimpeded pursuit of luxury goods and the hot nights with hot men got her through. Back then, Bill Clinton—known womanizer and accused rapist—pursued an ostensibly feminist agenda in the Oval Office. #MeToo had not happened yet; and the baby boomers and Gen-Xers featured in the show mocked the era’s so-called political correctness in a way that was tolerated and even expected because, after all, we all knew they were the good guys. We were living, it felt, in a moment after history: Sure, most people couldn’t afford $525 shoes, but they identified with someone who could.
By 2004, when the original series ended, the climaxes of the show did not take place in the bedroom any more. There was Charlotte, finally becoming a mother by adopting a baby from China with her less-than-attractive but tender and generous husband, Harry. There was Miranda, who had left her anti-man feminist past so far behind that she was taking care of her bartending husband’s elderly mother and raising her son in Brooklyn. There was Samantha, whose new gravitas as a coupled-up cancer survivor was the original show’s final word on its most stereotypically sexually liberated character (until the two movies, released in 2008 and 2012, respectively, turned her into a cartoon). And there was Carrie, whose romantic dreams of life in Paris with a Russian paramour were shattered, and who was rescued—a damsel in distress straight out of medieval lore if ever the 21st century produced one—by her big, strong man.
Of course, there was a melancholy emptiness lurking underneath all the labels and shoes and fancy lunches.
It was the mid-2000s. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had made us fearful and renewed our interest in traditional happy endings. Moreover, the reflexive anti-Americanism that had been en vogue among elites since the late 1960s had run its course for a fleeting moment—just like the indifferent-to-love feminism on offer in “Sex and the City.” What we really craved deep down, it seemed, was a safe home with a good man. It might have been a saccharine finale, but it was the one the audience wanted.
And now, in 2022, “And Just Like That” continues the old “Sex and the City”project: revealing our moneyed, East Coast elites to themselves—and to everyone else—using just enough obvious hyperbole to soften the edges of their extreme solipsism. The likeness has never been less flattering, because such elites have never been more thoroughly out of touch with their fellow citizens.
Kristin Davis’s Charlotte is a caricature of the wealthy, liberal Karen: an off-putting mixture of white-lady tears and virtue signaling that makes everyone else’s emotional distress—from her nonbinary middle schooler, to her Black friend, to her widowed bestie—about her.
“And Just Like That” continues the old “Sex and the City”project: revealing our moneyed, East Coast elites to themselves.
Meanwhile, Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda is a woker-than-thou white lady who crusades for anti-racism by trying to save Black peers from inconveniences that do not have anything discernable to do with their race (and further inconveniencing those very Black people in the process while attempting to make herself feel and look good). She is also a cheater—upending a now-sexless marriage with her longtime husband, Steve, to pursue unimpeded lust with a nonbinary, younger love interest with whom she has passionate, spontaneous sex while neglecting her promise to care for Carrie after surgery.
And, finally, Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie is a prudish-by-today’s-standards podcast guest unwilling to talk graphically about her sex life. Carrie, who was once a columnist too seedy to date a mayoral candidate! And then she is a widow, alone once again and yearning for Mr. Big, until the next first kiss comes along—which it does, in the final moments of the series.
Kim Cattrall’s Samantha does not appear in the new series because of interpersonal issues between the actresses. Samantha is referred to as being in London, having retreated from her friendships with the rest of the erstwhile foursome after Carrie stopped using her as a publicist. The storyline is questionable—but I would likely leave New York for London, too, if these most recent iterations of Charlotte, Miranda and Carrie were my closest connections in the Big Apple.
If the characters in “And Just Like That” feel even less likable than their prior selves in “Sex and the City,” perhaps it is actually not because the show has changed, but because the social landscape it so deftly reveals by way of hyperbole has. That is, these very people—elite, 50-something East Coasters in 2022—are in fact less likable than their 30-something selves were in 2002.
“Sex and the City,” for all its limitations, was a story about the universal human condition.
“Sex and the City,” for all its limitations, was a story about the universal human condition. As all stories must do, it explored the human condition through specific characters who—love them or loathe them—were relatable because they expressed their humanity in a universally understandable way. Like other iconic antiheroes of the era—Tony Soprano of “The Sopranos,” Omar Little of “The Wire,” Bill Hendrickson of “Big Love”—Carrie Bradshaw lived a life that bore no overt resemblance to any that I have lived or wanted to live.
I have never been a 30-something single woman in New York any more than I have been a New Jersey mafia boss, a Baltimore stick-up man or a polygamist in Utah. But I do not need to be any of these things to understand these characters, or to see them in all their moral complexity; to empathize and identify with them, even as I question or condemn them. Because these were great stories, and great stories are all the same beneath the splendid array of differences that makes each one unique. The answers (whom to kill, whom to marry, how to cope) are specific to the place, the time, the characters and the circumstances. But the questions (Who am I? What is my life about? What is my legacy?) that necessitate those answers are universal to the human condition.
“And Just Like That” is about the human condition, too. Love (romantic, parental and other) and loss (not just Big’s death, but also Miranda’s unraveled marriage and Samantha’s text-only appearances) are the show’s themes. And yet the characters converse and behave in ways so foreign to anyone outside the tiny clique of white East Coast elites (like Charlotte and Harry, who rehearse for dinners with Black friends by preparing to name-drop as many Black authors as possible—eek!) that the momentum of the show does not wind up resting on an appeal to the universal humanity of everyone, even if they’re not like us. It rests, instead, on the presumption that everyone worth sharing our humanity with is, in all the ways that actually matter, just like us.
In this way, this fictional show about these specific people reflects, in a somewhat exaggerated but by no means inaccurate manner, the newly codified and truly staggering insularity of white East Coast elites in 2022. As such, the show remains worthwhile art, and a worthy story. But it is also a sadder story, and not just because it evocatively depicts so much love lost for the characters (though that is true). It is sad because it accurately reflects how much understanding of their shared humanity has been lost between the demographic set that the characters represent and the fellow citizens from whom they are ever more polarized by class and education (even as they are less divided along lines of race and sexual orientation within their upper-class milieu).
Maybe this is why I kept dutifully watching “And Just Like That”—not in spite of its “so out of touch and elitist we’re not even aware of it” quintessence, but because of it.
After all, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is this where it all ends? Or will the next season—in the show and in the culture it so aptly reflects—be better?