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James Martin, S.J.February 16, 2004

Sarah Jessica Parker has spent a lot of time at America House. Well, not really. But over the past several years, the cast and crew of the popular, and soon to be departed, HBO series Sex and the City (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET) have frequently been spotted filming on our block in midtown Manhattan, have dropped by to ask for directions and have evenlucky them!used our bathrooms.

This is by no means a unique phenomenon. Almost anywhere in midtown Manhattan, you will, at some point, run into phalanxes of long white vans parked alongside curbs, with tiny doors cut into their sides and great hanks of black electrical wires snaking out of their bottoms. Alert New Yorkers know that by peering inside (casually, of coursethis is New York, after all), one might be rewarded with a glimpse of a star or, more likely, an understudy, dresser or crew member. Indeed, our little neighborhood is an especially good place for star watching. I have seen during the past year: Jerry Stiller (and Anne Meara), Meryl Streep, Charles Osgood (just last month), Liam Neeson, Jerry Orbach, Bette Midler and Matthew Modine. (Yes, a strange mix: imagine what kind of movie they would make together.)

It’s part of the excitement of living in Fun City, as a longtime friend calls itrather sarcastically, I may add. She usually trots out that nickname when the subways aren’t working, a Saturday night movie is sold out by Friday night, or a jackhammer has awakened her at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning. A few years ago, in fact, I even ran into one of the stars of Sex and the City, Cynthia Nixon, outside a radio studio. Ms. Nixon was very polite and very friendly (and very redhaired). But as I left our encounter, I registered some disappointment that I hadn’t met instead her quippy, sarcastic alter ego, Miranda. When I told this to another Gothamite, he rolled his eyes. Oh, please, he said, that’s the oldest comment in the book. News flash: She’s not her character! And you call yourself a New Yorker?

The excitement and trauma of living in Fun City have been ably captured over the past six years by Sex and the City. And one of the pleasures of watching the show in New York is how many small things the comedy gets right about the place that New Yorkers annoyingly call the City. Ridiculously overpriced apartments (and diners and bars and theaters and museums), cabbies who don’t listen to you since they’re busy talking on cellphones to relatives in Tashkent, and waiters at snooty restaurants for whom the idea of actually waiting on you seems too contemptible to imagine.

After six seasons, Sex and the City has reached the end of its successful run, leaving many fans wondering where they will get the lowdown on the sexual mores of New York City. For those who have never seen it, the series focuses on the tightknit relationships between four adult women who dwell in the canyons of Manhattan. Sarah Jessica Parker plays Carrie Bradshaw, a columnist for a fictional New York newspaper called The Star. Carrie’s friends are, in order of sanity: Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha. Miranda is a hard-driving, fast-paced, Type-A (add your own New York adjectival cliché here) lawyer, who has enjoyed an on-again, off-again relationship with Steve, an addled bartender and the father of her son, Brady. (Brady was baptized last season, thanks to the ministrations of Steve’s pushy Catholic mom, played by our neighbor, Anne Meara.) This season the two finally married, after Miranda proposed.

Next is Charlotte, a socialite who always looks as if she has stepped off the pages of a Talbots catalog. She was briefly married to an Arrow Collar Man, played with perfect preppy froideur by Kyle McLachlan. Near the end of the series, Charlotte was espoused to her schlumpy-but-nice divorce lawyer. Finally, there is the undeniably trampy but undeniably funny Samantha, somewhat older than the rest of the girls, and full of hard-won, potty-mouthed wisdom. Samantha, who has run through more men than this season’s stomach flu, was dating during the final season a young male actor, who showed her surprising warmth and affection.

Sex wasn’t a show that I cared for at the beginning of its run. During the first season the women seemed too hectoring, the comedy was too (pardon the pun) broad, and the plotlines were concerned too much with, well...sex. Yes, I know that’s the title, but you need more to keep one’s interest (at least my interest). The show, in fact, could be downright filthy. I mentioned this to a friend, who said, Well, I doubt that 43-year-old priests are their target market.

But over the seasons, as the relationships have deepened, as one gets to know more about the characters’ hopes and dreams, and as some reality (read: tragedy) has crept into their lives (Miranda’s mother’s death; Carrie’s heartaches over Mr. Big, her wealthy boyfriend; Charlotte’s inability to bear a child; Samantha’s bout with breast cancer), the show has grown on me.

Some of the show, however, was simply ridiculousfunny ridiculous, though. The most egregiously non-New York aspect is the notion that four busy women (publicist, columnist, lawyer/mother and professionally wealthy person) would have the time to meet for lunch so frequently. (Forget the great clothes, many city-dwellers have remarked, I’d like all that free time!) And let me be the one dissonant voice in the chorus of fashion hosannas in praise of the show’s stylists. I think that the haute couture that clothes horse Carrie Bradshaw wears is hideous. Sometimes it looks as if she’s rolled around in a Dumpster behind the Salvation Army.

On the other hand, Sarah Jessica Parker is an intelligent actress who made almost every moment of her time on screen worthwhile. Those with long memories (and incipient crow’s feet) will remember Ms. Parker playing a similar character, brainy but a little desperate, in the underrated, 1980’s high school sitcom Square Pegs. Adding to Ms. Parker’s believability is her appearance: for all of her supposed fashion sense, she does not look like a fashion model, or even a movie star. One magazine recently called her one of the era’s great jolies laides, as the French say: that is, a reasonably attractive woman who through sheer force of will, makeup, clothes and especially personality transforms herself into something positively gorgeous. Perhaps this made viewers root more for Carrie to succeed in the ways of love.

The show has contributed numerous unique phrases to the modern lexicon, much as Seinfeld has. (How many times did you use the word regifting this Christmas?) Last season, one of Carrie’s boyfriends unceremoniously dumped her by attaching a sticky note to her computer. So now we have: Break-up by Post-it. One magazine recently referred to a Samantha complex among menthat is, the fear of being viewed with the same dismissive eye as the program’s most critical female. But sadly, most of the show’s funniest lines and situations are unprintable here.

This brings me to the prime difficulty of writing about this show. Part of me feels abashed advising readers of a Catholic magazine to watch (at this point in reruns or on DVD) a program whose message often seems to be a celebration of amoral bedhopping and foul language. But I think the appeal of the show goes deeper than its gimlet-eyed portrayal of contemporary sexual mores (which is intentionally outlandishor so I’m told). At its heart is the relationship connecting four people, who, in their own stumbling ways, try to love one another. When you get past the predictable one-night-stands, the downing of the endless Cosmopolitans and the rather pathetic label-consciousness of the stars, the show was about friendship. After six years, you get the feeling that, in the end, the four women wouldn’t trade in their friendships for all the sex in the city. And that’s not such a bad message after all.

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17 years 3 months ago
I am a faithful reader of James Martin, S.J.’s writings in America and find that I am nearly always in agreement with his views, but I have to draw the line on his article “Sex—and Reality—in the City” (2/16). I write from some experience. Recently, I was somewhat of a “captive” audience while visiting friends, who are fans of “Sex and the City,” and sat through several back-to-back programs. To put it mildly, I could find little to recommend it to anyone, for any reason, as it presented a plethora of gratuitously foul language and sexual activity. It represents the type of appalling “entertainment” that is increasingly being shoved down the throats of the television-viewing public these days, both young and old. Father Martin really had to strain to find even a smidgen of something positive in this program, which, thankfully, has been discontinued.

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