When the Lights Go Down
In the end, we all knew Carrie Bradshaw couldn’t stay in Paris. The pixie princess of Park Avenue could never find proper exile among the dour French, none of whom, it seems, appreciate the sex writer’s wisecrack-a-minute insouciance. It felt wrong, like Ralph Kramden in orbit or Sean Hannity on National Public Radio. When Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) returned home to her beloved New York at the close of the series finale, it came as less a climax and more like the inevitable period at the end of a six-year sentence.
For Carrie to find her TV destiny across the pond struck a false note for another reason, however, one that lies at the heart of Sex and the City‘s widespread appeal. It was too real, too unsettling. It was progress, as painful as progress can sometimes be. That’s something the long-running HBO comedy, which ended 22 February with more of a whimper than a gang-bang (it’s a joke that had to be made, so let’s just be done with it) never condoned.
While Sex has occasionally gestured toward documenting the fears and foibles of its zesty quartet, its routine was fantasy. The drama, such as it was, often arced from somewhat bad (Carrie tripping down the runway of a fashion show) to sorta bad (Carrie being dumped) to kinda bad (Carrie being dumped again). But the bruising was kept to a minimum. Everyone remained good sports and, for the most part, emerged unscathed. There was always another bar, another drink, another man. Figures and fashion remained fabulous and money no object. No one had abortions, stood up at AA, experimented with heroin or got smacked around by her drunken boyfriend. And that was fine.
That’s why Sex‘s final season was least successful in terms of storyline. Once it established itself as the one-shop stop for all things sexually adventurous (three-ways, bisexuality, dildos, urination fetishes), the possibilities only became less interesting when real life entered the frame. Few things are more painful than the sunrise after a bacchanal; no one looks sensational naked and hung over in the unforgiving morning light. And as the single girls who once partied like it was 1999 aged, they were only getting tired, depressed, and—worse—married.
The decision to conclude the show while it was still popular was correct and courageous. Who wanted to watch Sex devolve into thirtysomething? This last season, the one-time emotionally blocked attorney Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) settled down with husband and baby in Brooklyn. (The mother-in-law goes batty B-story in the finale was stunningly awful.) WASP socialite-turned-Jewish matron Charlotte (Kristin Davis) gave up on procreation and pursued overseas adoption. And, least forgivably, Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the sexual Duracell battery who propelled the show toward its greatest debauchery, was saddled with a loving, monogamous boyfriend and a cancer subplot (as well as a haircut that made her look like Elizabeth Taylor and not in the good way.) When an erstwhile cutting edge television program becomes cluttered with can-I-or-can’t-I child issues and disfiguring life-threatening diseases (Are you listening, producers of Six Feet Under?), the time has come to pack it in.
So, the only remaining question for the series was what to do about Carrie. It’s never been entirely clear whether the series’ masterminds loved or loathed their characters. (In the “appreciation” that aired on HBO prior to the finale, the producers suggested they wanted, at last, to take all of the characters down a peg or two.) Carrie’s romantic life, particularly, had come to resemble the dating equivalent of the Boston Red Sox. With each new man (Chris Noth, John Corbett, John Slattery, Ron Livingston), she’d draw close to the championship ring and then, inevitably something would go horribly, Bill Bucknerianly wrong. A certain masochistic sadness began to infect her misadventures, despite Parker’s enduring appeal as a comic actor.
As the episodes wound toward the last, that ticking sound in the background was time running out on Carrie’s fling with Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov, apparently ageless). Petrovsky spirited Carrie to Paris, seemingly abandoning New York and her three pals for good—or at least for an episode or two, providing the series with the opportunity to end on a true point of departure. It was not to be, of course. Following the established pattern, the writers first made Petrovsky charming and adorable when it was necessary for viewers to like him and then brutish and icy when it came time for him to go. Having determined Carrie couldn’t end up in Paris (or marry a European for that matter), the show’s writers found themselves in a resolution quandary.
Ultimately, they went for no resolution. The rapid and obvious deterioration of the Petrovsky Affair (it could be a Robert Ludlum novel) drained any suspense out of the finale. Carrie didn’t belong in France any more than the Rugrats and, given that, her U-turn back to NYC packed no punch. The clinch among the four regulars in the show’s last few minutes felt like just another day at the diner, rather than the moving reunion it should have been.
Moreover, the attempt to spice up the narrative with the sudden reappearance of the notorious Mr. Big (Noth), Carrie’s long-time obsession who, at regular intervals treated her like gum stuck on the sole of one of his Ferragamos, felt similarly half-hearted. Big’s reformed, or so he says. (To his raffish credit, Noth still has a wink that suggests he can sell you the Brooklyn Bridge half-price.) Why should our heroine have believed him, when such promises have been made and broken before? Carrie, when it came down to it, willingly chose the fantasy over the mundane. We can’t blame her. For the past six years, we did the same.