The Doldrums of Mainstream Success
I started watching Sex and the City to alleviate my Chris Noth withdrawal, not appeased by late-night reruns of Law and Order. I carried on watching Sex and the City because it captured so ruthlessly the rapacious delight the nearly married, the already married, and even the grotesquely unhappily married draw from the destruction of the never-marrieds’ self-esteem. And I am still watching Sex and the City because I can never tell when an episode begins whether I am going to be driven to shoe-throwing violence by the self-obsessed, guy-dependant groveling of the Manhattan quartet or inspired to cheer their unflinching portrayal of human quirkiness and self-destructive risk-taking.
In the season just ended, I’ve been driven more than ever before from one extreme to the other, from the tender closing hours of Carrie’s (Sarah Jessica Parker) birthday to the saccharine overload of her final acquiescence to boyfriend Aidan’s (John Corbett) passive-aggressive possessiveness. Most often, though, I’ve watched the closing credits to the accompaniment of a gnawing “So what?” after a stream of witty one-or two-liners has added up to, well, a stream of witty one- or two-liners. Minute by minute, they dazzle, as when Carries muses, “I got to thinking about relationships and partial lobotomies. Two seemingly different ideas that might just be perfect together—like chocolate and peanut butter,” or Samantha (Kim Cattrall) greets Charlotte’s (Kristin Davis) infertility angst with an uncomprehending, “If it’s so hard to get pregnant, how do you account for the number of crying children on planes?” But as one promising storyline after another was perfunctorily resolved, it seems as if the producing and the writing team (Michael Patrick King, Jenny Bicks, Nicole Avril, Allan Heinberg, Cindy Chupack, Jessica Bendinger, Julie Rottenberg, and Elisa Zuritsky) had lost interest in the characters as anything other than designer mouthpieces. That, in turn, has allowed the show’s schizophrenic fault lines (between pre-feminist romance and post-feminist sass) to shift closer and closer to the surface.
For years now, Sex and the City has balanced romantic comedy (the thematic stories that run over many episodes) with low-budget talk-show lewdness (the snappy girls-only interludes that separate the more “serious” scenes in each episode). This past season, these mini-talk shows are as inventive as ever. They’re much faster and funnier than “real” talk tv, and they provide pitch-perfect sensationalism for the emotionally starved and psychically bruised. While Carrie and Co. may not talk like most women over thirty talk, they do articulate what many women over (or under) thirty think, fulfilling talk show culture’s cathartic contribution to contemporary life: “Hey, other people out there are just as weird/baffled/perverted/perturbed/wicked as me. And they’re enjoying it!”
But even the most luscious pyrotechnics require a substratum of substance. Until now, the much more traditional themes (albeit played with sizzling frankness) of women’s hunt for a happily-ever-after ending with Mr. Right have proved the successes of Sex and the City. Two long-running storylines—Carrie’s involvement with charismatic financial wizard, Mr. Big (played by Noth), and Charlotte’s post-marital love affair with her sometimes estranged husband, Trey (Kyle MacLachlan)—created absorbing drama. Carrie’s love affair with Big wasn’t some “Will they or won’t they?” sit-com plot. (They did.) Nor was it the “Can’t live with him/her, can’t live without him/her” of retro melodrama (They could.). It was the negotiation of intertwined loves, lusts, jealousies, and fears to which no simple answer existed. And the subsequent fizzling of Carrie’s new romance with furniture designer Aidan after she indulged in an affair with the now-married Big added an appreciation of the fact that lasting partnership entails genuine emotional and psychological loss, as well as gain.
With too much shared history to be either less or more than intimate friends, Carrie and Big began this last season in a friendly complicity that soon threatened her rekindled affair with Aidan. Carrie’s unwillingness to abandon Big and her constant fear of losing Aidan led to an anguished moment of self-abnegation, as she clung to her open door, begging the blank-faced Aidan over and over and over again to forgive her for sleeping with Big. The transparent nakedness of her longing, compelling held in an unmoving, single shot, was almost unbearable. It was also riveting. But any thematic richness in the tension between Carrie’s love for her past and hopes for her future quickly evaporated. When a lovelorn Big, dumped by his movie star girlfriend, recklessly drove to Aidan’s country cabin to cry on Carrie’s shoulder, the men’s mutual hostility vanished (as if by magic) when a “making friends” session of shooting hoops evaporated into good, old-fashioned slugging, a kind of Fight Club in the mud bonding session.
Similarly, the lengthy saga of Charlotte and Trey’s mismatched libidos and psychosexual gyrations (played like a Chaucerian bawdy of an early ‘60s “young marrieds” movie (think Barefoot in the Park) accelerated into absurdity at the end of the series. Trey’s confession that he’d prefer to play golf and live childlessly with Charlotte than to play obedient sperm donor in the slender hope of producing an heir, revealed quite poignantly the alienation that results from acceding to a partner’s desires one does not share. But it was precipitated by Charlotte’s almost instantaneous collapse from art gallery ice-queen to hormone-supercharged harpy, executed in a (televisual) blink of the eye.
Such moments of unearned resolution trivialize the characters, offering no lasting counterpoint to their verbal slickness. Instead of forcing Aidan to deal with Big as Carrie’s friend, the writers let Aidan appropriate him as his buddy, and so neutralize him. Instead of exploring Samantha’s potential bisexuality, the writers coughed hurriedly into their handkerchiefs and returned thankfully to horizontal heterosexuality. Instead of exploring cancer as an ongoing threat, they looked for the Hallmark silver lining and produced a fetus.
A sense of terminal impatience hangs over the show, as if the writers are more eager to tick ideas off a list of chic “topics to be covered” than to explore the emotions and actions they provoke. Like so many prime-time shows (whether network or cable), Sex and the City faces the doldrums of mainstream success, where the show begins to write to its reputation, not to its characters, and audiences neither love it nor hate it, but simply watch it out of creeping entropy. Underneath its slinky-gown allure, Sex and the City is starting to resemble a bare-assed Friends sliding into the flabby ennui of a post-millennial thirtysomething. Will I watch the reruns of this summer’s saga? Probably not. Will I tune into the next new season? Probably yes. Will I keep watching past the first episode? I suppose, but only if Samantha grows or goes, if Carrie kicks back against Aidan’s boundaries, if Miranda’s baby does more than prompt jokes about leaking breasts, and if the writers think less about headlines and Emmys and much much more about the multiple, trivial, irritating, heartbreaking, enviable neuroses inflicted by unbridled affluence.