HBO's weekly sitcom Sex and the City made its season debut this month with all of the fanfare normally reserved for feature films: a star-studded red-carpet premiere, countless reviews and fawning feature stories, and near ubiquitous advertising. The show has become a cultural landmark-even though relatively few Americans actually see it.
Considering the content of SATC, this is a good thing. While it draws a large audience for premium cable (its debut episode last season drew 7.3 million viewers, the series' largest audience to date), top-rated network television shows regularly draw double or triple that number. HBO offers its channel lineup only to cable subscribers who pay an additional fee, meaning that HBO programming is available only in a limited number of homes nationwide
So although the rest of us-non-HBO subscribers, that is-don't have easy access to SATC, it's far from off the cultural radar. The show is now entering its fifth season, amid continued fanfare. Last year, SATC made television history by becoming the first cable program to win the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy award.
When nominations for the 2002 Emmys were announced this month, SATC's 10 nominations helped push HBO ahead of all other networks, with 94 total nominations. Critics love SATC, taking for granted that the series is the touchstone of modern, mature, self-aware attitudes toward female sexuality and romantic relationships.
SATC follows the lives of four single/married/divorced (depending on the season) women living in New York City. Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) is the show's real protagonist, a sex columnist now writing for Vogue. Each of her three friends fits a different niche that provides fodder for Carrie's column: Samantha, sex-obsessed (even more than the others, really) and abrasive; Miranda, cynical and independent; and Charlotte, naïve and idealistic.
And so the show has charted the trials and travails of these four women: dating, careers, marriage, childbirth, and, of course, first and foremost, copulation. As the title suggests, this is a show about sex: wanting it, having it, talking about it, and, to a lesser degree, facing the emotional and physical repercussions associated with it.
Is it as bad as it sounds? In almost every way, yes. The language is utterly foul. And, this being HBO, where the limited standards of decency taken for granted by other networks are sneered at, the content is often graphic. This season's debut episode featured three of the four main characters topless, in three separate scenes. For a show so squarely aimed at a female audience, and so proud of its estrogen-empowering credentials, this in itself seems hypocritical.
SATC distinguishes itself from the vapid offerings of other networks by more than its raunchiness, however; so in some ways it's not surprising that the show has many fans. It has a strong ensemble cast, attracts seasoned supporting players, and boasts an award-winning writing team. (The show's writers are predominantly female, but also include, tellingly, several homosexual males.)
The plot, stretching from episode to episode, is linear, allowing for much more character development than one would typically find in the sitcom format. Each show is united in plot and subplot around a common theme, always encapsulated in the question posed at the beginning of one of Carrie's columns. The dialogue is often clever, and certainly the writing is done at a higher level than most of the competition.
But the collaborative efforts of a talented team are no excuse for this profane, destructive show. After watching just a few episodes available on video and the latest episode to be aired on HBO, I've already lost count of the number of men with whom these women have slept. The show is ostensibly about strong, independent women, but the twin obsessions with sex and the city of New York in the end come off more pathetic than powerful.
SATC is really, fundamentally, about self-indulgence. Sarah Jessica Parker has admitted that women exactly like Carrie and her friends may not really exist, but she said that the scenarios they encounter contain a certain emotional reality to which viewers-especially women-connect. In truth, it's on an emotional level that this show is least engaging, and most destructive.
Sure, there are sometimes negative consequences to the characters' immoderate pleasures, but there is always another, substitutionary indulgence right around the corner that will make things right. If Carrie is burned in a relationship, it's nothing that her fabulous New York lifestyle, sophisticated friends, or a shopping spree at Barney's can't soothe. An attractive fantasy for many, perhaps. But emotionally honest? Absolutely not.