Reinvention Isn’t “Just Like That”
WARNING: This post contains spoilers to all of the first three episodes of “And Just Like That.” Also, I know being a TV critic isn’t my usual bag, but I reserve the right to be multidimensional and so here we are…..
I’ll admit straight up that in the 1990’s when I was young and single and had had the great privilege of being a New Yorker for a time, I thought the HBO Comedy “Sex and the City” was fun and offered a view of womanhood and sexuality that was markedly different from other TV offerings of the time. The airwaves were dominated by The Sopranos. The big movie hits included The Matirx, She’s All That and Austin Powers. Women and their sexuality were not treated with any kind of respect — their wants, their needs, were not really centered in the conversation.
One could argue that Sex and the City wasn’t that good at it either — it was maybe too good at reflecting back at women the patriarchal cultural values we’d been inculcated with and were still trying too hard to live within when we should maybe have been chafing under them more. Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte spent their days agonizing over whether the men they were with were “good” for them, and often stayed with them even when being treated badly. They asked themselves constantly whether the sex they were participating in was “normal” and how their sexual responses related to their emotional responses in the often improbable (but also strangely relatable) situations in which they found themselves. Looking at it now we can see the solipsism, the cis-het normative, overly white and coddled Manhattan existence, and it’s uncomfortably cringey.
But the thing it did do well, and the thing that made it a groundbreaking and iconic series, was deliver the world from the point of view of a group of four women who, despite all the crazy and dubious things they did, were solid in their love for each other, and their ride-or-die willingness to be there for their girlfriends. We all wanted to have a friend group with the kind of commitment and joie de vivre of the SATC women. Sure, there were moments where the women are in conflict with each other, but these smaller tiffs never seem to last, and the women unfailingly take each other’s part, put themselves in each other’s shoes, and make heartfelt, unselfish apologies. When Carrie is left at the altar by Big during the first movie, the solution is simple — the women will all take Carrie on her honeymoon. And even when Miranda and Carrie fall out because Miranda’s comment to Big might have sent him into the tailspin that caused him to bail on the wedding, they reconcile in days. Not since Laverne & Shirley have we had a depiction of such stalwart female friendship placed at the center of a story with unrelenting fervor and without it descending into “catfights” for entertainment and titillation or without the addition of a guy (even a gay one) to make it more relatable for men.
This faithfulness to the core of the series being female is what sets it apart from other comedies like “Living Single” and “Friends” that aired around the same time. Ironically, the only other show that even came close is the 80’s sitcom, “The Golden Girls,” which is beloved but relies on shopworn sitcom tropes that trap each of its cast members in simplistic identities so they can be milked for laughs. Sure we love the plucky retirees and their friendship (indeed the millennial generation has embraced it in all its retro glory), but the women of the Golden Girls never achieve the same kind of dynamism that the SATC women do, and they certainly don’t evolve or change. They do portray women “of a certain age” as being more than just grandmas, and for that we should celebrate them. In the end, however, the Golden Girls are funny, lovable fossils. In contrast, the SATC women grow and change and slip the bonds of their stereotypes, and while yes, it’s funny, it also feels very real.
Also, more so than other comedies at the time, there was an additional cast member — the island of Manhattan. The women were unapologetically New Yorkers in the most specific way possible and in a way that as someone who had spent years living in and around Manhattan, had the ring of authenticity. I worked in a big law firm in New York — Miranda was someone I understood. My brother worked in finance, and so Big was someone I understood, as was Steve the bartender. Yes, these were not lives that everyone lived, they were impossibly privileged. But people like that did (and still do) exist. All of the characters were so grounded in the reality of not just who they were but where they were, and that made them sing that much more vibrantly. And New York was the “fifth friend” in the love relationship between Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte. Whatever else was going on in the women’s lives, they could count on Manhattan to deliver the vibe that they loved and that kept them going, kept them optimistic and focused on the new horizons and not the past heartaches.
And so Sex and the City became a beloved cultural phenomenon — until it wasn’t anymore. The times have changed. Displays of extreme wealth are no longer seen as aspirational, they are crass and shallow. The stereotyping of LGBTQ life and the lack of inclusion overall feels tone-deaf. It was a flaw then and it still is. The endless worrying the women do about men even though every one of them has vibrant careers seems to put feminism on its heels, which is a bad thing, even if the heels are Manolos.
Apparently that meant Sarah Jessica Parker and the showrunners had to mount a reboot to reclaim the former glory of the franchise.
The problem with the new Sex and the City (renamed “And Just Like That”) is that it’s solved none of the most glaring problems of the old series. Other folks have already adeptly broken down the clunky attempts by the series to be more “woke” and to fix the massive representation issues of the original show. Miranda’s verbal microaggression vomit at her Black professor, Carrie being called out by her non-binary Latinx podcast co-host to “step her pussy up” (seriously, who says that?) are all fairly obvious and heavy-handed. The original series was really good at letting people show up in the women’s lives without much fanfare, until they became completely impossible to ignore. SATC’s representation issues were significant, but when the women did engage with people who were different from them, the encounters might have been cringey, but they didn’t feel ginned up. AJLT in contrast, seems determined to make sure we notice their attempt to rectify the diversity issues by being super obvious to the point where it becomes cringey all over again. Only the introduction of Lisa Todd Wexley (played by Nicole Ari Parker) feels like an organic development and not a shovel to the head.
By now, most folks have been exposed to the spoiler that Mr. Big dies in the first episode. In some ways, the decision to kill off Big and bring grief so solidly into the new, post COVID version of SATC does bring some interesting themes to the fore. New York City really IS a different place after COVID. So much has changed or been lost in New York, and Big’s death gives an indirect way for the show to explore those emotions through the lens of Carrie’s grief. That said, Big’s funeral — which becomes a chic fashion event, a white, stark space where even flowers (supplied by the absent Samantha) are considered unwelcome until they are identified as an olive branch — is a complete misfire. It’s like Carrie learned nothing from her misadventure with her wedding. Big dies, and his funeral contains NOTHING of Big’s aesthetic or ethos. Big’s brother (who appears from nowhere) is the only genuflection to anything that might represent Big as a person with his own identity and personality apart from Carrie. I can imagine Big being in the back row of the funeral, shaking his head in sadness that there is no jazz, no cigar bar, no references to old movies. There is only Carrie in her couture in a space that could easily be mistaken for a Bryant Park runway were it not for the coffin. I do, however, applaud the guest who wryly reminds the audience that Big was, for a good bit of the original series, a monumental asshole to Carrie before he finally realized he was, in fact, in love with her.
The funeral is emblematic of what’s wrong with the new series. It isn’t killing off Big or the ham-handed attempts to fix the sins of the past, it’s that really, Carrie appears to have learned nothing in the past 25 years. The awful misfire of the funeral is just the beginning. Episode three focuses on Carrie’s misguided and sudden focus on the first Mrs. Big — Natasha — stalking her and winding up in an awkward confrontation in a coffee shop. Fans of SATC will remember that when Big got engaged to Natasha, Carrie did something very similar — obsessing over the gorgeous brunette, who Carrie secretly believed might be more in Big’s league than her, and then having an awkward run in with her in a dressing room. If all AJLT is going to do is retread over hijinks of the past and show how little self-awareness Carrie has managed to obtain in 25 years, I’m not here for it. Carrie’s self-absorption wasn’t a good look in 1999 and its appeal has not increased with age.
I’ve been watching another show at the same time — a show that centers the relationship between four women friends exploring their sexuality and coming to grips with a world that seems full of possibility, and romance. It’s Mindy Kaling’s new project, “The Sex Lives of College Girls.” It’s been called this generation’s SATC, and the contrast is interesting. It’s actually one of a number of new shows that are trying to claim that title. BET’s “Twenties” and “Run the World” from Starz both create tight-knit friend groups, all Black, exploring relationships and life in the big city, while the recently concluded Freeform show, “The Bold Type,” played to the YA audience and felt more like a soap opera than anything else. Julie Delpy’s offering, “On the Verge” on Netflix, like AJLT, mines the world of women friends over 50, but Delpy’s characters are notable not for their unsinkable connection but for their isolation and pathos. One could even make the argument that Issa Rae’s tour de force “Insecure” has a SATC vibe to it, because of the focus on Issa and Molly’s friendship and the frank treatment of their sex lives, but honestly, I think that “Insecure” is so much more on so many levels that it transcends the SATC model and creates something so much better it’s no longer worth making the comparison. The bottom line in all this is that female friendship is now showing up consistently as the core of a whole slew of new TV shows. In some ways it’s easier to cast stones at SATC and AJLT when the landscape has so many more examples, many of which have consciously learned from the missteps of the past and improved upon the model SATC created.
But “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (SLGC?) seems like the closest kin as an update, not just because it is also on the HBO Max platform, but because like SATC, it’s not afraid to get cringey and to place its protagonists in sexually charged and awkward situations that don’t always end well. Unlike SATC, the women are still learning how to be friends, because their relationships are not built on years of loyalty, but rather proximity, having been placed in the same college dorm suite. They are still building the trust that their SATC sisters enjoy. That said, the women of SLCG, despite their cringey behavior, aren’t making the same mistakes as the women of SATC. They aren’t waiting around on men who mistreat them. They are sticking by each other, taking each other’s part, even when their actions are dicey. The showrunners are likewise doing better — the cast is diverse, and handles that diversity without pandering. They manage to raise issues, including issues of class (which so many of these shows never touch) without getting preachy or obvious. They let the characters struggle, but don’t humiliate them.
Sure, there is a world of difference between being a 50-something woman in New York City and being an 18 year old kid in college. In some ways the comparisons between all these shows are not fair because of that. And in an era where women who are “of a certain age” still have a hard time being seen and recognized as whole people, and particularly as sexual beings, AJLT has the potential to say a lot that will be worth hearing that hasn’t been said before. It has the potential to break ground again, but not if they insist on focusing on solving the histories of these characters as opposed to their futures. I haven’t given up on “And Just Like That” just yet — I think it could redeem itself. But it’s off to a pretty rocky start. If AJLT wants to truly bring Carrie Bradshaw and her pals back to their former glory, it’s going to not only have to be better than the original, but better than all the other shows that have sprung up in the interim. The showrunners seem oblivious to that fact, assuming that reinvention is merely a matter of fixing a few of the more glaring problems, killing off Carrie’s husband, filling episodes with callbacks to the original series, and just like that, you’re back in the premium television game. But maybe that’s the real issue with Carrie Bradshaw and her friends — It’s presumptuous to think that they are entitled to occupy a certain place in the cultural landscape now simply because they did then. And in 2021, white women showing their entitlement isn’t in vogue — it is now most certainly a bad look.