Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

I'm still wild about Carrie

`Sex and the City' put modern love and fabulous accessories in the spotlight ... and men in their place

By Kathryn Flett  /  THE OBSERVER , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

First things first. Sex and the City (SATC) is not about sex, though this would be an easy assumption to make about America's most successful cable TV show, given that it focuses on the lives of four hip, sassy, exuberantly styled thirtysomething females who discuss anal sex and vibrator preferences with the same degree of experiential insight as shopping for shoes.

But still I insist that the show is not primarily about sex. Each episode is a pithy tiptoe through the tulip-strewn minefield of modern love, relationships, friendship and growing-up, a comedy of manners set against the backdrop of New York at its most urbane and seductive.

Its many critics claim it's trite, cartoony and irritatingly fluffy and girly, but they are probably either sneery blokes or women who don't like the idea that postfeminism might encompass a struggle to reconcile the need for emotional and spiritual fulfilment with the desire for expensive accessories.

Sex and the City started life in 1994 as a tongue-in-cheek column about modern sexual mores written by Candace Bushnell in the New York Observer. Warner Books put the columns between hard covers in 1996, and, two years later, Darren Star, the creator of Beverly Hills 90210 for Fox TV, mined them for television gold.

Given its provocative remit, not to mention title, SATC was never going to make it on to a mainstream US network. It was developed specifically for HBO, the aggressively innovative cable channel which also gave us The Sopranos. It has since won three Emmy awards, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series in 2001 and attracts upwards of seven million US viewers per episode. That might not sound like a lot until you know that this is out of a total 30 million HBO subscribers.

The first series, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon and Kristin Davis as Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte, aired in the States in 1998 but was not immediately the worldwide hit it became. There is an old, though unsubstantiated, rumor that HBO was considering cancelling it after the first series, and even Parker, who has had a producer credit since day one, initially wondered "if people will find it saucy and smart, or if they're going to say, `This is completely inappropriate.' "

The critics were divided: Some thought SATC racy, others considered it vulgar. When it first aired on British TV in 1999 I described it as "A brilliant comedic despatch from the frontline of modern singledom. If Friends is an afternoon spent rollerblading in Central Park, then SATC is a bungee jump from the World Trade Centre."

Given a second chance, the show hit its stride after dumping some of its more contrived dramatic devices, such as Carrie (the Bushnell character and lynchpin of the show) addressing the camera directly.

Instead, she was given a weekly scene in which she indulges in an interior monologue while smoking herself toxic in front of her laptop.

Aside from the sex, one of SATC's biggest taboo-busters has been its commitment to nicotine consumption, no mean accomplishment given that it is marginally easier to make it from the chorus to the spotlight on Broadway than to spark up a cigarette outside a New York theater.

By the second season, three of the four principal players had been been fleshed out, while Samantha, the rapacious sexual predator who avoids relationships in favour of serial sexual encounters (just like a guy), has consistently remained a two-dimensional character.

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