Most of the women I know—and quite a few men—are girding themselves for the end of Sex and the City. No other recent TV series has teased out contemporary female ambivalence with such wicked humor. And although I don’t know any women who talk about sex (or have it!) as rampantly as these chicks, it feels cathartic to watch characters obsessively circling quandaries like love versus lust, commitment versus independence, heels versus flats.
The show has always been a love-hate experience for me. Its increasingly tight focus on romance meant that references to careers have been mostly obliterated: Charlotte quit her art gallery job when she married, Miranda cut back her law workload when she had a baby but seems to have endless time to schmooze with her pals, and Carrie and Samantha’s media careers require less time than a Brazilian wax. The characters endlessly defend their right to revolt against convention, but their idea of independence ultimately boils down to a glorified version of Paris Hilton’s life: sex, media status, and consumerism. They passionately support, as one clever episode title put it, “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.”
And yet somehow their struggles have been rendered in a way that feels deeply human, simultaneously madcap and melancholy. In the run-up to the series’ denouement, Samantha cheats on her sweet boy toy but also discovers her mortality, and Charlotte settles down with her balding Jewish husband while still fixating on her fertility problems. Meanwhile, Carrie (played in an increasingly mannered way by Sarah Jessica Parker) is locked in an awkward love affair with grand romantic figure Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov). “That is some serious stuff,” Carrie mocks after he reads her a Joseph Brodsky poem. “Perhaps we haven’t been properly introduced. I write a column based on the assumption that romance is either dead or phony.” A column that nevertheless stands as the backbone of a series that sends its heroines in constant pursuit of romance. Profoundly confused, Sex and the City captivates its equally confused audience (me included) with this double-edged game. It will undoubtedly do so up to its final moments, when it reveals whether Carrie will (a) succumb to the conventionally macho appeal of Mr. Big, (b) head for deeper waters, (c) go on a fatal spending spree, or (d) all of the above.