April 22, 2008 | Comments ()

By Agent Bedhead | Guides | April 22, 2008 |


When it comes to the unavoidedly subjective process of showcasing “The Best 15 Seasons of the Past 20 Years,” the controversial aspects can get pretty loaded. Ideally, my contribution to the series would have been a rehash of my previous review of “My So-Called Life.” Obviously, that wouldn’t generate any new discussion. Of course, I did have another selection in mind, which would have spared the majority of you from the trouble of shaking your heads in exasperation, but choosing the safer route just to avoid conflict is, well, a dull practice. So, the quest to pick the “best” would inevitably include a program that didn’t fit the template of intelligent, intertextual, and impossibly clever. Whether you hate, love, or remain ambivalent about “Sex and the City,” it’s impossible to deny the ubiquitous (even zeitgeistian) influence of the show’s elements — city, dialogue, friendship — within contemporary popular culture. After $300 million in DVD sales, the trend is anything but over, and, for better or worse, the Sex and the City feature film will soon be upon us. Of course, it is a truth universally acknowledged that, during the show’s six-season run, groups of women regularly assembled to watch “SATC.” A lesser known fact is that some men even watched the show without being physically confined or placed under duress. Shhhhhhhhh!

While I will confess to being one of those women who made a ritual of watching this show, I can still admit that, at times, it feels pretty good to diss the douchebags of “SATC.” A lot of what the series had to offer was well worth despising on face value: (1) Characters who enjoy all the perks of adulthood yet never really seem to grow up; (2) Rampant elitist consumerism offset by conveniently rent-controlled brownstone apartments; (3) Supposedly empowered women whose only real power is that they choose to sexualize themselves; (4) All four characters slept with loads of men, yet only one was considered a slut. Unreigned sexual empowerment can do that sometimes, but that’s one of the many ironic twists of this television series. Prada, Fendi, and Manolo Blahnik aside, what I’ve always liked about the show is its satire of dating rituals. One really can have it all — career, independence, beauty, friends — and still get hung up on the fear of ending up all alone in life. So, things really haven’t progressed much from Edith Wharton’s turn-of-the-century novels of social Darwinism. Or have they?

The four main characters are thirtysomething women: Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), and Charlotte York (Kristin Davis). Carrie is the lead character and the most overtly analytical of the bunch. While she holds herself as a single, successful gal, she has a romantic side and believes she’ll eventually find her soul mate. Like Carrie, Miranda has a lot of pride in her independence, and, as a lawyer, she pretty much knows that in each transaction, one party will go home empty-handed. Her cynicism often functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Samantha prefers her sex without strings, but as the show wears on, she begins to want more than just the almighty orgasm to keep her warm at night. Charlotte never strays from her agenda of finding Prince Charming, settling down, and having a baby. Generally speaking, most of the series’ female audience can more or less at least identify with one of the four central female characters. That would account for all those discussions of whether so-and-so is a Carrie, a Samantha, a Charlotte, or a Miranda. Obviously, blatant stereotypes are at work within each of the four women’s personas, but this allows the theme of each show to be dissected in a very humorous, ironic way. Each episode’s four distinct points of view on each issue allow the show to present layers of meaning and encourage discussion, an extremely powerful form of narrative that explains the show’s pervasiveness within groups of women everywhere.

Although the first three seasons were all very irreverent, sexy, and poignant, Season Four was distinctive in that it took these four women out of the complete vacuum in which show had previously and blissfully remained. This season also features some fairly irresistable guest stars: Alan Cumming as the more vocal half of Dolce and Gabbana, Margaret Cho as a fashion show producer, and Candice Bergen as a nightmare Vogue editor. Finally, Season Four is when everything started to fall spectacularly apart in these characters’ perfectly compartmentalized lives. Carrie became engaged to Aidan (John Corbett), and when she postponed the engagement, he left her. Miranda became pregnant with Steve’s (David Eigenberg) child after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Charlotte and Trey (Kyle MacLachlan) dealt with his impotence, her infertility, and their eventual separation. Samantha entered into a brief lesbian relationship and then fell in love with a man. Throughout, the surreptitious satire was biting, and, if I had my way, the show would have ended quite nicely at the end of Season Four, but the show’s producers had to go and ruin a relatively good thing.

As usual, each episode in the season follows the same narrative template, with all four characters moving through interweaving stories centered around the same theme, which is kicked off by Carrie typing a question on her laptop, “I couldn’t help but wonder … [insert question]?” Sure, this structure is a bit gimmicky and carries the faint aura of Doogie Howser about it, but this framework is an efficient way of leaping into each show’s interconnected plotlines. As the central character, Carrie is a relatively omniscient yet ultimately unreliable narrator. As a self-declared sexual anthropologist who “knows good sex,” Carrie passes this supposed knowledge on to readers in the form of a weekly newspaper column. She is the subjective filter for the entirety of the series and chooses what does and doesn’t remain objectified about the other characters. Yet, for all her seeming authority in the realm of sexual relationships, Carrie really knows about as much as the rest of us — that is, absolutely zilch. She is both the fairy-tale heroine in search of the elusive happily-ever-after ending and the decadent temptress whose mistakes prevent her from realizing her present or future happiness. Even though a part of Carrie always believes in Mr. Right, her vision of this man is only complete as a combination of her fantasies of both the suave, gallant, witty Mr. Big (Chris Noth) and the earthy, loving, protective Aidan. While Carrie is smart, experienced, and lucid enough to realize the falseness of a fairy-tale romance, complete with Prince Charming and a happy ending, she still cannot stop herself from falling into this false consciousness on a semi-regular basis. Carrie deeply yearns for traditional romance, but when she receives the elusive fruits, she is clearly uneasy with their trappings. For example, while she loves Aidan and accepts his marriage proposal (“A man you love kneels in the street and offers you a beautiful ring — you say yes — it’s just what you do.”), Carrie chooses to wear the engagement ring on a necklace and sometimes even buried within strings of pearls. In this light, it’s quite fitting that she ends up alone after the season finale when Mr. Big moves away from New York City and Aidan is gone.

Carrie’s indecisiveness is complicated by the fact that she pursued a reunion with Aidan after their Season Three breakup and was, in fact, quite frantic in her quest to win him back. She even shows up outside his apartment window in a bizarre 180 on a Shakespearean balcony scene, which ends in Aidan yelling, “You broke my heart!” Upon their reunion, while Carrie feels secure sleeping next to Aidan in that coveted “nook” of space inside of him, she simultaneously rejects his offers to rescue her from distressing scenarios. He even comes to the rescue of her friends, like when Miranda hurts her neck and cannot pull herself off the bathroom floor. When Carrie’s laptop irretrievably crashes and her apartment building switches to co-op status, Aidan fixes the situations for her. His grand gestures are meant only to demonstrate his love and commitment, but Carrie can’t help but think he’s trying to control her entire life. She begrudgingly allows Aidan to move into her apartment and pay the mortgage, but, true to her character, she proceeds to go completely neurotic about her Secret Single Behavior and storms out during a fight: “You can stay here with your boxes of shit and your shoe-eating dog, and knock yourself out putting on the Rogaine and the Speed Stick!” When she returns, she asks Aidan to give her the quiet time she needs, and when he complies, she quickly becomes bored and returns to the room. Her voiceover tells the audience, “That’s the thing about needs. Sometimes, when you get them met, you don’t need them anymore.” This statement seems to extend to the entirety of Carrie’s love life, and while she continues to keep a sense of humor about her, she remains profoundly unhappy with the realities of a romantic relationship.

Perhaps the best contrast to Carrie’s hesitation to commit romantically would be Charlotte, who is my favorite character of the series because Davis plays her with such great comic timing. Charlotte remains the eternal optimist about her search for Prince Charming, but she deserves credit for, at a minimum, blatant honesty about her desires and needs. Her Prince Charming, Trey MacDougal, is played to perfection by MacLachlan, who is perhaps the only actor who could maintain a deadpan demeanor when Charlotte catches him furiously masturbating to Juggs magazine. Before marriage, Trey was everything that Charlotte had dreamed for in a husband — blue-blooded, successful, handsome, and well-mannered. Of course, his virile appearance masked his impotence and disturbingly unhealthy attachment to an overbearing mother. In Season Four, Trey finally starts getting it up around Charlotte, and they discover that their true issues go much further than the bedroom. However, Charlotte continues to present the facade of their relationship when their apartment is photographed by House & Garden magazine. As the barely married couple poses for the camera, Carrie’s voiceover admits that “Trey had moved out by the time the magazine was on the stands. But all over America, little girls in their mothers’ pearls saw the picture and thought, ‘That’s what I want.’” And so, the myth is perpetuated, and the cycle continues to influence the next generation of females. All is vanity, indeed.

Season Four comes to a climax with the breakup of Carrie and Aidan, who utters, “I can’t believe that I’m back here again.” Carrie reacts as if she’s been kicked in the stomach. Across town at that very moment, Miranda feels her baby kick for the first time. A few days later, Aidan gives Carrie 30 days to purchase her apartment or vacate the premises. For a down payment, she at first borrows $30,000 from Mr. Big, but she then refuses to take money from a man and tears up Big’s check. Over lunch, Miranda and Samantha both offer to loan Carrie enough for a down payment, but she declines borrowing from her friends who need the money. When Charlotte later lends her defunct wedding ring to Carrie, so she can sell it and have a down payment, nobody sees a problem with this because Charlotte can afford it. However, Charlotte’s wealth comes directly as a result of marrying and divorcing Trey, so essentially, Carrie is still finding her crutch by means of a man. This pretense satisfies the true nature of satire, and, like Charlotte, Carrie keeps her carefully maintained portrait of herself by grasping onto what is false to maintain her vanity. Like Carrie, “Sex and the City” keeps its sense of humor within its inconsistencies and on the offensive.

Neurotic? Yes. Bittersweet? Absofuckinglutely.

Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.

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Guides | April 22, 2008 | Comments ()



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