Editor’s Note: Following our previous post about books in TV shows, here is a post about a TV show that once was a book, Sex and the City. Our author responds to Emily Nussbaum and her contention in the New Yorker that the show has not gotten its due, especially side-by-side with other shows like The Sopranos. As our author makes clear, “I like Nussbaum. I like Sex and the City. I am a man,” we shall also make clear that his views do not necessarily reflect those of everyone at Fiction Advocate (especially in my case, since I have not seen more than a few episodes of either show) though we all agree that they are worth reading. – MM
With the sudden death of James Gandolfini and the return of Breaking Bad for its final season this week, the internet is replete with nostalgia for the golden age of television, pre-obituaries for our era’s amazing serialized dramas and their signature anti-heroes: Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Jimmy McNulty, Walter White. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum nominates an addition to the list: Carrie Bradshaw.
In her defensive paean to the show that brought zipless fucks into the twenty-first century, Emily Nussbaum argues that both Carrie and her vehicle, Sex and the City, haven’t gotten a fair shake. But the aim of her essay—a pushback against “the reflexive consensus on the show,” that it is merely a “guilty pleasure” inspiring “self-flagellating conversations”—is much broader than the resuscitation of a lone, storied series. It is peppered with implications, never quite made explicit, about the rampant sexism of television criticism and American culture generally. It’s there in Nussbaum’s complaint that any show will be considered inferior if it’s “stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively)” and in her lament that new shows with female protagonists must be distanced from Sex and the City rather than compared to it. (And yet, reading this, one wonders how many Hollywood pitch meetings have begun, “It’s Sex and the City meets…”?)
But because she is so reluctant to make this argument explicit, what she says is so narrow as to be absurd: that Sex and the City was just as good a show as The Sopranos. That SATC’s reputation is unfair and unwarranted and sexist and would be as good as its HBO brother if only so many critics weren’t men. I like Nussbaum. I like Sex and the City. I am a man. Unlike the men whom Nussbaum has apparently polled, I find Charlotte the most unlikable character (she’s naïve and retrograde and, worst of all, boring). And I feel for Nussbaum because I, too, wish that SATC were a better show. But if we’re going to play the silly game of whether one show is as good as another, there’s just no way that SATC was as great a show as The Sopranos. SATC consistently undermined itself by taking the easy way out — and that, not the cabal of male television critics, is why the show is good but not great.
Nussbaum takes issue with the characterization of the four SATC girls as “types” or “empty, static cartoons.” She is referring, I suppose, to the age-old question, “Are you more a Charlotte or a Samantha?” Correct—that question is insipid and annoying. But then Nussbaum claims that the characters, while not types, “were symbolic,” that they “operated as near-allegorical figures.” She doesn’t explain the distinction she’s drawing between these terms, but I assume she means something like this: a “type” or “cartoon” is a manifestation of an exaggerated characteristic (the slut, the professional, the housewife, the writer); an “allegorical figure” is a manifestation of an idea or a phenomenon that is larger than the individual (a Mafia don when both the Mafia and America are in decline, perhaps). Nussbaum states that the SATC characters are the latter and not the former, but she never quite explains why.
So here’s why not.
In all its seasons, SATC hardly ever engaged with race or class or white flight or reverse white flight or global warming or saving the whales… anything outside the characters’ own drives and desires and dissatisfactions. The only idea with which the characters consistently and thoroughly engaged was how to be as happy as possible—how to pick which type of woman to be and then be the most possible that. Nussbaum knows this, and so her argument—again, I have to guess, because she never makes it explicit—seems to be that, yes, each woman on SATC is a type, but she’s pursuing her type so vigorously that she transcends the type. In other words, Nussbaum is not drawing a distinction between “types” and “allegorical figures”—she’s collapsing them. But that argument is weak sauce. Any show is going to be hampered by its unwillingness to confront any ideal higher than its characters’ satisfaction, and that narrowness of scope should stop the conversation well short of greatness. I wonder, even, how many times SATC satisfied the Bechdel test. While the series frequently features two named women talking to each other (Bechdel Factors 1 and 2), that conversation tended to be about a man (Factor 3). (The movie, allegedly, passes the test.)
Throughout the piece, Nussbaum has The Sopranos and its offspring dead in her sights. In her characterization of Carrie Bradshaw as the “first female anti-hero on television” we see the heart of her pitch: SATC was not just a glittery exercise in wish fulfillment. Instead, its literary bona fides are ensured by the fact that, as with Tony , Don and Walter, Carrie Bradshaw makes SATC great because you’re supposed to dislike her. Here Nussbaum and I agree: Carrie and the girls are selfish, reprehensible, amoral monsters. This often makes them hilarious. But even though the show presented the ladies as “jagged, aggressive and sometimes frightening,” it always stopped short of making them unlikeable. Its operating conceit is that every woman can figure out what works for her, and sure enough, every one of SATC’s women does. There is nothing a pink cocktail in a pointy glass can’t resolve. Everything always works out. Sex and the City isn’t the female Sopranos—it’s the female Entourage.
Ultimately I just find Nussbaum’s article confusing, since even she seems unconvinced by her argument. Just as she argues that “the show wrestled with the limits of” romantic comedy “for almost its entire run,” she concedes, “In the end, it gave in.” But this isn’t the show’s fault, she says, because “endings count in television, maybe too much.” Again we have the implication that the show is not to blame for its own shortcomings. Perhaps the blame lies with genre conventions or critical expectations or some suit at HBO. Who knows; Nussbaum doesn’t guess. The only people free of blame, she’s sure, are the ones who actually made the show.
SATC, at its best, had so much to offer. The ladies’ lunches are recalled fondly for their repartee, but I particularly savored the unspoken messages—Samantha’s eye rolls and Miranda’s glares foremost among them. (Charlotte, again, I have no use for.) Even at the most congenial brunch there was a bizarre tension at play because, look closely—each of them really only engages with Carrie. They revolve around her like electrons in the Bohr model of the atom. Any time Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte had to meet up without her, they were at a loss for what to say or how to act.
Only rarely did we get a glimpse of candor in this clique held together with vodka and sequined belts. My favorite such moment is the epic fight between Charlotte and Miranda after Charlotte decides to quit her job to have kids. Upon hearing the news, Miranda makes a series of snide remarks, leading Charlotte to call her, furious, to try to justify her decision. “I choose my choice,” Charlotte bellows, “I choose my choice!” “I don’t have time for this,” Miranda says. “I have to go to work. Some of us still have to go to work.”
Nussbaum apologizes for the show’s fairy tale denouement—the ultimate but far from unprecedented embodiment of its constant, pathetic need to please—but says that SATC’s having capitulated “shouldn’t erase the show’s powerful legacy.” Well, why not? Forget endings; Sex and the City made a conscious decision to be good instead of great. That decision is a valid one—it’s fine. It chose its choice. Now some of us still have to go to work.
– @david_rochefort is a former television writer.