The series may have been inspired by Candace Bushnell’s essays about New York dating, but there was a greater sense of female solidarity and wisecracking in the TV version. It made you realise that before SATC crash-landed on our screens, your best hope of watching a gang of women in a comedy series was The Golden Girls. And there’s little doubt the show helped pave the way for other innovative, sexually frank TV series such as HBO’s Girls.
In these shows, drunken one-night stands that end badly and porn-obsessed men who want demeaning forms of sex are commonplace. When you compare Sex and the City with these edgier shows and their self-destructive but borderline-unemployable protagonists, it’s easy to become nostalgic for the sharp professionalism of Carrie and co.
The women may have been unaccountably wealthy and obsessed with shopping, but they were also optimistic and living life on their own terms. They policed their own and each other’s sex lives and made sure friends walked away from degrading suggestions, such as the lover who called Charlotte a “filthy whore” at the point of climax. Even Samantha Jones with her upfront sexual appetites and fondness for experimentation (she termed herself “try-sexual”) seems wholesome by comparison to today’s generation of anti-heroines. She had sex on her own terms rather than any man’s. Whatever the vicissitudes of daily life, the SATC crew seemed to be in charge of their destinies. And if they made a serious mistake – as with Charlotte’s long unconsummated marriage to Trey (Kyle MacLachlan) – they remedied it.
Furthermore, the show kept apace of trends (and not just sexual trends) with such a keen, quick eye for New Yorkers’ evolving tastes that sometimes it seemed prophetic. The first I heard of the up-and-coming Meatpacking District was its use as a destination for the coffee stops. Miranda moved to Brooklyn, just as US friends of mine were deserting Manhattan for cheaper, larger homes. Chic women took up cupcakes and the pale pink cosmopolitan became thousands of women’s cocktail of choice.
And then there was stylist Patricia Field’s contribution to the show. Her eye steered Carrie’s wardrobe and introduced viewers to Fendi baguettes, Manolo Blahniks, and a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress worthy of Versailles. The show also raised important issues, including Charlotte’s fertility issues, Miranda’s struggle with breastfeeding and Samantha’s breast cancer. No one’s claiming the drama was up there with Chekhov, but the writers knew they needed grit in the oyster.
Yes, there were downsides. The rampant consumerism was consistently the least appealing quality. There was an alienating moment when Carrie calculated her shoe collection was worth $40,000. Cynthia Nixon has confessed in recent years she was a bit “devastated” by the ending of the second film when Big (Carrie’s on/off businessman lover) revealed he had built her a massive closet. Hardly the emotional climax true intimacy junkies seek.
It also became ever harder to ignore the fact the show was resolutely white, wealthy and, in terms of sexual orientation, orthodox. The decision to make all four women straight when in real life one of them (Nixon) was gay seems particularly perverse. Yes, Samantha briefly had a female lover, Maria – but you never doubted she would return to men.
On top of all that, Carrie’s character seemed to become more solipsistic and capricious as the seasons continued. There was a low point when she left her then fiance, Aidan, just after he’d bought her a flat as a pre-wedding gesture. She appeared outraged when he invoiced her for the cost of the apartment and even extorted a cheque from Big, before realising that wasn’t a wise solution.
Instead, she used weepy emotional blackmail on the newly-divorced Charlotte, who sold her engagement ring to help. So much for our feisty, independent heroine! As the show went on I began to wish Miranda’s kick-ass feminism and whiplash tongue were more centre stage.
Even so, the upsides and whip-smart repartee far outweigh the niggles. Television connoisseurs have tended to think so too. It was one of Time magazine’s 100 Best TV Shows of All Time, and over the course of six seasons it won seven Emmy awards and eight Golden Globes.
It’s also part of popular culture. Half the women I know feel a strong affinity with one of the cast, and there are weeks when some of us can channel all four in swift succession.
Most fans only need to hear a couple of bars of the show’s theme tune to cast aside whatever task they’re engaged upon, grab a drink and join their TV besties in the boudoir.