WHEN CHANNEL-SURFING THE OTHER NIGHT, I came across Sex and the City on cable. Not remarkable, given that it feels like Sex and the City is always playing on at least one channel — and sometimes even two at once. What was remarkable, however, was that the episode I saw had held up remarkably well. In the eleven years since the show went off the air, it has been a lightning rod for critically-damning revisions, with some labeling it misogynistic, others saying that it’s simply terrible and not funny, and that Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw is a horrible creature. (To the haters: Hey, not all shows can have such fine, upstanding lead characters like Walter White or Tony Soprano, can they?)
When you’re watching the show in 2015, you really must remember that there was a time when shows like this simply did not exist. TV shows covering this kind of content and — let’s call a spade a spade — of this caliber simply didn’t exist, not even on cable. And shows featuring more cunnilingus jokes or plots about anal sex than you can count? Not even in a TV exec’s darkest nightmares. Female audiences had primetime soaps and obsessing over Ross and Rachel, sure, but there was little else that had a sense of communal “must-see” appeal. Granted it’s impossible to watch it today without seeing it as a little bit dated, that’s like complaining you can’t watch a rerun of Macgyver without nitpicking that you can’t really create an explosive device out of some toothpicks, a ball of yarn and a packet of instant noodles.
Sure, the New York City of Sex was a fantasy then (and is even more of one now), but that’s just it – it’s a fantasy. It’s the only way to explain how anybody in modern New York could justifiably never visit Brooklyn. It’s the only way to explain how these women went to brunch every week and never sat near a doppelganger group of gay men like the Bizarro World friends from Seinfeld. And it’s certainly the only way to explain how a sex columnist could be so weirded out by bisexuality — and in 2000, no less!
Nevertheless, as watching one episode turned into a binging episodes over the whole weekend (oh, sorry, guys, I had last-minute plans), I was actually taken aback by how many episodes featured themes, topics, and storylines that were handled well and remain important, even today. Episodes that a modern audience watching could still relate to. So, here are just seven of our favorites that still have something to say. And no, the one where Charlotte dresses up as a man and has sex with a painter is not on here. That was always silly.
Season One, Episode 10 – “The Baby Shower”
One of Sex and the City’s better long-form plots was the path each woman took regarding motherhood. Some (Samantha) are adamant they don’t want kids, while others (Charlotte) most assuredly do.
“I love my life and I will not be made to feel inadequate by all that baby talk!”
Preach, Sam! In this, the best episode of the series’ awkward first season (those on-the-street vox pop confessionals are so bad, you guys!), Carrie is forced to confront the idea of having a child, while watching in retrospect it becomes clear that a defensive Miranda is putting on a defiant face. Perhaps best is a scene at the start in which the gals simply sit around Carrie’s apartment drinking cocktails and eating popcorn while discussing the prospect of going to a baby shower. As the show got more and more glamorous and they went to a new and trendy club every week, the added element of a night in with your best friends makes its themes much less fanciful.
Season Two, Episode 8 – “The Man, The Myth, The Viagra”
While Samantha is off cavorting with an elderly man (ticking another ‘type’ off of her bucket list, presumably), Carrie is dealing with a boyfriend – Mr. Big, of course – who doesn’t want to be involved with the lives of her friends. Most people have been in the place of either; the one who wants their friends to like their new partner, but also the one who thinks it’s exhausting having to put on the impressive exterior for people when all you want to do is be with them.
“He wanted to make me dinner.”
“So you just dropped your life and ran right on over to his?”
And what if your friends don’t want to get to know your partner any better, as Miranda’s on-point advice suggests? Maybe she should have been the one giving the relationship advice.
Season Two, Episode 18 – “Ex and the City”
SJP won a lot of awards for her role as Carrie, but it’s hard to think of an episode in which she was better than the second season’s finale. Who hasn’t been there? Determined to prove the skeptics wrong and be friends with an ex, Carrie lines up a lunch date with Mr. Big, but when he drops the bombshell of his engagement, Parker sells the mix of nausea and noble anger with the desire to be both strong in the face of hurt and just plain ol’ hurt.
“Carrie, don’t end it like this.”
“No, you’re the one who ended it like this.”
It still stings, and her failed attempt at making an improvised joke at Natasha’s name – “Go be engaged, get married to… Nijinski, or whatever her name is!” – to prove she doesn’t care as much as he thinks she does is so on-point that it’s hard to watch.
Season Three, Episode 5 – “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts”
In a show such as Sex and the City, it’s usually the less salacious moments that can feel the most organic and real.
“I have a crush.”
Who doesn’t love having a crush? That optimistic giddiness that comes with a crush can be so addictive that it becomes dangerous, which is why Carrie’s first real one since Mr. Big feels like such a huge deal despite the casual nonchalance with which she confesses it (the girlish giggling gives her real feelings away). Still, this episode isn’t just about cutesy feelings, but about how we lie and put up what we perceive as a desirable façade from the moment we meet someone and how we grapple with letting other people know the real us. This episode is also home to one of the show’s most brilliant off-the-cuff comments by Carrie about Aiden’s eternal cuteness – “Jesus Christ, the dog is overkill.” It’s no surprise the episode was directed by Nicole Holofcener, known for her funny, observational films about women.
Season Four, Episode 11 – “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda”
The baby issues explored back in Season One come roaring back thanks to Miranda’s surprise pregnancy courtesy of Steve. While she ultimately chooses to keep the baby, however independently she wants to raise it, it’s Carrie’s past that gives this wonderful episode its biggest lump-in-the-throat moment.
“I lied to Aiden about having one. Thing is, I think he was relieved. Relieved he could still look at me in a certain way.”
Sometimes abortion can be handled with a Very Special Episode formula, as if the characters had never and will never think of it again. Thanks to the acting of the four women, however, their individual tales of pregnancy, successful or otherwise, still struck us as heartfelt and genuine.
Season Four, Episode 16 – “Ring a Ding Ding”
Money was always a tricky subject on this show. While it seems as if Carrie — clearly the least financially secure, working in the most perilous of industries of the four — doesn’t give two hoots about spending too much money (“I’ve spent $40,000 on shoes and I have no place to live?“), it actually becomes quite clear that she does. Many like to criticize the show for treating this issue irresponsibly, but they mustn’t have watched episodes like this one where Carrie’s very identifiable situation becomes the hardest to ignore.
“The lady at the bank said I’m an undesirable candidate for a loan. Where did all my money go? I know I made some.”
Ouch. Assessing your entire existence and placing a monetary value on it is just about the most depressing thing you can do if you’re not already floating on clouds on money. Looking at your life and seeing nothing but rent checks and strict budgets is no fun, especially for someone like Carrie Bradshaw. Both Carrie and the show took a hard look at themselves in this episode, even if the conclusion was the same ol’ fantasy.
Season Six, Episode 19 – “Splat!”
One of the best episodes the series ever had was the second-to-last of the final season. While it’s remembered mostly for a scene in which a brash party girl played by Kristen Johnston falls out of a high-rise building after proclaiming New York City was “over!”, it’s the confrontation between Carrie and Miranda that makes it the classic episode that it is. Theirs was always the most interesting relationship, and was further examined in the 2008 movie’s best plot strand.
“I can stay here and write about my life, or I can go with him and live my life.”
“You mean his life.”
That Miranda was ultimately correct isn’t the point — she even states “you’re living in a fantasy,” as if to get one-step ahead of the haters. It was the way the series added another dimension to the friendships of these women. When all was said and done, Sex and the City was about their friendships and their lives, and so while many may choose to pooh-pooh the show for being an unrealistic fantasy, hidden beneath the Prada bags and the Jimmy Choo shoes was a streak of compassion that makes it so enjoyable to return to again and again.