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10 December 2021

The new Sex and the City series is surprisingly sad – and surprisingly good

And Just Like That embraces – rather than glosses over – the fact that its characters are in a different stage of life.

By Emily Bootle

This article contains spoilers for the first two episodes of And Just Like That…

The question of age – how it looks, how it feels, how it makes you behave – is baked into the very fabric of Sex and the City. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) could not have been a group of anything other than 30-somethings. Though the show was revolutionary in the 1990s for its candid presentation of female sexuality, it was propelled by the characters’ thirties-ness: their battles with and joys of being exactly as old as they were. There was sex, of course, but sex with something at stake: identity; reputation; the possibility and pressure of settling down; the question of having children. Age is constantly, explicitly referenced. There are generalisations about “men in their 40s”, “the thing about your 30s”, the plight, the fashion choices of the “20-something women” whom the protagonists are so glad to no longer be. There are big birthdays, unexpected pregnancies, carried to term because it might be the last chance. There’s the time Samantha gets a botched chemical peel and turns up to Carrie’s book launch in a sombre, melodramatic veil. Age is never a secret, but is rather the unchallengeable plot device that keeps relationships and characters moving forward. 

This is perhaps the reason that And Just Like That, the “new chapter” of Sex and the City from HBO (airing on Sky Atlantic in the UK), was not nearly as jarring as you might think. Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte are now in their 50s (Samantha is conspicuously absent, which large parts of the fanbase understand to be because of a long-running feud between Cattrall and SJP). They still look the part, in glamorous, slightly bizarre clothes (Carrie has an eensy-weensy Robin Hood hat perched on her head, give me strength) – yet they are plainly, obviously different. But the reboot embraces – rather than glosses over – the reality that its characters are in a different stage of life. “There are more important issues in the world than trying to stay young,” Miranda says in the first scene, when Charlotte nags her about her un-dyed grey hair. “We can’t just stay who we were, right?” 

Right and wrong. Reboots have to retain the essence of the original characters to keep audiences interested (it’s bad enough for this one that Samantha isn’t there) while still recognising that time has passed. This contradiction is perhaps the reason that many remakes fall so flat. Fictional characters are beloved to us partly because they are bound by the limits of the narrative: they do not age beyond the scope of the book or film that they’re in, and so they stay the same to us forever. 

Luckily for And Just Like That, the Sex and the City women had already been taken out of their perfect box-set microverse by the two movies that followed the original series. By now we already know Carrie married Mr Big, that Charlotte had her baby, that everyone had moved on from the problems that plagued them in 2001 New York City. It’s not shocking to see the three women looking so different (if I was being unkind, I would make unflattering comparisons with the end of the eighth Harry Potter film, when Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson are aged by CGI) because the bubble had already burst.

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And yet some of the friction between then and now remains. Carrie still dresses like a maniac but now has a podcast, and there are a few shoehorned references (in the past tense) to the pandemic – just so we know everyone’s paying attention – but in a distinctly Sex and the City way. (Carrie, for example, is wearing elbow-length diamante gloves so that she doesn’t have to touch lift buttons.) 

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The most obvious difference between shows of 2001 and 2021 is, of course, their approach to identity politics. Despite its thoroughly modern credentials at the time, Sex and the City is now seen as problematic, its all-white cast and heteronormativity sometimes veering dangerously close to racism and homophobia. And Just Like That has made a conscious effort to correct this. There are several new black characters and references to gender fluidity that, surprisingly, work, because they are overt plot points. Miranda puts her foot in it about race, multiple times, and is gently – though seemingly not satirically – corrected. Carrie’s extremely incongruous podcast is co-hosted by a non-binary comedian who asks her about masturbation (which leads to a truly excruciating scene involving Chris Noth saying the word “lube”) and plays a “woke moment” klaxon every time someone is remotely progressive. Aside from the slightly on-the-nose line about a new character being “black Charlotte”, this diversification, though blatant, largely retains the lightness of the original show, and, crucially, adds the self-awareness that it lacked previously. Of course, it would be a step too far for Carrie et al to rein in their rampant consumerism and consider the environmental impact of, for example, buying a pair of wear-once Oscar de la Renta gowns for their pre-pubescent offspring.

Ageing is ultimately interesting because it leads to death. A joke is made early in the first episode about Samantha being “no longer with us” (she has, in fact, moved to London). So perhaps I was naive to think that And Just Like That, so bound up in the matter of getting older, would patter along with the same low stakes as the original. Mr Big being into Peloton was, I thought, another slightly eye-rolling reference designed to bring us into the present. It turns out it was Chekhov’s gun. As Carrie watches Charlotte’s daughter play Beethoven at a concert, Big gets off his bike and clutches his arm. A terrible two minutes of tension follow. Carrie gets home and rushes to him, spoiling her wedding-day Manolos in the shower he had begun to run before he collapsed. “And just like that…” she says on the voiceover, and I think, surely not, surely she’s not going to say it like this – “Big died”. 

Notwithstanding the egregious anti-climax of this piece of scriptwriting, this is, for fans of the original show, a huge moment. And not just because it is Big and Carrie’s on-off relationship that was the centrepiece of the whole silly, flirty, sexy, partying thing – but because this cocooned world of comfort that has provided nostalgic, relatable, fantastical patter to so many women for such a long time has suddenly been plunged into something very real. A funeral scene in season two leads to an argument over Samantha’s outfit and Charlotte having a fling with a widow. Even Samantha’s experience with cancer in season three never had viewers genuinely fearing for her life – it was just another taboo topic to be explored. Actual death? That’s something else. Even on Park Avenue, in De la Renta, with a martini in your hand, it stops you in your tracks. 

And so if death is the ultimate conclusion of ageing, it seems Sex and the City has crossed its final frontier. Just as the present meets the past, reality collides with the show’s ridiculous fantasy. Stanford (Willie Garson) says he’s “so proud of [Carrie] for pulling together a look” for Big’s funeral – “people will be expecting it”, he adds, with a wink to us (obviously, she looks completely ridiculous). The pathos of the scene is, of course, emphasised: Garson died of pancreatic cancer age 57 earlier this year.

I came for the Cosmopolitans and the outfits, to have a laugh about how badly a 1990s empowerment sitcom translates in 2021. I leave feeling slightly existential – and grateful that those other versions of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, giggling about men and ordering vodka, are immortalised for when I need them. 

[see also: Sex and the City might seem dated now – but for a Nineties teen, it was radical]