The Undoing: The Unusual, Unhappy “And Just Like That”

January 24, 2022   •   By Philippa Snow

“I masturbated to my priest all afternoon,” Samantha Jones says over brunch, in the first episode of the fourth season of Sex and the City. Charlotte, unsurprisingly, is scandalizpiloted: “You have a priest?” The man, upon whom she has bestowed the evocative and sacrilegious nickname “Friar Fuck,” is, obviously, celibate. When she donates three or four tins of Le Sueur peas as an extremely unconventional sexual overture (“the very best,” she purrs, somehow managing to make tinned peas seem obscene), he tells her that, “God made the body, and it’s perfect in its splendor,” but that regrettably, his life revolves entirely around “other joys.” Samantha looks at Friar Fuck, with his catalogue model looks and his absurdly sensual lips, and experiences something of an awakening herself: what higher power, and what more transcendent pleasure, could there be than the ecstasy of an orgasm, the synergy between two desirous and perfect-looking people? Her belief system — a belief in the almighty power of sex — is under question. For Samantha Jones, it is what constitutes a genuine crisis of faith. Who else could have given a storyline this ridiculous, blasphemous and throwaway even a minor air of spiritual significance, if not the divine Kim Cattrall?

If Sex and the City had been nominally Carrie’s show, audiences tended to spend more of their time worshipping at the altar of Samantha Jones, whose filthy, high camp bon mots were explicable by the fact that she had been created by a gay man, and that of the four main characters, she most resembled a caricature of a homosexual thrill-seeker herself. (When Samantha runs into a drag-queen ex in season two who has adopted both her name and her blonde, extroverted look, it is an obvious nod to her queer-coded love of men, martinis, casual sex, high-speed wordplay, and expensive boss-bitch suiting.) What little we know about Samantha Jones’ early life is delivered through two small references to the loss of her innocence: the revelation, in the second season, that she was already having sex at thirteen, and her offhanded mention in the third that, by her age, her dirt-poor mother had been “saddled with three kids and a drunk husband.” Those two facts color her libidinous, intemperate love life with a dark pall, like a Black Russian spilt across the snowdrift of a restaurant tablecloth. She is not simply averse to the idea of motherhood, but very nearly antinatalist; she is not merely a fan of casual sex, but an opponent of monogamy. She frequently has unsafe sex, and when she finally agrees to take a test for HIV, she passes out with terror shortly before hearing the result, the dissonance between her apparently carefree love of fucking and her fear of dying as a direct result of her sex life an intriguing, never-rationalized tension that the show is too afraid to plumb in order to provide her with new depths.

“Samantha dreaded the shrink the way most people feared the dentist,” Carrie says, once, in a voiceover, the quiet implication that Samantha has a past worth analyzing hanging briefly in the air. When Miranda’s mother dies in season four, Sam is mysteriously abandoned by her orgasm, her sex drive only coming back to her when she attends the funeral and bursts into helpless tears. A shrink would have a field day; the show merely rushes everyone along to a denouement full of jarring, unhip puns about zip drives and motherboards, the end result all hugging and no learning. In the scene where Carrie informs Charlotte and Samantha of Miranda’s mother’s death, over coffee in a café, Charlotte blusters immediately into talking about fruit baskets and flowers, but Samantha — almost never seen to let down her defenses — changes instantly before the viewer’s eyes: her body stilling, her face looking as if she had seen a ghost. Kim Cattrall, a sometime-movie-star whose real love is the theatre, occasionally professed embarrassment over Samantha’s clownish sex scenes, to say nothing of her tendency to coin neologisms like “try-sexual,” or “dickalicious.” (“Neolo-jism,” I am happy to report, did not come up.) Still, she imbued Samantha with a life that made her most undignified, cartoonish moments into something interesting in the kookiest, campiest way. If critics often described Carrie as a logical successor to the women who appeared in screwball comedies, Samantha was a version of that woman who had never once been governed by the Hays Code.

How, then, does Sex and the City — which has been renamed And Just Like That for its revival, as if in acknowledgement of the fact that it can never be the same show without all four of its core cast — fare without Samantha? It brings me absolutely no pleasure to report that Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw is a podcaster, and even less pleasure to report that the podcast she appears on features sound-effects a la shock-jock radio that exclaim “trigger warning!” and “w-w-w-w-woke moment!” (The show’s nonbinary host, Che Diaz, introduces her as “representing all the heterosexual women.” To paraphrase Carrie in the first and least unpleasant of the series’ spin-off movies: You just said a mouthful there, Che.) Nixon’s Miranda, once a tough, pragmatic and ultra-successful lawyer, is now studying human rights law after an extremely white-and-upper-middle-class awakening, and has become a miserable alcoholic; Charlotte, still a stay-at-home-mom WASP, has lost some of her sweetly ditzy expressiveness, Kristin Davis seeming frozen and half-there. Sex itself has, so far, been almost eradicated, as if the act were unthinkable in the obvious absence of Samantha, the erotic equivalent of flying a flag half-mast out of respect. We are led to believe that Sam, having been unceremoniously dropped as Carrie’s publicist, has fled to London. While it does not seem entirely in keeping with the loyalty she displayed to her three friends in the show’s previous six seasons, I, too, would have fled the city if my former client dumped me in order to take a slot on a sanitized themboss podcast with the title “X Y Me.”

“Part of the reason we wanted to do the show,” Cynthia Nixon told News Corp last December, “[was] to go back and [undo] the things that we really got wrong.” If the show’s stars and creators had been looking for a reason to return to HBO, it might have been wise for them to hold out until they had a better one, since to my knowledge nobody is looking to Sex and the City for ethical guidance or for education. This impulse to course-correct, joylessly atoning for its former sins — the old episode, for instance, that describes New York’s Meatpacking district as “trendy by day, tr—y by night” — has stripped the show of its irreverence and its humor, the result not too dissimilar to the network’s reboot of another noughties property, Gossip Girl, in the clumsy, self-congratulatory way it telegraphs its own perceived progressiveness.  And Just Like That’s first two or three episodes, especially, read to me as being offensive in an entirely new way from the show’s original run, the queer and non-white characters that populate them written not as human beings but as machines for education: they afford our heroines the opportunity to display growth, or to suggest that they are suitably regretful for the fact that, say, they once implied bisexual people were a myth. Carrie, meeting Che, finally learns how small and uptight her sexual world has been, as well as taking part in various conversations about pronoun use; assigned a Black professor, Miranda somehow learns for the first time at fifty-something that it is extremely racist to assume that a Black, dreadlocked woman cannot possibly teach law. Charlotte’s child Rock, née Rose, comes out as non-binary in a TikTok, making “being non-binary” their only documented character trait to date. When Che performs at what Miranda describes as “a comedy concert,” their assertion that they would have got a comedy special earlier if they had only had a penis reads as accidentally transphobic, since it equates “having a penis” with “being a privileged cis man.”

What results is a dramedy that, psyop-like, seems designed to prove sixty-five-year-old columnists correct when they complain that “being woke” is “killing comedy.” There are moments, albeit fleeting, when the series does approach the meringue-light, flirtatious tone of the original — Carrie paying out of pocket in order to see a hotter physiotherapist, for instance, or stalking her husband’s ex-wife in a pinafore and pearls that make her look like a fashionably boho baby. When John “Big” Preston dies, a scene with Carrie and Charlotte at the funeral home that ends with Charlotte weeping so theatrically she is mistaken for the widow is pure gold, pitch-black and screwball-ish at once in such a way that it can’t help but make the viewer wish there was a whole season of this. Slightly later episodes also display the fundamental value of a diverse writing pool, as Nicole Ari Parker’s character Lisa — formerly referred to as “Black Charlotte,” in a gag that either skewers the show’s historic inability to convincingly depict non-white women, or obliviously underscores it — gets a funny storyline involving Charlotte’s self-absorbed and frantic need to find a person of color, any person of color, for her friend group, a joke that feels like a meta-commentary on the series’ own mad dash to do the same. (The episode, written by Keli Goff, also gives Miranda’s law professor Nya more to do, writing a discussion between the two women about motherhood that finally feels like a conversation in lieu of a corporate roleplaying exercise from White Fragility.) It is interesting, too, to see the former sex-columnist Carrie Bradshaw finally being held to account for her prudishness, after a decade operating as a “sexpert” who was frightened of anal sex.

When I volunteered to write about And Just Like That for The Los Angeles Review of Books, I did so as a fan of the original series, meaning that I did so either hoping to be pleasantly surprised, or to be transportingly dazzled by its dumbness. The Sex and the City films have offered radically diminishing returns, the second outing not just bad, but horribly offensive; the TV show, for all of its questionable language and its tireless romance with traditional heterosexuality and rampant capitalism, still achieves a kind of genius at its best, a four-part harmony whose players have been perfectly selected for their skills. In truth, I have found And Just Like That dispiriting, a fug of sadness and abjection hanging over it from its first episode as we watched Carrie’s husband die, Miranda slouch into Smith’s Bar for a Chablis at 10am, Charlotte brusquely force an eye-wateringly expensive floral dress onto her child, Stanford and Anthony snap cattily at each other’s throats. If you had told me just six months ago that I would one day watch a struggling Carrie Bradshaw despondently pee herself in bed while recovering from hip surgery, I would probably have said that you were deluded — still, we live in unusual and unhappy times, and what has been provided for us is an unusual and unhappy version of Sex and the City, a zombified copy of the show whose storylines have the distinct feel of new episodes that might have come to a regular viewer in a dream. The removal of Carrie’s voiceover, save for a single line beginning with the same maddening Bradshaw catchphrase that affords the show its title, adds to this curious distancing effect, a move that is presumably meant to signify a progression to maturity and seriousness, but actually succeeds in keeping us at arms’ length from a character that we were always meant to think of as a (chatty, maddening, solipsistic, funny, sometimes self-destructive) friend.

In a piece about the source material for Sex and the City, the critic and editor Rachel Tashjian once wrote that Candice Bushnell’s 1996 book of the same name depicted “a world in which a woman’s career and influence blossom not in her Bambi-leg twenties, but when she is truly developing her voice, in her thirties and forties.” “Suddenly,” she says of her experience of reading Sex and the City as a young woman, “the idea of maturity, of aging, seemed appealing — an achievement rather than something to fear. With age came power, and success, and more earning potential, and more confidence.” Maybe this is what is so disheartening to me about the sadness and solemnity of And Just Like That: the fact that I am now the age that the four main characters were when the original series first began, and that when I watched Sex and the City in my twenties, even though it sometimes prompted a horrified rolling of the eyes, I also thoroughly enjoyed its implication that women did not spontaneously combust from loneliness if they were unmarried beyond the age of thirty. I enjoyed the camaraderie and the fucking, and the conversations the four women had in which inevitably, several strains of feminism or post-feminism clashed as each of them explained their personal perspectives on casual sex, workplace harassment, marriage, sexism, and so on. I enjoyed the way that men were often treated as disposable, to the degree that an entire episode ends up being devoted to Carrie’s anxiety about that very fact. (Fittingly for a veteran of David Lynch, Justin Theroux even played two entirely different one-episode love interests for Carrie Bradshaw, the show even winkingly making both men writers of fiction as if daring us to comment.) In a sense, the original series ending, which saw all four women paired off with a long-term partner or a husband, reflected Sex and the City’s most conventional and conservative impulses. It was at its best, fans often said, when most or all of the four women did not have a boyfriend, leaving room for them to go out dancing, or to fall out over differing definitions of the word “slut,” or to share a moment in the waiting room of an abortion clinic.

In a piece for Artforum about the actress’ collaborator Sophie Calle in 2017, Kim Cattrall told the writer Sarah Nicole Prickett that she’d once received a call from an editor at W Magazine that had surprised her: “I thought he was going to tell me about a Calvin Klein model committing suicide, or whatever it is that editors talk about in fashion,” she tells Prickett, in a line I will be thinking about until I myself am dead. Instead, the editor informed her that the magazine had done a piece on Ingmar Bergman, and that Bergman had not only called Sex and the City his favorite show, but called Samantha Jones his favorite character. “It makes sense,” she adds, because “nothing embarrassed him… the truest thing you can express is often the most painful.” Reading this, I thought about those little notes of seriousness in her portrayal of Samantha — that distant and lonely look over the breakfast table at the mention of a mother being dead, or the moment where she first tells Carrie she has cancer in a taxi en route to Miranda’s wedding, being flip to keep from seeming scared — and it occurred to me that their piquancy came from their inclusion in a context that otherwise made being a truly adult woman in New York look like a joyride, a messy and thrilling game that sometimes had terrible consequences, but sometimes paid off in dividends. What seemed to go missing with Samantha was the opportunity not to depict being in one’s fifties as a baffling and tragic downhill slide into irrelevancy, alcoholism, estrangement and hip surgery, but as an experience every bit as worthwhile and enriching as the decades that immediately preceded it. The truest things Sex and the City expressed could be very painful, but they could be pleasurable, too.

With four episodes left, there is still time to right the ship. I have high hopes for Seema, the brash, sexy, chain-smoking real-estate agent who informs Carrie that it is funny that her name means “boundary” in Hindi because she has absolutely none, although I wish that she were not apparently so miserable being single in her fifties — making Samantha’s replacement a middle-aged woman of colour with a similarly unabashed love of hot men and glamour would, I think, have been exactly the kind of relatively radical shake-up the show’s creators were hoping for when they sought to “undo what [they] did wrong.” Miranda’s queerness, if it is not played exclusively as a rich woman’s midlife crisis, has potential. In the episode I watched as I was writing the last paragraphs of this piece, there is a scene as clever as any the show managed in its earlier seasons. Carrie, accompanying Anthony to a consultation with a plastic surgeon, ends up being roped into having a 3D scan done of her face, and squirms in horror as the surgeon shows her just how easily he could erase some of its history. I have said little so far about Sarah Jessica Parker, and part of the reason for this is, somewhat unfairly, the note-perfect way she has picked up a character that she has not inhabited for something like eleven years and resurrected her as casually if the act were nothing special. Moreso than before, she is called upon to do serious work, and when the plastic surgeon alters the CGI image on his screen, something wonderful and interesting happens: we see Parker as she is now, ageing naturally and chicly, and we see a rendering of her face as it appeared in the finale of the original show, a clear statement about the impossibility of returning to the past and still maintaining authenticity. “Oh,” she sighs, a genuinely warm, nostalgic smile crossing her fifty-something face, “I remember her.” We do, too, and the remembrance is wistful, bittersweet, like conjuring up the memory of a dear old friend who has absconded to the far side of the world.