Sunday’s finale of “Sex and the City” promises to be a fight to the finish for the heart of Carrie Bradshaw.
Hanging in the balance is not just the man (Aleksandr Petrovsky or Mr. Big?) or the place (Carrie’s beloved Manhattan, or Paris, where she defected last week?), but also the feelings of fans after six randy seasons on the town with sex columnist Carrie and her three gal pals. What of the sweet sorrow of those viewers Carrie is leaving behind?
Many questions are afoot — stylishly shod in Manolos, no doubt — as “Sex and the City” concludes at 9 p.m. ET on HBO (preceded at 8 p.m. by a series retrospective).
Of course, what made the show so much more than a hit is, in part, its knack for raising questions the audience was already asking themselves — or eager to. Stocking four flavors of dishy, piquant womanhood, it treated viewers to one tasty conundrum after another.
“Can women have sex like men?” posed Carrie, the show’s provocative narrator, on its very first episode. Later she would wonder aloud, “How often is normal?” ... “Can you be friends with an ex?” ... “Do we need distance to get close?” ... “Why are we should-ing all over ourselves?”
But now the big question: How will it end?
“We made a decision,” said series star and co-producer Sarah Jessica Parker, one of the few who know, “and I hope people understand why. I hope people will feel that Carrie is loved and loving, and that she feels contentment.”
Man-crazy, but on their termsBut even Parker is full of uncertainty as she closes the book on Carrie and Miranda, the cynical but softened-up lawyer played by Cynthia Nixon; Charlotte, the bright-eyed true believer (Kristin Davis); and hot-to-trot PR exec Samantha (Kim Cattrall).
“It’s just as complicated as it could be,” Parker said last week from her Soho apartment, trying to assess her state of mind only days after completing post-production on the final episode. Ending the show was voluntary, she noted, “but that doesn’t make it any less painful to walk away.”
Parker’s wistful tone recalled a moment six years earlier in a Soho cafe as she sipped a glass of wine and sighed, “a melancholy day.” Just hours before on that day in spring 1998, production had wrapped for the first season of “Sex and the City.”
Based on real-life sex columnist Candace Bushnell and created by Darren Star, best known then for concocting the Fox soap “Melrose Place,” Parker’s new series hadn’t yet premiered. Who knew if it would click or flop? Maybe Parker had filmed the finale before she even got to say hello.
“I wasn’t expecting to like it so much, to care so much,” she worried.
She needn’t have. Debuting that June, “Sex” caught on with its frank, funny look at four single women hitting the clubs, the shops and, frequently, the sack.
Viewers saw female conquests and rejections as never before on TV, then listened in as the ladies hit the coffee shop to sort it all out.
It’s true, Carrie and her friends appeared to be man-crazy. But the men they wanted, they wanted only on their own terms. That, at least, was a giant leap for womankind.
New York, New York
Meanwhile, along with the sex was the city, and no show would portray New York more deliciously, in good times — and in bad. (An episode in the aftermath of 9-11 found the ladies heading downtown to shop as they agreed that merchants near Ground Zero badly needed their business.)
“Sex” has upheld cherished Manhattan myths — for instance, the notion that Brooklyn isn’t a neighboring borough but a separate world an ocean away.
At the same time, the show created from whole cloth its own mythology, particularly with fashion. At first, seasoned New Yorkers chortled at that little pink and white getup Carrie wears in the opening titles when she gets splashed by the bus: She calls herself a Manhattanite, didn’t she know enough to wear black?
Then, soon enough, the cognoscenti were embracing Carrie’s goofy glamour while appropriating the show’s saucy lexicon: “toxic bachelor,” “frenemies,” “the loathe of your life,” and the rest.
Parker realized her show had struck a nerve when, in the middle of Season Two, she spied women on the street wearing gold nameplate necklaces like Carrie’s.
“I would see women dressing or talking in a certain way,” said Parker, still marveling, “and I would think, ‘Well, THAT looks familiar!”’
Then, in Season Three, Parker and her co-stars scored the cover of Time magazine to illustrate an article titled “Who Needs a Husband?” Clearly, “Sex and the City” had put a face (or, rather, four of them) to a new phase of women’s liberation. By then, it was more than a TV show; it was a cultural marker.
A year after that, “Sex and the City” became the first cable program ever to win an Emmy for best comedy series.
“I tell you, it has been a blast! A blast!” summed up Michael Patrick King, an executive producer who began on “Sex” as a writer and director.
“In the beginning,” he said, phoning from Paris, where he was shooting final scenes, “we had no expectations of success. There was just a hunch, and a hope that people would think the show was as funny as we did.
“Then, when lightning strikes,” he went on, “and you’re doing something that the world seems to be interested in — well, that’s just kismet. It’s just a blessing, and your job is to be the caretaker.”
Focus on friendshipsParker was as much at a loss as King when asked to explain the show’s epoch-defining success. “I think it’s best for me not to think about it too much,” she said. “That’s for others to do.”
One theory is voiced by Virginia Vitzthum, a New York-based journalist who for two years was somewhat of a Carrie counterpart: sex columnist for the online publication Salon.
“Watching the show when it began, I thought, ‘Omigod! They said “b--- j--”!’ Women talking about sex without euphemisms was a big deal!”
But what really set the series apart, she would soon decide, was its focus on female friendship.
Even this season, as Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha each settled with a guy, “the family they’ve come back to has always been each other,” Vitzthum said. “The assignations with men have always been a little dopey, but when the women get together, that’s the juice of the show.”
Last week, Big conceded much the same thing.
“You’re the loves of her life,” he told Carrie’s friends, “and a guy’s just lucky to come in fourth.”
But that’s always been the gospel of the show, which also says: When counting New York City, a guy best be satisfied with fifth.