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Sex and the City

By Robert David Sullivan

JUNE 14, 1999:  You couldn't really appreciate Seinfeld unless you caught on that the title character (as opposed to the real-life Seinfeld) was not a very good stand-up comic and that his success was as absurd as any of Kramer's get-rich schemes. Similarly, HBO's comedy series Sex and the City (in its second season, on Sundays at 9 p.m.) works only if you realize that lead character Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a fraud. Blessed with good looks, a Manhattan apartment, and several more years before she hits 40, Bradshaw writes a popular "sex column" and likes to quiz her dining companions about such pastimes as anal intercourse, but she's never convincing as the master of her domain. In an episode from last year, she decides to beat men at their own game by using an ex-boyfriend as a fuck toy (no cuddling, no phone call the next day). She brags about her success but later regrets the whole sordid experiment. In her on-and-off affair with a master manipulator known to viewers only as "Mr. Big" (Law and Order's Chris Noth), she repeatedly feigns indifference to his piggish behavior, then tries to win him back.

Sex and the City is one long riff on a classic moment from The Mary Tyler Moore Show: faced with yet another awkward social situation, Mary assures Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) that she'll defuse it with strength and self-confidence. Mr. Grant looks her over for a moment and scoffs, "You can't pull that off." Mary immediately dissolves into her usual nervous slouch and says, "I knooow." This is 1999, so Carrie Bradshaw doesn't blush easily and doesn't have crying fits, but she does have Mary's lanky build (with a lot more hair at the top) and that habit of referring to the most important man in her life as "Mr." Her dilemma is neatly summed up in the packaging for Sex and the City. In the print ads, "Carrie" is sitting in the nude with her back to the viewer -- looking over her shoulder as if to invite us into her world, but with a rather apprehensive expression. In the opening credits of each episode, Carrie walks around Manhattan in a pristine white dress and gets puddle-splashed by a bus (with her name on it, literally) in a slow-motion sequence that plays as a nasty spoof of Mary Richards tossing her hat into the air. The obvious conclusion is that we're dealing with the old madonna-whore paradox here, except that the men in Sex and the City don't seem to care about their girlfriends' sexual histories. No, the more immediate problem is that poor Carrie never gets to wear anything comfortable on the series, and certainly nothing like the black-sweater-and-jeans type of outfit that most of us wear around people we don't need to impress anymore. The richest irony running throughout Sex and the City is that the main characters have every kind of sex imaginable except the comfortable, relaxing kind, and neither the professional nor the amateur "sexperts" have a clue about what they're missing.

Sarah Jessica Parker is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but Carrie's false bravado works well as a comic thread through the series. In the season premiere (repeated this Saturday, June 12, at 1:10 a.m.), she has a nice moment in the bleachers of Yankee Stadium -- a cigarette in one hand and a cup of beer in the other, with legs dangling over the seat in front of her -- in which she tries a little too hard to appear as if she were enjoying herself without Mr. Big. (Naturally, she's wearing a white outfit that could be ruined by an errant flick of cigarette ash.)

The regular cast is rounded out by the three best friends -- also attractive, single, professional women in their 30s -- who seem to be Carrie's only sources for her column. It should be noted here that neither the column nor the TV series works as a field guide to sexual practices or fetishes. In an episode from last season, there's a lot of talk about threesomes, and Carrie's friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon, whose ability to look disgusted and titillated at the same time provides some of the best moments in the series) goes so far as to meet a couple through the personal ads before backing out of the deal, but that's all we get on the topic. I wasn't waiting to be enlightened on the mechanics of a ménage à trois (easy enough to find videos for that), but I would have loved to see the husband and wife hash out the writing of the personal ad over the kitchen table. Alas, the curiosity-deprived Carrie, who says she has never participated in a threesome herself, is never shown interviewing anyone for her column on the topic. Its home on pay cable notwithstanding, Sex is rather lightly spiced. (Maybe the characters are too young and lacking in experience. HBO should consider a spinoff starring Carrie Donovan -- the former New York Times fashion columnist who now shills for Old Navy -- and a couple of tough old Manhattan broads like Elaine Stritch and Angela Lansbury. Imagine the dinner conversations you could get out of them.)

Based on an actual New York Observer column and book by Candace Bushnell and created by Darren Star (Melrose Place), Sex and the City does excel at Seinfeld-like silly moments. Among my favorites from last year was a phone call that caused one guy to dump his girlfriend, shall we say, prematurely ("You're breaking up with me while you're still inside me?" was the stunned response) and another guy's sensitive request that his girlfriend expand her sexual repertoire ("I'm planning on getting a lot of blow jobs in the future, and I hope you're around when I get them"). The first two episodes of the new season feature a few so-so recycled plots (like a guy with an unusually small penis who, implausibly, isn't aware of his problem) and at least one home run in this Sunday's episode, in which the inhibited Miranda learns to talk dirty but quickly finds cause to regret her new talent. Sex and the City just can't stay away from the idea that a little carnal knowledge is a dangerous thing.


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