As a date is confirmed for the Sex and the City spin-off, we look back at the legacy of the much-loved series and ask if the new show can have the same impact on another generation of viewers
It’s not very often that three women in their mid- to late-50s break the internet, but earlier this month, as a trailer for Sex and the City’s spin-off series And Just Like That was released, everyone suddenly had an opinion. Would the show return to its earthy, truth-telling roots? Would things go the regrettable way of the two big-screen outings, which is to say, a non-triumph of style over substance? Would the core friendship group (Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte) be the same without Samantha? What do all those dresses mean? And why is Miranda, a partner in a law firm, taking the subway anyway?
All of these questions will be answered soon, as the series hits Irish screens on December 9. Anticipation certainly seems to have reached fever pitch, although a trace of trepidation — the uneasy feeling that a dead horse is being flogged — remains. Whatever team you’re on as a viewer, the series has reached a Holy Grail of sorts, in that it has everyone talking.
“I get nervous when any of my favourite shows do reboots, just because there’s always a chance that it will go wrong and mar the memory a bit,” reflects Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, entertainment writer and author of the bestselling Sex & The City And Us. “And this show was so much of its time, that it will have to evolve to feel modern. But I also know smart people are making it, and I’m extremely curious to see what they do.”
Two decades ago, Sex and the City hit a cultural sweet spot. It was fresh, funny and sexy, rewriting the playbook for female-centred shows, and spawning an entire industry of imitators in its wake. As if anyone needs reminding, the show centred on sex, galpals and a womanly affection for luxury leather accessories.
Adapted from a 1996 book of columns by Candace Bushnell, who reported from the coalface of Manhattan nightspots and Hampton beach houses, Sex and the City was glossy, undeniably feminine, and shamelessly consumerist.
Female-led comedies were nothing new but up until 1998, there was a definite sense of a gap in the scene. Sex and the City, featuring conversations on anal sex, threesomes, sex toys and faked orgasms, was a palate cleanser. Rarely before had a comedy drawn attention to the ways in which men and women misunderstand each other.
“There was certainly a history before SATC, dating back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s and even That Girl in the 1960s,” observes Armstrong. “And we had seen plenty of single female characters on shows like Will & Grace, Friends, and even The Golden Girls. But Sex and the City really centred the experiences of these women and, most obviously, allowed them to talk about sex in a whole new way. It allowed women to be honest and dirty and funny, and it changed, nearly overnight, the way women talked about sex.
“I think it also made the iconography of single women into this sparkly, glamorous thing that everyone wanted in on,” Armstrong continues. “Single female characters were often kind-of pathetic and pining before this, and even the best single female characters, like Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was not as overwhelmingly glamorous as these women were. They made it look like the most fun in the world to be single and independent and professional over 30.”
Candace Bushnell herself posited on why Sex and the City became the cultural behemoth that it did, telling the Guardian in 2018: “Human nature. We all grapple with the issues. And now people grapple with them in a different way, maybe online. But the core of wanting to find someone, a soulmate, or not wanting one, the things that one learns about oneself when one gets into relationships, all that is human nature and that doesn’t really change.”
It wasn’t necessarily all smooth sailing. In Reading Sex & The City, the book that she co-edited with Kim Akass, Janet McCabe — who finished the book while a lecturer in Film Studies at Trinity College, Dublin — acknowledges that some male critics initially responded with condescension and vitriol.
“Male critics were not alone in their dislike,” McCabe wrote in the introduction to the 2004 book. “Charlotte Raven, columnist for the Guardian, told her readers she warned friends not to write about the show, for she ‘couldn’t bear the idea of anyone believing that this worthless pile of swill was in any sense culturally relevant’.”
Still, it soon became evident that female viewers in particular were devouring the show and, as Margo Jefferson wrote in the New York Times, “(analysing) how it gave form, or at least gave stylist credence, to their quandaries and desires.”
Even now, Sex and the City’s DNA is absolutely everywhere.
“It certainly made television executives feel safer about putting female-centric shows on the air, and many of them for a long time were overtly looking for the next Sex and the City,” Armstrong recalls. “That often didn’t work, but it paved the way for better variations eventually — the extremely liberated, commitment-phobic female doctors of Grey’s Anatomy, for instance, or 30 Rock and The Mindy Project up through Insecure, Fleabag, I May Destroy You, and the much more interesting and diverse voices/characters we see now.”
Screenwriter/author Caroline Grace-Cassidy recalls that the show single-handedly changed the marketplace, creating multiple opportunities for those writing about women’s lives.
“It opened a whole new generation of women writers to be free to write about what they wanted,” she notes. “I kept hearing about the ‘Sex and the City’ market — open-minded women who were not afraid of how they were really living, and not afraid to tell their friends when they were feeling down.”
Novelist Sinead Moriarty published her first book The Baby Trail, loosely based on her own experiences of starting a family, in 2005. She acknowledges that Sex and the City blazed a trail when it came to opening up the fertility conversation and, to a wider extent, other topics that were off-limits in everyday conversation.
“Between that show, and Friends and Frasier, it was the first time I’d seen it represented on screen,” she says. “I could really relate to it. I was married when I first watched the show, but I was struck by how a lot of it was a very powerful commentary on women’s lives. They didn’t shy away from how difficult things could be [for single women] socially.”
Yet the show was influential in affecting our everyday life behaviours, too. Style consultant Laura Jordan says that Sex and the City’s singular wardrobe was like a ‘fifth character’ on the show. In Ireland, its rise to popularity clashed with the Celtic Tiger, in a moment when Irish women’s attentions had trained towards luxury labels.
“I think what [the clothing] did was give women permission to spend their money, to enjoy fashion and to get everything out of life,” she observes. “The clothing on the show was about putting your best face on and getting yourself out there, and it definitely left a legacy in that regard when it comes to Irish women, who use their clothes unapologetically, to express their moods, their passion, their power.
Sex and the City, a series on which it was sexy, cool and aspirational to be single, also had an impact on our dating behaviours.
“With the whole Carrie and Mr Big relationship, I think it was an instance of a toxic relationship that gave some women a false sense of hope,” says Feargal Harrington of Intro Matchmakers. “I meet so many women who are with a ‘bad’ boy, but believe that he will eventually come around.
“The other thing I come across are women who are super successful and attractive and want to date a man 20 years younger. They will say, ‘I’m 55, but I look 40, max’. There are lots of Samantha Joneses out there,” Harrington adds.
After doing a service for single women everywhere, the show bowed out on a high in 2004 after 94 broadcast episodes and six seasons. Strangely, that’s when things started to get complicated for the franchise. Few could have predicted the lasting cultural legacy of the series, but fewer again would have foreseen how the lukewarm movie spinoffs — 2008’s Sex and the City, followed swiftly by 2010’s Sex and the City 2 — would taint it forever. By the time yet another spinoff aired (2013’s The Carrie Diaries), there was a distinct sense of a dead horse being flogged. “The second feature film in particular gets it all wrong, and can read as culturally insensitive,” Negra observes.
Time appears to have been a cruel mistress in other ways. Sex and the City appears to have missed the mark with Gen-Z audiences. Many of younger viewers have expressed reservations about the sitcom’s storylines, describing them as transphobic, homophobic, size-ist and sexist (in Season 3, Samantha describes her neighbourhood as ‘trendy by day and tranny by night’). And the popularity of the #WokeCharlotte meme proves that younger women (specifically Chelsea Fairless and Lauren Garroni) are clapping back at some of Sex and the City’s older conceits.
And Just Like That hit its first speed bump when it was reported that the foursome would now be a threesome. Kim Cattrall, playing the iconic Samantha Jones, had decided not to partake, amid reports of enmity with other cast members. Original cast members Chris Noth (Mr Big), David Eigenberg (Steve Brady), Willie Garson (Stanford Blatch), Marion Canton (Anthony Marentino) and Evan Handler (Harry Goldenblatt) would nevertheless join main cast members Cynthia Nixon (Miranda Hobbs), Kristin Davis (Charlotte York) and Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie Bradshaw).
Hollywood feuds are nothing new, yet there’s something about the spat between Parker and Cattrall in particular that has undeniably captured the public’s attention. “What stands out about Sex and the City is the romanticisation of female friendship, and how it can heal all wounds,” asserts Negra. “The loss of the Samantha character undercuts all that, and the public acrimony between [Parker and Cattrall] has been a huge talking point.”
Still, and with the chorus of online disapproval about Samantha’s absence still ringing, the series ploughed on determinedly without Cattrall. For weeks, there were on-set stills, script leaks, rumours and speculation as to the respective fates of Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie. It soon became abundantly clear that, despite widespread critical panning of the movies, interest in Sex and the City remains at an all-time high.
Adds Grace-Cassidy: “Without wanting to go down the menopause route, women in their 50s have a hell of a lot going on, possibly more so than ever 20 years ago. I really hope [the creators of And Just Like That] really go for it and that they are honest about that experience.
“It can go one of two ways: if the writing is really honest and true to their earlier roots, they are onto a winner and they can shock audiences all over again. Women of that age have largely been hidden from society and hidden in the media. I think if they spin age-old ideas of what 50 looks like on their heads, that would work out as really exciting to watch.”
1 Lena Dunham: Of all the shows with a direct bloodline to Sex and the City, Lena Dunham’s Girls, which premiered on HBO in 2012, was quick to doff its cap to the comedy. Both featured a group of four different girls navigating their professional and personal lives in New York City (there was also all that awkward sex).
2 Manolos: Few outside the rarefied fashion industry had heard of the Spanish shoe designer before Sex and the City. Soon, Manolos became a byword for being (literally) well-heeled.
3 Cosmos: A cocktail recipe that reportedly originated in the 1930s, but also enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s because of frequent mentions on Sex and the City. When Miranda asks the group why they stopped drinking Cosmos in the film, Carrie notes, “because everyone else started”.
4 Sex Toys: The Rampant Rabbit was given the seal of approval by the relatively traditional Charlotte, meaning that even those who were cowed at the very idea of vibrators found that their curiosity was piqued.
5 Toxic bachelors: Suddenly, and thanks to the Mr Big effect, being jerked around by a commitment-phobe seemed almost sexy. Almost, but not quite.
‘And Just Like That’ premieres on Sky Comedy and on streaming service NOW on December 9