Sex and the City's bittersweet fifth season.

What you're watching.
Aug. 22 2002 11:17 AM

Breakfast at Empathy's

Sex and the City's bittersweet fifth season finally wins our woman over.

Carrie Bradshaw: She might just make it after all
Carrie Bradshaw: She might just make it after all

All last weekend I looked forward to Carrie Bradshaw's book party. She would be celebrating the publication of Sex and the City, the imaginary book, based on the imaginary columns, based on Candace Bushnell's real columns that used to run in the New York Observer, which gave the show its name in 1998. As a single woman in Manhattan at that time, I used to wince at Bushnell's columns and then at the show's first few seasons, as if the parables were being staged deliberately to trap me—the Manolo Blahnik Fables. Those shoes are unaffordable and hobbly, especially on sidewalks and in subways; stumbling along in my one discounted pair, I did not want anyone to hold a mirror up to my nature. Everything about HBO's sex-and-money tragedies suggested the gaudy, unspeakable end-point of my own semiconscious ambitions in New York. To have fun. To do—what, again? Date someone? Work at something?

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I now admire Sarah Jessica Parker, though something about her voice still sounds uncomfortably personal, like she's talking to me on the phone and not to everyone on TV. That naturalism or intimacy is a quality of her acting; but I also think her nose-throat complex is just very uncongested. She sounds like she's just gotten over a cold, and she's savoring her easy breaths. Parker has a shy head, like a horse, and she avoids the camera's gaze almost entirely. Instead, she looks slantwise and then smiles to herself. She reacts more than she acts—and much of the program consists of breaks for her wordless cogitation, consternation, outrage, delight, giggles. Patricia Field's clown costumes look great on her, and—unlike most importunate comedians—she doesn't ask for much. Just to be a sad clown, standing, half-foolishly and half-beguilingly, in the center ring of the circus while a certain female audience tells itself, I'm not like her, I'm not I'm not I'm not.

So far, this has been a marvelous, melancholy season of Sex and the City, in which the women have stayed close to home, excepting one field trip to Atlantic City, and I've been with them for every plucky minute. The show's themes now seem less consumerist (less hay is made of shoes), and its jokes are less strident. The actresses now exhibit the self-aware playfulness of Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable in How To Marry a Millionaire (1953). Carrie meets a slacker-y comic writer in thrift-store suede through her book publicist. The writer leads her on with gazes and jokes, then admits he has a girlfriend. Carrie reacts with silence, during which she exactly embodies "thrown off," holding her smile while her eyes register pure sadness.

Charlotte, the Jaclyn Smith of our troubled times, also briefly finds romance: a preppy guy named Someone the Third, who bolts when he finds out—from Charlotte's mother-in-law—that she's still married, though separated. In a parallel plot, Miranda reconnects with a bald, good-looking one-night-stand, who gets spooked when he finds out she has a baby now. Samantha, for once, doesn't get laid, only flayed, by an overzealous dermatologist. Her efforts to keep her chin up at the book party, though her face appears rough and painfully scorched, force me to hand it to the usually dopey Kim Cattrall. She now seems like the show's whipping girl, like Rosamond in Middlemarch: the coquette whom the female writer doesn't like—and to whom she deals out excessive punishments.

I keep meaning to ask friends in San Diego or Denver if they like Sex and the City at all, but I'm afraid to hear the answer. I assume that these friends with houses and children think that the loose, merry quartet are whiny and superficial. But what do they make of the glossary of New York terms the show is perpetually providing in order to add credence to the show's somewhat forced thesis that everything is different in New York? Do they find it tantalizing, comical, obvious, irritating? In Sunday's show alone ("Plus-One Is the Loneliest Number"), the producers laboriously taught the Sex audience such exciting local locutions as:

Plus-one: The additional person you're allowed to bring to a party, especially a work-related event, if your invitation so stipulates.

Condé Nast: The publisher of many magazines, including Vogue and GQ, where glamorous people are thought to work. And do work.

Co-op board: The committee that decides who is socially and financially solvent enough to live in buildings that have been divided into co-ops and thus have a communitarian element; these boards can be snoopy and clannish.

East Side/West Side/below Houston: Geographical divisions in the city that are supposed to have transcendent class-related significance but that are (don't tell anyone) structurally familiar to anyone who has ever lived anyplace.

I am divided between relishing the semi-insidery vocabulary of the show and rejecting it as mystification and New York parochialism. I'm sure we had equivalents in New Hampshire (maybe "The Frame"—the cool, unbuilt house where we used to drink beer?). Part of the pleasure to me now of ideas like "plus one," however, is that they remind me of the light intoxication of learning all the weird words and styles when I moved to New York 10 years ago. The effect of Sex and the City, like The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is dizzying, with its heroine always improvising, harmlessly stumbling, and then suddenly getting very lucky—which is true to anyone's youth in a city. You work way too hard for many things and then every now and then you get something—like maybe a glass of wine—free! Carrie has a way with serendipity, and she has good eyes for communicating: "How'm I doing?"

It wasn't until this season that I was totally won over by Sex and the City. Now I love it: The midcentury Technicolor look of the show; the repertory ease of the performances; the small drama of female friendship; the glee; the life-goes-on charge the show provides—all of it makes me smile. And when Charlotte tells Carrie at the end of Sunday's show, "There's some things people don't admit because they just don't like the way it sounds, like 'I'm getting divorced.' " And Carrie says, in double quotes, " 'I'm lonely.' " And then gets real and says, "I am." I like how matter-of-fact her voice sounds, how intractable, but also permissible, she makes loneliness seem.

Virginia Heffernan is a television critic for The New York Times. Her book, The Underminer, which she wrote with Mike Albo, comes out in February.

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