It’s not TV; it’s HBO
The series out-classes the book

The show has also toughened up and tackled the implications and consequences of the choices its characters make. Sex and the City is still fizzy and funny. But it has become unsettling and, sometimes, infuriating, as it mercilessly homes in on the dirty emotional secrets of modern, post-feminist women’s lives. Watching the characters obsess over finding Mr. Right or worry that they’ll never have babies, you don’t know whether to laugh, because it’s all so embarrassingly retro, or cry, because you know women exactly like them.


Fans of HBO’s Sex & the City (coming to TNT in PG syndication on June 15) may not have a lot in common with fans of Candace Bushnell’s books (the author who wrote the column that spawned the series).

The characters in Bushnell’s books (Sex & the City; 4 Blondes; Trading Up) bear almost no resemblance to the four relatively hopeful, perpetually confused, cautiously optimistic and ultimately benign foursome who populated HBO’s Sex & the City (Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha). Season One did heavily excerpt segments of the book (“modelizers,” for example) to dismal effect—before the HBO team heavily revamped Season 2 and developed four characters that the American zeitgeist could get on board with.

The show’s characters, while often reduced to their one-dimensional stereotypes/archetypes(Charlotte, the WASP husband hunter; Miranda the ambitious attorney; sexual predator Samantha; and Carrie the hopeless/clueless romantic), came a long way between 1998 and 2004.
Charlotte converted to Judaism and married a self-described putz. Samantha fell in love; got her heart broken; and eventually “caught” monogamy (which she suspected she must’ve “picked up from hanging around you people.”) Miranda joined the Mommy-track and, in arguably the best episode of the entire series, lost her mom to a heart attack in “My Motherboard, Myself”…(up to that point, it was difficult to discern whether or not these women came from families or simply sprang from the head of the statue of liberty, fully formed.)

And Carrie, the heroine, finally settled, after a brief and totally implausible romance with a wealthy artist (an oxymoron, in most worlds)—a relationship which seemed to exist purely for the benefit of ensuring that producer Sarah Jessica Parker got a free trip to France. (There’s a reason the show was called Sex & the CITY, and the CITY is New York, not Paris.)

Yes. Settled. Not settled down.

The series had its detractors—who complained (with some degree of accuracy)—about the lack of depth to the characters and their perpetual inability to find meaningful happiness. Still, sharp writing and clever humor can cover a multitude of sins, especially if the worst of those sins is shallowness—and the visual treats never hurt either (in real life, the author’s mogul boyfriends never bear any resemblance to a Chris Noth or a John Corbett).

Maybe it’s because people watch, more than they read, or maybe it’s just the HBO juggernaut—but it was the series that carved its mark in American pop culture.

Now soccer moms and Nascar dads from Arkansas to Nebraska not only know who Manolo Blahnik and Christian Louboutin are, they can pronounce them too.

Vogue and InStyle no longer seem to be written in a foreign language even for those who live in the farthest outposts of civilization (unless it’s an outpost without cable).

And on a healthier, more resonant level, the show brought “Sex” out of the closet. If Episcopalians from Connecticut were doing it (“Crouching Charlotte, Hidden Hummer”), how terrible could it be?

And as…“candid”…as the diner discussions could be, the potential vulgarity of the repartee was usually ameliorated by clever writing and gifted delivery.

From bikini waxes to bjs, very little was off limits (you don’t even have to be a viewer to be aware that Charlotte never wanted to be known as the “up the butt girl” or her problems with teabags).

And though women’s locker room chatter has always been far more excruciatingly specific than that of men, the series opened a door to something when it acknowledged that women everywhere were gathering over brunch, comparing notes, and asking with surgical precision, “are we doing this now?”

"I am thinking hard about the concept of a tribe and why it scares me, why I think of ‘Lord of the Flies’ instead of a lovely communality and conviviality."

—Siobhan Reagan, Beatrice interview with Candace Bushnell, “The Art of Sex as Social Climbing Technique”

Bushnell told CNN in 2000 that Sarah Jessica Parker/Carrie “is not me, but does play a me-like character,” acknowledging that the inspiration for Sex & the City came from her younger days. (Born in 1959, she is older than everyone but Samantha’s character on the series, and actually lived through Studio 54—the club, not the movie).

Bushnell’s characters, however, unlike those in the series, are almost never funny (except occasionally, unintentionally).

Where the series could be accused of being fluffy to its detriment (particularly in its earliest years), her characters are deadly, melodramatically serious.

When they do seem to be going for humor, it’s usually of the poisonous variety (“they weren’t going to make it big after all and the next significant thing that would happen to them was probably cancer” or “Away from the temptations of glamour, money, and fame, it was probable that Janey would become no threat to anyone; she would safely shrivel like an apple one leaves out in the sun for months and months and then paints a little face on.”)

Readers who are looking for sharp, eviscerating New York satire should stick to the Sedaris siblings, David and Amy (the latter having played a minor role in Sex & the City as Carrie’s ultimately downsized publisher). Or go back to Dorothy Parker.

In a 2002 interview with New York Magazine, Bushnell distilled life (and topics for writing) to its basics: beauty, money, and sex.

And that’s what she focuses on, in a manner more reminiscent of Jackie Susann (one character even refers to pills as “dolls” in a campy retro moment) than say, Tolstoy, whom she frequently cites as inspiration. Jackie Collins also comes to mind. (Every character speaks in such chronic italics it’s almost like reading Cosmopolitan magazine.)

Unlike the girls of the series (who deep down, always had heart—right down to their cheesiest centers), the women who populate Bushnell’s novels are typically vicious—under the guise of being “pragmatic.”

As in her latest, Trading Up (the title pretty much gives away the premise), the women make philosophical proclamations to themselves about “the harsh reality of love and romance” which is “that a woman’s choice of partner is always limited to men who want her, not vice versa.”

Or as one heiress helpfully advises the protagonist on the Marrying Man, “When it comes right down to it my dear, one husband is no better or worse than any other husband, In fact, there are times when I think they’re completely interchangeable.”

"People who want to be successful…what a wonderful thing! It’s so American, and the truth is it alleviates a lot of people’s psychological neuroses. The thing I find irritating is this idea that it’s only people who want to be successful and shop at designer stores who are shallow and superficial. No! I mean, no. New York is one of the few places in the country that does have society, and I think that’s wonderful. You could come here and make it and have a huge summer house and invite all those people!"

—New York Magazine interview, “The Blonde Who’s Had More Fun,” with Candace Bushnell, February 11, 2002

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the series was its heartfelt belief and faith (flawed and unrealistic though it was) in the friendship of these four women—that they would always have each other.

Unlikely as that may be (in real life, girlfriends move; they get married; they have kids; priorities shift from that dorm lifestyle where 2 am chats in the stairwell were the rule, rather than the exception), the series still became a bonding phenomenon for women (and truth be told, men—who were probably hoping for inside information) everywhere.

In real life, you never saw photos of Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall and Kristen Davis slathering each other with sunscreen while they vacationed happily together in the Hamptons (this is HBO, not the cast of Friends).

But one has to hope that real life isn’t what turns up in Bushnell’s books either—where there are no friends—only commodities—people who can be used to get you from one level to the next.

Whereas Carrie’s “talisman” in the season finale was her “Carrie” necklace (the one that launched a thousand trends), the touchstone for the heroine of Trading Up is a tube of “pussy pink” lipstick.

And the plots are rarely about the characters doing well, so much as it is them marrying well (or poorly)—along with a lot of accompanying complaints about how terrible it is that life’s this way. (In interviews, Bushnell characterizes New York as the sort of dreamy place where anybody can “marry” a millionaire—not where anyone can become one.)

The author IS writing about every woman’s greatest fear—and it isn’t insecurity about finding a man to settle down and have a family with—it’s actually the dirtier, grimmer secret fear that women, deep down, hate other women.

Girls’ Night Out - featuring Candace Bushnell discussing and signing Trading Up

Candace Bushnell, best-selling author of Sex and the City, will be in town June 8 for an evening sponsored by Joseph-Beth Booksellers, MIX 94.5, Absolut, and Comedy Off Broadway. The event will take place at Comedy Off Broadway in Lexington Green and will include episodes of Sex and the City, a cash bar, and discussion and signing with the author. Two episodes will be shown at 6:00 and Candace Bushnell will arrive at 7:00 and will speak. Afterwards, the final episode of Sex and the City will be shown and the author will sign her books. Tickets are $5.25 at the comedy box office and a portion of the proceeds benefit breast cancer awareness. Seating is limited. HBO’s Sex and the City was inspired by Bushnell’s columns of the same name for the New York Observer. Her most recent title, Trading Up tells the story of Janey Wilcox, a social climbing lingerie model, a character in Bushnell’s prior novel, Four Blondes.