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Once upon a time, in magical New York City, a certain cable- television station began broadcasting from its Midtown headquarters a weekly series about four single women who lived right there, in magical New York City. There was sunny, fair-skinned Charlotte York, with her dark eyes and shoulder- length dark hair, a WASP derived from New York high society who worked in an art gallery; Samantha Jones ("Sam" to her friends), a high-powered public- relations executive with her own firm, a caustic, bitter, formidable, startlingly all-of-a-sudden-masculine blonde who had, like, lunar sex with every man in sight; Miranda Hobbes, a corporate attorney and graduate of Harvard Law School, with pale electric-blue eyes and copper-red hair, who alternated disastrous dates with calamitous relationships; and last but certainly not least, Carrie Bradshaw, the blow-dried, straw-haired sylph, who wrote a column for the imaginary New York Star called "Sex and the City," which happened also to be the name of the series, now preparing its sixth season, each episode of which is told in Carrie's voice, through Carrie's deep, almost viscously thick blue eyes, eyes that seem to look right through you, and through the character of Carrie herself, to Sarah Jessica Parker, the self- adoring actress who plays the self-adoring Carrie.

A fusion of soap opera, self-help commentary, therapeutic consolation, and prime-time porn, Sex and the City's stroke of brilliance has been to address, week after week, the consuming obsession of every unmarried person, straight or gay, male or female, living in a big American city: the Relationship. Or as Carrie inanely puts it in her weekly question—she asks a different one in her column each week, an interrogative pseudo-profundity that the episode then seeks to answer—"Have relationships become the religion of the nineties?"

Having a "relationship," of course, is not the same as being together. Just as an attitude toward labor only hardened into an ideology called Marxism when the worker got cut off from the product of his labor, so erotic bonds only hardened into Relationshipism when people started, for a million familiar reasons, getting cut off from each other. A "relationship" is not to be confused with a union. It is an ongoing argument between two stubbornly sovereign selves about the possibility of a union.

About the infinite number of forms that this argument takes, Sex and the City can be very smart. If it is vulgar to judge high art by its effectiveness at reproducing "reality," it is myopic to approach television in any other way. Daily existence consists largely of putting out one little brush fire after another; and television is a fire extinguisher. No medium, even film, is as tied to everyday life as television. Everyone, or just about everyone, knows what's wrong, but who can say any more with absolute certainty what's right, especially in the realm of emotion and desire? At the core of Sex and the City is a kind of crisis center for bruised or befuddled hearts. It is appropriate that the show airs on Sunday evening, in the choppy wake of Friday and Saturday nights.

The questions that Carrie asks are easy to deride, with their silly self- centeredness, their marketing-executive idiom, their coin-operated impersonality. "In a gravity-free world, where everything goes, what constitutes cheating?" "When it comes to relationships, how do you know when enough is enough?" "In a city like New York, with its infinite possibilities, has monogamy become too much to expect?" But Carrie's questions point to a world, our world, where everything seems allowed yet where it is hard to figure out the consequences of that illusion; to a world where possibilities seem infinite, yet where no one seems to know how to feel when those possibilities turn out to be unnervingly limited. In this sense, the Relationship—in which everything is not allowed, because there is the boundary of the other person; and in which possibilities are finite, because there is the problem of two distinct lives, each with its own limitations and vulnerabilities—is a laboratory for a lot of present-day quandaries that no social or cultural authority can explain, or even clarify.

So Sex and the City gets high marks for dramatizing these inarticulable dilemmas. Should Miranda stick with—which means, in worldly Manhattan, settle for—slight, bespectacled Steve, her working-class bartender boyfriend, with his outer-borough accent and the added authenticity of his basketball, who wants only to be a bartender, and who is cuddly, and funny, and kind, but also resentful, and thin-skinned, and intellectually desolate? They are ultimately mismatched, but she is so lonely, and it is so brutal out there. Should Aidan, a handsome, rough-hewn, sensitive guy who likes to work with his hands and doesn't know the difference between Cond Nast and Thomas Nast, stay with Carrie after she tells him that she betrayed him with another man? She loves him, but she lied to him; she is with him, but how will he know she isn't lying again? The significance of these emotional snafus is small, but their symbolic resonance—how do you live a good life?—is not small.

THE PROBLEM IS that Sex and the City, once it mustered a striking frankness on the tube about urban men and women, has gone about squandering it. Instead of plunging into all the strange new present-day configurations of sex and emotion, the series has proceeded to divide sex from emotion. There is an abundance of fucking in Sex and the City, but it is the sort of fucking you did years ago, when you were very young, lying on the bed and cavorting in the head. As the series rolled along, you became aware of a damning artifice, an un- mimetic quality startling in a series that was supposed to be a candid look at urban life: none of these women is hurt by sex.

In urban America, you do not so much meet a romantic partner as inherit the product of someone else's romantic crimes. Someday someone will televise the real story of sex and the city and call it Judgment at Nuremberg. People get hurt, they become hard, they grow shrewd and wary. But these four women—a journalist, a public-relations executive, a corporate lawyer, and an art dealer, all high achievers, all in their thirties—are constantly humiliated, insulted, and embarrassed without the slightest effect on their egos or their self- esteem. The exception is Miranda, the show's token human being, wonderfully played by Cynthia Nixon, who, as the series has proceeded, has become more and more self-protective and withdrawn, an affecting protest against the show's indifference to the women's inner lives.

These are four single women in early middle age who appear to have been injured in just about every way a woman can get hurt by men, and they are not even on anti-depressants. After Charlotte goes off somewhere at a wedding with a man whom she has just met and has sex with him, they return to the reception, where, angered by something she says about his father, he loudly barks that he never wants to see her again and stomps off. Charlotte shrugs. Samantha meets for a drink a man who excuses himself for a minute; after half an hour goes by and he has not returned, Samantha goes looking for him and finds him in intimate conversation somewhere else in the bar with a younger woman. Even nymphomaniacs have feelings, but Samantha just rolls her eyes as though she were Lucy getting exasperated with Desi for the umpteenth time that evening. And before Miranda's transformation, she gets into a relationship with a guy who can only get aroused if he pushes her face out of the way and watches porn films over her shoulder while they make love. Another boyfriend, enraged by a mildly critical question Miranda had asked him—the men in this show are mostly angry creeps or mellow creeps—says to her as she is lying in his bed, "I'm going to take a shower. When I come out, I'd like it if you weren't here." Neither of these incidents upsets her much more than the breaking of a heel.

EVERY EPISODE RITUALISTICALLY has several scenes, usually set in restaurants over a meal, in which the women get together and talk about their romantic situations. But rather than talk about their adventures in terms of feelings or mental states, poignantly or angrily or comically, they speak about them almost exclusively in terms of sex. When they are not talking about "the classic dating ritual: the blow-job tug-of-war," or about "fucking your brains out," they are quipping, "If your friends won't go down on you, who will?" and discoursing interminably on anal intercourse.; "How many women, after years of dating creeps, would call off a relationship with a nice ophthalmologist because he doesn't always give them an orgasm? How many women have an orgasm just about every time they have sex with a man, a miraculous dispensation with which Carrie and her friends have been blessed?"

It is not shocking to see women portrayed—though in comic caricature— talking the way women, when they are alone with each other, do talk sometimes (or so I assume), or to have part of the reality of female desire acknowledged on the small screen. What is startling is that for these smart, canny, emotionally alive women, pretty much every relationship comes down to the quest for sex—for perfect sex—as an end in itself. How many women, after years of dating creeps, would call off a relationship with a nice ophthalmologist because he doesn't always give them an orgasm? How many women have an orgasm just about every time they have sex with a man, a miraculous dispensation with which Carrie and her friends have been blessed? But breaking up with the nice ophthalmologist is exactly what Miranda does, she of the porn boyfriend and the angry boyfriend. Not much later she shuts up with a kiss a documentary film- maker, who actually, finally, for once, is talking on their first date about something besides sex, and something interesting, too. "Miranda," Carrie enthuses in the voice-over, "was pleased to discover that Ethan was just as passionate between the sheets as he was about film."

It would be quite the opposite, one would think, for women as experienced, and intelligent, and reflective about what they need and want as the show's quartet should be. "Passion"—to use a euphemism—between the sheets is not hard to come by on a first date. But rather than the tangled convergence of ego and emotion that physical intimacy is, the sex in this series is actually a refuge from sex, which—no matter how hard one might try to keep it pure— pretty quickly gets tangled up with ego and emotion. Sex in this series is like a sandbox. Its presence here is as unreal as its absence was on network television forty years ago.

THE DOMINANT FICTION projected by commercial society is that you can gratify yourself at no cost except to your wallet or your pocketbook; and Sex and the City has taken that illusion for reality. The show sublimates actual sex into ideal sex-in-an-emotional-vacuum in the same way that sitcoms from the 1950s sublimated actual family relations into ideal family relations. Sex and the City is Leave It to Beaver after dark. An absolute disjunction exists between the way the show portrays the women's harrowing experiences and the way it depicts their blithely bawdy conversations. It is like watching two different programs. And when the four are not talking about sex, they speak about experience in a kind of sales rep's idiom: "Soul mates: reality or torture device?"

Now, a part of the reason for the show's portrayal of women seeking sex for sex's sake is that the series' two creators, Darren Star and Michael Patrick King, are gay. On this level, Sex and the City is part of a long imaginative streak in popular art, a trend that includes Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart and George Cukor and Rock Hudson and most of the writers of the 1970s series Bewitched and many other gay figures whose portrayals of heterosexual life brilliantly subverted heterosexual conventions even as they were providing models for (unwitting) straight boys and girls. But there is a quality to Sex and the City's subversions that is more bitter than playful, an element that is almost vindictive.

Running through Sex and the City is a subtext that amounts to a manifesto for a certain kind of raw, rough, promiscuous, anonymous gay male sex. Star and King sounded the call to arms in one of the very first episodes, when they had Stanford Blatch, Carrie's loyal gay friend, declare that "the only place where you can find love is the gay community. It's straight love that's closeted." A few seasons later, the women sit around watching gay-male porn films. "That's the way to do it," says Samantha, "no 'I love you'—just good old-fashioned fucking." Nobody contradicts her. One of the most recent of the half-hour-long episodes had the women finding happiness for a full ten minutes in a gay men's dance club. A segment this past season sent Carrie and Samantha, both blondes, on a train across the country, joking all the way about Some Like It Hot. Some of the quartet's boyfriends in the show's first two seasons actually wore their sweaters tucked into their pants; and if the actors playing these straight guys weren't gay, I'm Montgomery Clift. Sex and the City's ongoing impersonation is admirably resourceful and daring. But the show's misogyny is not admirable at all.

Commenting on Sarah Jessica Parker's recent pregnancy, Michael Patrick King said: "Sarah's our workhorse, our show pony. We put her in high heels and tell her to run thirty blocks. Now, all of a sudden, she has to be babied." In its caricature of women who talk about sex like men, and, like men, have orgasms every time they have sex, the show represents a kind of counterattack on women's biology. The expensive, mismatched, chic-ugly clothes that Carrie wears; Sarah Jessica Parker's confused interpretations of her character as a black girl one episode and a self-conscious suburban cutie the next; Samantha's robotic-erotic, stud-like manner (and the sweaty, atrocious acting of Kim Cattrall, who could not stand still and convince you that she is a person standing still); the women's starry-eyed gold-digging; their countless humiliations: the picture of heterosexual life projected by Sex and the City, though it sometimes hits the nail right on the head, is the biggest hoax perpetrated on straight single women in the history of entertainment. The series' misogyny is matched by its homophobia: the only regular gay characters, Stanford and Anthony, are self-hating and flaming, respectively. Perhaps the exhilaration that the show provokes in some of its fans stems from the reactionary character of its assumptions about sexual identity.

YET SEX AND THE CITY'S assault on heterosexual romantic hope goes much deeper than its creators' psychosexual shenanigans. More than an ingenious affirmation of a certain type of gay-male sexuality, the show is a surrender to a certain type of socio-economic arrangement. For the series has skillfully turned what society still deems a deficiency of emotional strength—singleness— into what the economy considers an asset of calculated advantage—self-interest. Inviolable individuality is, after all, the hidden condition of Relationshipism.

By the fourth season, with the exception of Charlotte, who has been divorced, the four women were in their late thirties and still unmarried, and you began to realize that the show's premise of its protagonists searching in the city for love and happiness was meant from the beginning to culminate in disappointment—but disappointment funnily, sexily, even glamorously portrayed, until disappointment itself started to look like love and happiness, and the object of the search, someone to share your life with, acquired the aspect of a dystopian and dysfunctional fantasy. The men whom the four women meet are selfish, unfaithful, uncouth, hyper-neurotic shits, which seems about right; yet the show brings no decent guys their way except for the handful of men whom the women themselves immediately or eventually alienate—like the virile, kind, cultivated, gorgeous police detective whose near perfection makes a nervous Miranda drink herself into a stupor on their first date, prompting him to flee her apartment after leaving behind the address of her local Alcoholics Anonymous chapter (a very funny episode); or Aidan, the virile, kind, and gorgeous furniture-maker whom Carrie first sexually betrays and then, when a year later he forgives her and comes back, refuses to commit to, thus driving him away for good. Indeed, kindness in men arouses anxiety and suspicion in the women: Carrie sabotages a relationship with a smart, gentle magazine editor when he catches her rifling through his apartment, looking for the incriminating evidence that she is sure will prove that he's too good to be true. (She doesn't find it.)

The women, even the hapless, vulnerable, serious-minded Miranda, are magnetically drawn to callous, selfish men. It seems that the qualities that are sure to hurt them are also the qualities that they believe will protect them in Sex and the City's money- and status-obsessed New York, a dazzling Darwinian demesne in which to move ahead you have to move fast, and to move fast you have to move alone. And so the four heroines are attracted to hard- hearted, fleet-footed guys, who are almost always affluent, and who are guaranteed to leave the women hard-hearted and fleet-footedly alone—that is, to leave them alone as fluid, insatiable consumers, unobstructed by a limiting couplehood.

The really revolutionary thing—in sitcom terms—about Sex and the City is that the show does not satirize the lucre-inflated bowels of Manhattan; it celebrates them, and it prefers them to the city's unquantifiable heart. The show has a kind of cartoon ideology of Manhattan. Every episode begins with a generalization about the city's glamour, wealth, cool, and cultural uniqueness that is breathtakingly disconnected from the actual New York: "Most single people in Manhattan do not buy furniture or hang pictures until faced with the arrival of out-of-towners." Huh? The show's creators actually seem terrified of what they nervously perceive as Gotham's reality. What are meant to pass as jaded apercus really just reflect yuppie anxiety: "If you own, and he rents, it's emasculating."

SEX AND THE CITY is so much the creature of its fantasy of New York that its characters do not resemble any actual person who lives in New York. The four women never, until a couple of spats in the later seasons, fight with each other; and never express jealousy of each other; and never—except for Miranda when she is pregnant—collapse from exhaustion or work late. It is not even clear how the four of them—a scattered socialite, a workaholic and ambitious corporate lawyer, a power-hungry nymphomaniac, a newspaper columnist so narcissistic that she is hooked up mainly with her own clothes—would ever have become friends.

The sitcom's traditional role has been to comfort the viewer who feels burdened by the unreality of American expectations. Perhaps the greatest, and most innovative, feat of Sex and the City has been to unsettle viewers with the spectacle of people who have every material thing worth possessing—and night after night of great sex to boot—and to keep them masochistically coming back for more, as if to avoid the show's images of material and sexual perfection were to admit one's material and sexual imperfections. Like New York magazine, with its endless lists of "best" and "top," and The New York Observer—where "Sex and the City" first appeared as a column—with its slavish pursuit of the hip and the exclusive, Sex and the City has won a good part of its audience by instilling in its viewers massive amounts of anxiety, a mood that can be allayed only by turning on the show and belonging to it. Like the elusive, eternally uncommitted Carrie's elusive, eternally uncommitted Mr. Big, Sex and the City is the remedy for the distress that it causes.

With Sex and the City, the folks at HBO have created just this kind of cold and remote object of desire; a commodity eternally alluring, like the show's conception of Manhattan itself. "I'm dating the city," reveals Carrie, with typical wide-eyed cynicism, in a recent episode in which, after (yet again) having been humiliated in the rain by a stranger she tried to pick up, she seems resigned to the fact that she is chronically single. But Carrie is played by an actress in a television series called Sex and the City who transparently is playing an actress acting the part of Carrie, who writes a column called "Sex and the City," which in the course of the series becomes a movie called Sex and the City, which is about a columnist named Carrie who writes a column called "Sex and the City," which becomes a movie, and on and on.

In other words, Carrie is really dating the idea of New York purveyed by Sex and the City; she is really dating her television. And it is beyond significant that this relationship—between a person and an appliance that projects the illusion of other people without exacting from the ego a price for being with other people—seems to be the only relationship in which this wildly popular series' creators, who have fashioned the show in their own image, actually believe.