Early in the coronavirus pandemic last year, I couldn't help but wonder (sorry) how the characters of Sex and the City might be faring in quarantine. And because those characters were never really human beings so much as personality archetypes entertainingly bundled into couture and thrust into chaotic situations, the imaginary story lines wrote themselves. Carrie, obviously, was calling Miranda to complain about her shoes being neglected while Miranda was working 60-hour weeks and homeschooling Brady and trying to keep Steve's bar from going under. Charlotte was sewing masks out of Liberty-print scraps and hoarding Clorox. Samantha was flagrantly breaking lockdown for both hookups and illicit dermatologist appointments, while making gags about how if this "COVID" was 19, honey, it was at least old enough to have sex with.
And Just Like That, a 10-episode spin-off of Sex and the City whose first two episodes just debuted on HBO Max, has a similar kind of fan-fiction energy. (Anthony started a lockdown sourdough business, Hotfellas Baked Goods, staffed by muscular eye candy! Big got a Peloton!) When the series was announced in January, with the caveat that Kim Cattrall would not revisit her role as Samantha, questions abounded. Why revisit these characters now, given how poorly so many of their escapades had aged? How would the show explain the absence of such a vital character? Could the stench of Sex and the City 2--a grossly consumerist, tone-deaf car crash of a movie I still occasionally curse for coining the term Lawrence of My Labia--ever really be eliminated?
Still, intellectual property is a hell of a thing and streaming television is voraciously hungry for content, so the show that informed the way two generations of women and girls thought about sex and relationships has returned. It's sadder and wiser than before. As the title suggests, And Just Like That is neither a continuation of the original show nor a televised sequel to the movies but its own thing entirely: a ponderous, melancholic muddle whose primary motivation seems to be making amends for sins of the past. I watched it all without stopping, occasionally hiding my head in my hands when Charlotte called one Black woman by another Black woman's name and Miranda misgendered one of her fellow students in her postgraduate program. The series doesn't seem to like or respect its characters much anymore, which makes me question now if it ever did.
The show's premise, which is revealed at the end of the first episode to be not at all what it seemed, could have been fascinating. One of the major themes of Sex and the City was that its characters resisted the idea not just of physically aging, but of growing up. Carrie, a teeny-tiny woman whose signature tutu was essentially a child's costume, had $40,000 worth of shoes but no retirement account. Samantha dated men who were 20 years younger than she was. Charlotte clung to an infantile, Disneyfied ideal of what love should look like. To revisit these women in their mid-50s is surely to collide with disenchantment, but also revelation--the freedom that comes with realizing that what you look like is no longer your primary form of value in the world, and maybe never was.
Rather than examine its characters as potentially changed people, though, And Just Like That seems to want to punish them in front of our eyes. The new episodes I've seen are less a Golden Girls-esque celebration of life for older women than a parade through a dismal gantlet of loss and humiliation. Without Samantha on board, none of them is having sex, which is presumably one of the reasons the title had to change. The series begins, as it used to, with a risque lunch discussion about semen, but the context is wildly different: Miranda stepped on a used condom in her son's room before breakfast. Later, the host of a podcast Carrie appears on, a nonbinary comedian named Che Diaz (played by Sara Ramirez), tells her that she's coming across as too prudish during the discussions about sex. "You need to go with it, or the trolls will label you the uptight cisgender female married lady," they say.
Over and over, And Just Like That demonstrates how ill at ease its characters are in 2021. Last seen changing jobs to spend more time with her son, Miranda has essentially become a bitter problem drinker who tries so hard to demonstrate her woke bona fides that she says the absolute wrong thing on every occasion. Charlotte, the Pollyanna of Park Avenue, is now a dreary monster of hyper-privileged parenting who pouts when one of her daughters won't wear the matching floral dresses she bought her at Oscar de la Renta. Steve is a Queens accent that's calcified into the shape of a man. Harry is Harry, though somehow viewers have to suffer through not one but four separate mentions of his impending colonoscopy. Apart from his Peloton, Big is defined mostly by the fact that he apparently still hasn't bought an album since the '70s.
Without spoiling things too much, there is a death, because apparently that's what the writers thought must happen to women in their 50s. To imagine a series about people of that age that isn't immediately centered on loss would require the kind of imagination and empathy that Sex and the City rarely had. At its worst, as the writer Lindy West described the second movie, its world was "essentially a home video of gay men playing with Barbie dolls." I've recently been rewatching the series from the beginning, and the scene that's most stayed with me is one where Carrie visits Miranda, who has just given birth, and is viscerally horrified at the sight of her friend breastfeeding. Miranda is desperately tired and frustrated at not being able to get her son to latch, and apologizes for not being able to follow the conversation; Carrie smiles wanly and goes home. That a show breezily capable of discussing anal sex and squirting was so obviously disgusted by the unsexualized female body should, in retrospect, have been a tell for how sensitively it was really thinking about women.
Still, somehow, I'm not quite ready to give up on these women. The show is clumsy, yes (it seems to be positioning each of the three main characters to have a friendship with a woman of color, which I can only hope is about more than the manufacturing of teachable moments). The episodes, which run about 45 minutes each, are baggier and less formed than the HBO series used to be. Without Samantha, the show has no sense of humor. Nevertheless, there is something irritatingly compelling in the idea that these old characters might be made new again--that we might all, if we want, find impetus to change for the better. That, whatever one's age, pain might also be presenting something else in disguise: opportunity.