The pilot of Sex and the City feels different from the seasons that follow it. It’s grittier, Carrie speaks directly into the camera, and maybe most surprisingly, the fashion’s extremely forgettable. But there’s also something on a deep, soul-level that feels as true to the show as the series finale, which is impressive. If you couldn’t help but wonder how I remember all this, it’s because, last week, in honor of the show’s 21st birthday (I’ll be buying it a shot later), Leandra, Harling, Mallory, Nora, and I paused our work to do the most vital work of rewatching it.
To our nostalgic, cringey pleasure, the first-ever question Carrie poses to no one is, “Why are there so many great unmarried women and no great unmarried men?” If the consistently underwhelming men in the show are any indication, this query would ultimately serve as a tentpole of SATC, which claimed to be about sex but was actually about women. Because we are miraculously still not tired of this show, we discuss this idea and more below, in a roundtable recorded post-viewing about what we just saw and what a modern version might look like today. (Hint: It involves micro-influencing.)
Leandra Medine: What did you think of that episode? A couple takeaways: Carrie spends very limited time over the course of the season talking into the camera and that’s a damn good thing, and the man-on-the-street interviews were distracting. Unrelated: her eyebrows are great, and I really enjoyed the use of eyeshadow. I think I’ll give it a try.
Also! Sam Jones refers to Big as “the next Donald Trump,” a claim that is worth dedicating an entire micro-blog to.
Mallory Rice: I’m really impressed by how many theories and proclamations about dating are packed into ep 1. You’d think they would be pacing themselves for future episodes.
Harling Ross: What fascinated me most is how different the aesthetic of the show was when it first debuted. It’s very dark and clothes are *not* part of the narrative, which contrasts quite distinctly with later seasons that are much glitzier.
Nora Taylor: It felt less fantasy-focused — the men are awful, her apartment is “normal,” Charlotte is at her actual job, and Samantha gets done dirty twice.
Leandra: But to the point Haley made while we were watching: The consistency among character personality traits is so impressive. They are profound stereotypes of themselves, but it works?
Harling: Yeah, it does work! I think in part because it’s like the TV version of the personality quizzes that have become so popular in the Buzzfeed era: Which woman are YOU?
Haley Nahman: Yeah, when I rewatched the series with Avi recently, we couldn’t believe how often we were cringing, but we also walked away with a lot of respect for what the show did right. And I see that in rewatching the pilot. They had such a vision for this show and stuck to it. Maybe not always in tone, but in character development and the social landscape they wanted to focus on.
I also better understood why it was such a big deal. Here are the other shows that were popular in 1998: Friends, ER, Seinfeld, Home Improvement. SATC was so different in its depictions of women.
Leandra: This show was rly the first of its kind, so I guess it was like, BURSTING to come out.
Mallory: Yeah it’s like it was the first chance everyone had to really talk about these things.
Nora: And I guess culturally at the time, the general dividing line in how women approached relationships/sex was still stark enough that being a Miranda or a Charlotte did feel like an identity marker.
Leandra: If I had to guess, the plan was always to make it more escapist, but they didn’t have the financial cojones to do that until later. The reason it’s weird, though, is we never really see advancement in their careers or personal statuses that would facilitate life upgrades.
Haley: Totally. Work is presented as a big part of their lives, identity-wise, but is actually very secondary in their stories.
Leandra: Like, Carrie stays a sex columnist, how does she go on to afford Chanel? And Madison Ave?
Harling: While at the same time asking Big for loans.
Mallory: I think she was always being financially reckless though, right?
Nora: “I’m literally the old woman who lived in her shoes,” or whatever
Haley: I think partly SATC was selling the idea of financial freedom, of women buying whatever they wanted with money they earned, however reckless
Leandra: When the show started to get more mainstream, it seems to embody a sneak-the-veggies-in approach. Because you start having people come for the fashion, but stay for the friendship, the celebration of independence, the feminist agenda.
Harling: And arguably television’s first female anti-heroes! Complex women who weren’t always likeable.
Haley: For sure. Although a lot of the “feminism” in the show feels pretty outdated.
Mallory: I also see sooo many connections to the dating app life in this first episode — like real life has finally caught up with SATC, where dating is really just fodder for you and your friends and the volume of new people is actually that high.
“It’s like SATC except people never leave their apartments”
Haley: That’s such a good point! Watching the pilot I was struck by how many of the complaints were similar to those I hear today.
Leandra: OH like what?
Haley: Ghosting, everyone having too much access and therefore not wanting to commit, everyone having different theories about how to play the game.
Everyone today is nostalgic about “meeting someone in a bar” — but when that was the norm, clearly it wasn’t beloved either.
Nora: And Miranda’s point about the not-hot guys being just as bad as the hot guys is like the 90s versions of men who wear ‘feminist’ T-shirts still being dirtbags.
Leandra: I think the most salient way I have changed as a self-respecting woman since first falling in love with this show is by learning that to be equal to a man does not mean to be the same.
Mallory: Oh yes. I feel like I’ve learned that professionally and personally
Haley: Yes. But even that feels oversimplified these days doesn’t it? People are less likely to lean on that binary and the general assumption that men and women are inherently wired differently. I think a modern SATC would be so much more complex than embracing being different than men.
Harling: It arguably wouldn’t exist
Nora: Or, instead of getting equal by having feelingless, manipulative sex, it would be about asking more of your partners and communicating up top what the expectations are.
Leandra: Wait this is fun. Let’s talk about how a modern SATC could work. What would the setting be?
Haley: A text thread instead of breakfast.
Leandra: Parachute bedding instead of fancy apartment overviews.
Mallory: Carrie would be a micro-influencer?
She’d probably wear fancy stuff bc most of it was free?
Leandra: So, Carrie is an influencer
Haley: She wouldn’t have money but would seem rich to people on IG.
Mallory: She’d have less debt! I’m happy for her
Harling: Charlotte would probs still work at an art gallery tbh
Leandra: Miranda runs a healthcare start-up
Samantha just launched her own digital agency
She reps the bigger wig Carries
Nora: Samantha won’t stop talking about polyamory
Leandra: Who is Charlotte?
Harling: THE SAME
Nora: (whispers…Edith Young)
Leandra: Charlotte is Amelia, huh?
Harling: Who’s Big? The owner of Bustle?
Leandra: Jared Kushner
Nora: Jeff Goldblum
Leandra: “The next Donald Trump”…
Harling: I guess Big would be president
Haley: Also I think the cast in general would be more mixed. It wouldn’t be all about men versus women and hetero sex and relationships. And there would be more class mixing. And more people of color who aren’t service workers (this was the most egregious part of SATC, the only people of color are literally serving the main characters).
Leandra: Yes my follow-up Q was how many of the protagonists are white?
Nora: I sort of feel like Crystal would be Carrie, not to keep casting our staff
Leandra: Crystal is Carrie
Harling: 100% accurate
Leandra: Nora, maybe you’re Miranda
Nora: Yes. I always tell people I’m Magda tho.
Leandra: Swapping vibrators in for Jesus figurines on the reg?
Haley: I think there would be more interesting male characters too. Like men with actual depth. Sauce men! All the men in SATC suck.
Mallory: I’m scared to say this but….what about Aidan?
Haley: Everyone acts like Aidan was so pure but when I rewatched I had so many problems with him!
Mallory: Do tell!
Harling: Aidan is v controlling
Haley: He’s not actually that good to Carrie. Of course she’s shitty to him too.
Nora: They made sense on paper but the chemistry was off
Haley: Oh! There was one good man. HARRY! I didn’t hate Steve by the end either. (The men who really saw and understood their partners — cannot say the same for Big.)
Nora: Also are all men Bergers now? Like IRL
Leandra: YES. Berger was horrific. Arguably the worst on the show
Nora: But so charming up front!
Harling: That sound machine….
Leandra: He could not handle Carrie’s success and made her feel so bad about it.
Harling: He also made her feel bad about her personal style.
Haley: But his nightmarishness was like…SNEAKY! That was such a well-written character actually. He had some nuance! Bad nuance, but still.
Leandra: Who the fuck wants to walk into that puddle of immaturity? As concluded by his Post-It. He was soooooooo conflict-averse
Haley: It’s so interesting how one-note all the men in the show were. I think it actually reflected what SATC was trying to do, which was given women all the nuance. It was payback or something.
Leandra: Maybe in 2019 this isn’t even a show about women in relation to men. It’s more about them in relation to themselves? No that’s not right — there is no greater pursuit than that of human connection
Mallory: Do you think we could use a show now that’s more balanced?
Leandra: What do you mean?
Mallory: Where we get to see the interiority of men too. And how they process the same moment. I am personally dying for it.
Haley: That’s what I liked about Sally Rooney’s Normal People. The equal interiority granted to both the male and female characters.
Leandra: Can a TV show even maintain such ubiquitous appeal anymore?
Nora Taylor: I think about the discourse around Fleabag
Mallory: @Nora – Curious about how you all think Fleabag compares?
Harling: Fleabag doesn’t feel like a cultural moment so much as a cult show with a cult following.
Nora: Fleabag is about friendship and sex and love (with a curly-haired protagonist who talks to the camera). I think there’s still a hunger for stories that show how women navigate physical desire and love and duty and friendship and saying you want one thing and acting on another. A nuanced look at how hard and dangerous intimacy can be in all its forms. I feel like it has rocked the worlds of women in my life.
Mallory: I see it! It’s also really about her relationship with herself and processing her own trauma. I feel like on both shows they’re looking outward as a way of delaying looking in.
Harling: It is so so good, and echoes SATC in that it feels like a fresh perspective on sex and women that hasn’t necessarily been depicted in this way before.
Leandra: So fundamentally what made SATC special was its refreshing take on a topic that is objectively important to every living human but especially to women.
Haley: Yes, and while that take is no longer that refreshing, it was so crisp in its vision and execution of it, and so committed to character development, that it’s still a joy to watch, even when its (often) cringey.
Nora: The only episodes that ever made me cry were the ones about their friendship, like when Carrie shows up for Miranda’s mom’s funeral and jumps into the aisle.
Harling: Oof yeah
Haley: Same. Or when she comes back from Paris in the end and walks into the cafe, obviously. No spoilers.
Mallory: Every time they show up for each other my chest gets tight.
Harling: FINAL question (if you had to choose): Team Aidan or Team Big?
Mallory: Deep deep deep sigh
Nora: I’m Team ME and isn’t that what the women would want?
Jk I’m team Big. My life’s curse is that I love him.
Haley: Team Harry
Harling: I’m Team Aidan sry every1
Mallory: I think I like Aidan because he’s closer to like… a skater who moves to Hudson and then tries to make you feel lame for still thinking New York City is still cool?
Nora: Can I be team hot sailor from the fleet week episode?
Leandra: Ooooh, I’m team New York.
Haley: Good answer.
Photo by Getty Images / Handout via Getty Images.