And just like that … the world of Sex and the City turns upside down

And Just Like That …
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A bunch of women take a post-power lunch walk, three abreast, along a narrow New York pavement. In 2021 they would be called footpath-hogging Karens and cancelled with a TikTok clip. But to anyone old enough to remember when TV was not served on demand, it’s the very familiar conversational stroll of Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte.

Cynthia Nixon as Miranda, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie and Kristin Davis as Charlotte in And Just Like That …Credit:HBO Max

And just like that … we’re back. Or are we? And Just Like That … is a strange fusion of the 1990s/early-2000s world of Sex and the City re-interpreted through the lens of contemporary New York life. At first glance it’s almost like watching Instagram Reels on a boxey four-by-three television set. Everything is in the right place, but nothing feels quite right.

To lean into a metaphor that will make sense to the show’s original diehards, poking a slightly plumped 2021 foot into a lean, and devastatingly stylish 1998 Manolo Blahnik pump was never gonna be as easy as slipping on an old shoe. But with a little wriggling, and a bit of grunting, we might get there.

Sex and the City was an American romantic comedy-drama television series created by Darren Star. It was the story of four New York girlfriends: journalist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), art dealer Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), lawyer Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) and publicist Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

For 94 half-hour episodes broadcast between 1998 and 2004, and two films released in 2008 and 2010, these women set a high bar of humour, style and then-contemporary storytelling. Star wrote the pilot, but screenwriter Michael Patrick King gave it it’s voice, along with writers such as Cindy Chupack and Jenny Bicks. The script’s tonal notes were bold and unapologetic.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie in And Just Like That …Credit:HBO Max

The new series, commissioned by the US streaming platform HBO Max and available in Australia on Foxtel’s Binge, kicks off with two of its ten planned episodes, Hello It’s Me and Little Black Dress, both written and directed by King. And we’re straight back into it. King comes to this with his T’s crossed, and his I’s dotted. But dancing down the road of nostalgia is never as simple as merely redressing the stage.

And Just Like That … cannot lean on the single-girl-in-the-big-city tropes that its predecessor did. Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte now come with other halves: Big (Chris Noth), Harry (Evan Handler) and Steve (David Eigenberg), and teen-aged kids. To complete the mosaic, the show’s gay chorus, Anthony Marentino (Mario Cantone) and Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson), are there. Even socialite Bitsy von Muffling (Julie Halston) gets a walk-on.

But from the outset you feel the absence of Samantha Jones deeply – Cattrall declined to return to the series – and while it might seem mathematically logical to stretch three women (and a couple of newcomers) into the same space as four, there’s a good reason art and maths are not the same thing.

Cattrall’s character was the foursome’s unfiltered voice of wisdom. Parker’s Carrie is deeply tormented by angst and (narratively vital) self-examination. Nixon’s Miranda is a mildly neurotic workaholic. And Davis’s Charlotte is fun but prim and ultimately grating.

Karen Pittman as Dr Nya Wallace in And Just Like That …Credit:HBO Max

The collective neuroses of those three were beautifully tempered by Cattrall’s Samantha, who spoke the truth, unapologetically and without a filter. If Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte were on the journey to emancipation, Samantha was already waving from the finish line; she was the crackling-circuit that kept the electricity going.

Without her, things feel jangly. King floods the first episode with contemporary cultural notes. Podcasts. Instagram. And Carrie’s name check of the iconic department store Barney’s is met with: “What’s Barney’s?” That said, the writing does bounce along, blending 2021-on-overload with a bunch of familiar notes early on to remind us of the world, and the dynamics which used to drive it.

But it’s also clunky. An over-talked explanation for Samantha’s absence is an early choke. Equally, the signposting of the changing times. “We can’t just stay who we were, right?” asks Miranda, as the three have lunch. Cue one of the new rotating fourth wheels Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker), documentarian and humanitarian, to join them for a single French fry. (Ooh, naughty.)

The other additions are queer non-binary podcast host Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) and humanitarian law professor Dr Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman). That they address what always felt like an inherent whiteness to the Sex and the City world is a good thing. That they sometimes feel consciously added to the story for that purpose not so much.

The lady who lived in a shoe … Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie in And Just Like That …Credit:HBO Max

Meanwhile, Anthony and Stanford’s unrelenting, judgmental bitchiness feels so 1998 it is positively suffocating in 2021. It’s hard to work out if the show is struggling under the weight of trying to reframe itself around 2021’s social conventions, or simply stumbling because its 1998-pedigree characters are square pegs being pushed into now-round holes. Playing on the idea that Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte can’t cope with the basics of life in a woke world risks making them look like dingbats.

Reboots and remakes – what you call them is a game of semantics – are a tricky algorithm to get right. They depend on a confluence of factors, and they actually fail more often that they work. Which makes you wonder why Hollywood persists with them. Will & Grace 2.0 landed perfectly but quickly began to wear thin. Twin Peaks was crushed under the complexity of its mythology.

And the wash-rinse-repeat methodology of American primetime television storytelling – that the characters essentially evolve in circular strokes, returning to the same beats each episode and season – struggles when these kinds of narratives are rekindled later in life. That’s how The Brady Bunch turned into A Very Brady Christmas. Can these women, in 2021, really be drowning in the same self-examination which propelled the show’s stories in 1998?

Onto all of that King throws a grenade in the first episode – no spoilers – which shakes Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda’s world to its foundations. It’s an ambitious gamble intended to propel the characters to the kind of rebirth than could make or break this sequel.

In one sense, King (and HBO Max) have shrewdly kept the gamble modest. The series is ten half-hours only. How much damage can be done in that time? (Answer: not likely as much as the franchise’s much-maligned second feature film.) And you cannot under-measure the power of nostalgia, particularly with the world in a slightly frazzled state and the audience hungry to reflect on what will be seen, in hindsight, as a safer and less complicated world.

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