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One of those iconic television programs, one that captured (or was it created?) the zeitgeist in all sort of ways, from fashion to dating to, um, personal grooming, is poised to make a well-timed exit. Sunday night saw the quasi-ending to HBO's Sex and the City, which returns in January to complete this season. When the show finally leaves the air, it will be the an end of an era, both for television's most glamorous single women and, at the same time, for those of us who started out reveling in—and even capitalizing on—the girls' hedonism only to become distracted by the other, more ominous issues of the day.
It was five years ago that HBO introduced a program based on the relationship musings of onetime New York Observer columnist Candace Bushnell, whose own dance card read like the Manhattan phone book. The show made its debut amid the internet boom of the late '90s, when appetites grew and consumption of all kinds became an entitlement to this newly flush generation. With a middling economy, an anemic job market, and our troops in Iraq getting picked off like cardboard ducks at a carnival, it’s clear the bleak realities of life have returned. Finally, it seems, maybe the problems of four stylish Manhattanites no longer amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But they did once.
They certainly did to me when I spent a few years as a relationship columnist for one of those laddie websites, which lightheartedly advised men on which beer to drink and how to avoid commitment. In the beginning, like so much in that era, this was supposed to be a get-rich-quick scheme; the investors had big plans to turn the site into a media franchise with television, print, and radio incarnations. I was hired to give the feminine perspective on dating. I never made it to the ranks of Carrie Bradshaw, but I'm not complaining. Carrie was partly why I landed the gig in the first place. The "single life" as a concept became a hot commodity during S&C's reign, and it was delightful that ill-qualified but successfully single scribes like myself had found a new revenue stream.
It was a good time for us. Along with pushing names like Blahnik and Birkin into mall-chick vernacular, S&C created a huge market for sex columnists—or, in other words, those of us who could turn our own romantic pratfalls into marketable copy. The trend continued beyond magazine and website columns, driving the proliferation of dating-rules (and no-rules) books as well as the "chick lit" category, a Bridget Jones-inspired sub-genre of racy, semi-autobiographical novels tracking the endless search for love, career fulfillment, and a perfect skin care regimen that will fight off the wicked effects of all those apple martinis.
I'm certain I never had as many readers as Carrie Bradshaw, nor as many fans of my romantic pontifications. Millions tuned in to HBO on Sunday nights to watch this comely quartet plot a course through the dating maze and explicate their sexual encounters over eggs benedict. Week after week, somebody got screwed—metaphorically, always; literally, more often than not—and yet the show continued to be hailed as post-feminist iconography; a true indication that material success and sexual freedom intersected to produce a new kind of emancipation.
While I prefer not to remember the number of times a party conversation began with some man's glinty-eyed inquiry as to whether I was a fan of the show, S&C seemed a necessary element in revisiting and celebrating sexual expression in the wake of a sobering AIDS crisis and a perceived threat against the pursuit of happiness from the PC police of academia and politics. And in peacetime with a "new economy" fueled by youth and business-school optimism, the entertainment media caught on to the egocentrism. This had been the era of Seinfeld, where nitpicking people to death became a pastime and relationships ended because of inequitable cereal consumption.
Yet while the show suggested women were equipped to buy, drink, and copulate as robustly as men, it also posed the rather subversive question of whether they should. Not always, mind you. There were glorious moments of conquest, mostly achieved by Samantha, whose honesty and elegant enunciation of the filthiest words made her the favorite of the four among many viewers. But even she was unable to escape the trap of the dreaded relationship, falling hard for a wealthy hotelier—and later for a hunky actor—and along the way with both losing some of that enviable mercenary power. But she listened to her friends and gave in to love. Had she written in to me, I might have advised her otherwise. None of this laptop psychology, however, takes away from the ladies' strength, wit, and refusal to apologize for living—and enjoying—the single life, even despite the mixed messages were transmitted to us over these last five years. I often wonder how many mixed messages I sent, like when I advised men on how to properly analyze internet personals. ("Adventurous" does not always indicate "threesome." Well, I suppose sometimes it does.) I still have guilt over a few, badly churned out columns, informed by my own lousy Saturday nights at the local watering hole.
But here's why there were all those mixed messages, Carrie's, the show’s and mine: Sex and the City debuted at the tail end of a phony economic boom. Everybody was faking it, even the men (just ask Ken Lay or the white shirts at Arthur Andersen). Midway through the show's run, a presidential election was fudged, companies tanked, and, one bright September morning, we had our armor pierced. And while the girls came back in full patriotic force and celebrated New York in style, the carefree social remnants of the swinging '90s were beginning to look about as gauche as a fake Gucci. Among some of us, an introspection and examination of our own lifestyles and priorities took precedence over Prada purses and the internet booty call. Plus, by that time, most of us had lost our dotcom fortunes—and, as I did, our columnist jobs.
Now that marriage and babies are back in vogue (literally and figuratively), and we navigate amid all the sour news of the day, it seems just about right that the show, like my column, is retired to fond memory and (for the show, at least) syndication. This recent sorta-finale suggested that single, married, or happily in-between, these women are acknowledging the outcomes of their choices, good and bad. It did not promise a tidy ending in the final season, nor would we expect that from four women who showed us the untidiness that results from life's many choices.
Cynical Miranda has succumbed to a different kind of four-letter word, finding love with her baby's father. Perfect Charlotte has found her happiness—and, perhaps, a child—not with the WASP prince but with the bald Jew. Carrie discovered the pleasures of a—relatively—innocent kiss good night. And Samantha? She's realizing maybe it's not best for her boytoy to be the mature one in the relationship. Post-feminist pioneers though they might be, it would seem not only disheartening but tiresome for them to continue to wade in denial, cynicism, and defeat—all punctuated by the perfunctory orgasm.
At its worst, the show was a creaky bridge between the sexual revolution and a post-revolutionary mess—a quagmire, if you will, where the art of physical intimacy and all of its florid but occasionally enjoyable pretense was deconstructed down to the last molecule, creating a palpable animosity between the sexes. (What was the point, you sometimes found yourself wondering.) This dialectical analysis, however, only increased the demand for more inside information. Men wanted to know if it was really true that women dissected their every word, and, ironically, women wanted to know how the lifestyle choices represented in the show affected men's perception of them. Certainly some of us busily handing out advice were wondering the same things, and, following the example of Ms. Bradshaw, we did so publicly in exchange for a freelance commission.
At its best, the show helped us celebrate the basis of the American Dream. No, not a closet full of overpriced shoes, but freedom of choice and to pursue our own happiness, despite the messes we might make while engaged in that enterprise.
A television show is just that: a show. It's not a manual for living. And speaking of manuals, I have no desire to return to churning out romantic advice. I never felt very good at it, and, plus, most of my beer-drinking commitment-phobe readers have probably married by now.
Angelina Sciolla last wrote for mediabistro.com about the impact of blogs on the mainstream media.