The opening credits for the HBO rom-com Sex and the City are some of the most iconic, perfectly summing up the show: star Sarah Jessica Parker’s sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, feeling fun and flirty in her tutu and tank top, smirks and struts down the Manhattan sidewalk. Then a bus with her face on it hits a puddle and douses her with mud.
And that was kind of Sex and the City in a nutshell. Darren Star’s groundbreaking show, based on Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer columns, is mostly remembered now for its superficial love affair with shoes as well as its double entendres that sound like they were written by a stereotype of a gay man for a crowd of stereotypes of gay men. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is that it would often flip on you and get real. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) had breast cancer. Miranda’s (Cynthia Nixon) mom died. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) had miscarriages and a trainwreck first marrriage. And through it all—and all their love lives—they were there for Carrie and for each other.
The show might have caused a million fresh-faced journalism graduates to don flower pins, stilettos, and gold necklaces and hop the first train to New York way before Anne Hathaway and her The Devil Wears Prada wardrobe gave us the refrain to KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See.” But it also had a way to sting you worse than blisters from a pair of Manolo Blahniks. It paved the way for a world of female-centric comedic stories amongst the grizzled landscape of prestige drama’s male anti-heroes. There would probably be no HBO’s Girls or Comedy Central’s Broad City without Sex and the City.
A lot of this has been forgotten, by myself included, as we prepared for the premiere of And Just Like That…, the HBO Max sequel (well, they say revival) of the franchise that already spanned six seasons (ending in 2004) and two subsequent movies. And the new 10-episode series knows it. It captures a lot of the heart and charm that the original did, alongside some hard emotional truths. And despite a lot of doubt on the part of viewers when this project was announced (especially when it was learned that it would be sans Cattrall’s Samantha), as of the first two episodes the show has genuinely made a case for its return.
(Seriously, major spoilers for the first two episodes below)
The first episode wastes no time in addressing the biggest red flag with the series’ return: where is Samantha? “She’s no longer with us,” Carrie tries to joke to Julie Halston’s blabbermouth socialite Bitsy Von Muffling (a character from the original series who is still irritating, some 20 years later), while Miranda assures that she’s not dead; she’s just moved to London.
Quirkiness—and a lot of over-acting on Davis’ part—continue through the bulk of the first two episodes as we get a quick catch-up on where everyone stands. Miranda has become a well-intentioned white savior and has quit her corporate law job to get her masters degree and help with human rights; yet she still has no idea how to talk to, or read social cues from, her new professor Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman). Charlotte’s eldest daughter, Lily (Cathy Ang), is the over-achieving piano prodigy her mother dreamed she’d be, while youngest child Rose (Alexa Swinton) scoffs at wearing Oscar de la Renta and helps Dad (Evan Handler’s Harry) live out his mid-life crisis fantasies of skateboarding down Park Avenue. And then there’s Carrie and John James “Mr. Big” Preston (Chris Noth), who are happy drinking white wine and salting salmon.
And just like that… the unthinkable happens. Big dies in Carrie’s arms at the end of the first episode, suffering a heart attack after an intense Peloton class.
And we are reminded of why this show is so poignant.
In the second episode, Carrie’s grief is palpable as she handles the shock and pain of trying to find a funeral home for a man whose personality was bigger than life. (That she is frequently consoled by Willie Garson’s Stanford Blatch in scenes filmed before that actor’s passing in September makes these moments even more emotionally resonate).
Meanwhile, Charlotte is guilt-ridden that her insistence that Carrie come to Lily’s piano recital meant Carrie wasn’t with Big when he had his heart attack. But, more importantly, she is also at a loss for her sense of purpose. Who is she now that her kids are almost grown? How will she continue on if Carrie casts her aside, too? Even the Samantha storyline is felt through the writing. We learn in the first episode that she and Carrie had a falling out when Carrie fired her as her publicist. But Samantha later sending a tasteful and perfect flower arrangement to the funeral home gives hope that maybe these two kids can work it out.
This isn’t to say that And Just Like That… is a slam dunk. Like the original series, it has some work to do if it wants to be remembered as a beacon of progressive thinking. It’s not a good look for Charlotte to joke with the daughter she adopted from China about “who rescued who” (Charlotte promises she was talking to their dog; an American bulldog named Richard Burton as an homage to Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Elizabeth Taylor whom Charlotte previously owned). Nor is it OK for Carrie to make a joke about “seeing the condom as half full” when Miranda talks about the sex life of her teen-aged son Brady (Niall Cunningham)—-even as Miranda is fully in her right to scream at Carrie’s boss, Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez), for obliging the kid’s request for a hit of her e-cig at Big’s funeral.
Even some of the sex stuff (Carrie’s personal brand!) feels forced. When Che has Carrie on the gender roles podcast X, Y and Z, the sex columist falters when talking about masturbation. It’s awkward and uncomfortable; but not nearly as awkward and uncomfortable as when she tries to get her husband to masturbate in front of her. You’d think someone who once wrote the line “it’s my belief that the last time anyone actually enjoyed the 69 position was in 1969” would have more of an open mind about such things.
As opposed to HBO Max’s reboot of Gossip Girl, which took a known IP about privileged teens and updated it with a new group of kids, And Just Like That uses the same characters to tell the same stories. Anyone who would be watching it would only be interested because that person was a fan of the original show. But it’s not like topics of menopause, grief; or female identity as we age; haven’t been covered on TV recently.
But there’s hope that this show can be salvaged more than a muddied tutu.
At one point, Carrie asks Miranda, “What do I do now?.”
As in what does she do after her mate—the man she chased around Manhattan and dated innumerable other men for years in order to forget during their breakups—-is gone? What does she do after a part of her, a part of her identity, suddenly vanishes in her arms when she’s not ready to say goodbye?
And just like that… I might like to find out.
And Just Like That… continues weekly on Thursdays on HBO Max.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.