The most striking homage to the legacy of “Sex and the City” in the new series “And Just Like That” lands like a bit of bitter irony, or a joke too caustic by half.
“Sex and the City” ended, in 2004, with a montage of its characters having found fulfillment through romance and, crucially, self-acceptance, all set to the 1980s single “You Got the Love.” Two movies complicated but largely left intact what Candi Staton’s music had underscored; now, though, this anthem plays after the realization that Carrie Bradshaw is, once again, alone. What was once a song of celebration is now an ironic counterpoint to bitter loss. It’s as if “And Just Like That” can’t find its own tone without just reversing what came before.
Carrie’s Manhattan was easily reduced to an endless parade of Cosmos, Marlboros, and Manolos. But what people were really responding to when they discussed the show’s excess was its sense of possibility — that life, even and especially for women reaching an age that TV didn’t often explore with much depth, could be fun. Even the struggles the characters faced were, in the end, endurable with mutual support and winsome optimism.
Not so on “And Just Like That,” from longtime “Sex and the City” guiding hand Michael Patrick King. The new show’s very premise forces it first to reduce a foursome to three with the departure of Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, to isolate those three from one another, and to divide its central romantic twosome in half. This math doesn’t suit a franchise whose stock-in-trade had historically been abundance. The reasons for the platonic and romantic crack-ups of the first episode aren’t worth divulging here with the show available to watch on HBO Max now; one is revealed at the very beginning of the pilot, one at the end. Suffice it to say that a door is left open for one key relationship of Carrie Bradshaw’s life to resume, but the other has definitively shut.
Which also ends our sense of this project as fundamentally comedic. There’s always been more to “Sex and the City” than escapism, but the 45-minute episodes of “And Just Like That” gradually come to feel like installments of a drama with some jokes. Part of this shift feels like a consequence of the franchise growing increasingly comfortable centering life’s bitterer side; part feels responsive to an era of glumness. (To wit: This universe, one in which Sept. 11 was mentioned only allusively, does feature direct references to COVID-19.) And part is unavoidable, with the most consistently ebullient performer on the show unwilling to return for this go-round.
It’s worth noting that without the typically game and shrewd Cattrall to introduce conversations, issues of the flesh remain largely theoretical for the show’s three leads — which makes “And Just Like That” a missed opportunity to address issues of physical satisfaction for characters in a new season of life. For Kristin Davis’ Charlotte, that means a seemingly companionate marriage in the background of aggressive pursuit of school-board achievements. And for Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda, indeed, the first four episodes are a gauntlet of degradation that begin with a frankly gross description of her minor son’s sex life. Later, her out-of-nowhere substance abuse strikes the viewer as a writerly attempt to find a new, more punishing lens through which to see a character. That it’s a reversal matters more than whether it looks anything like Miranda.
Carrie, lost in her own mind, completely misses that her friend has started drinking through the day, and that tracks. Indeed, Carrie’s journey through mourning is carefully drawn. And Sarah Jessica Parker plays it well, showing us the struggle to keep getting up (with a moment she wears an old-Carrie-style fluffy maxidress and tries to carry on feeling like a heart-soaring tiny triumph) as well as, eventually, an explosion of grief that feels like a catharsis. The show is good, in these moments, at what it’s chosen to do, even as the choice itself has been destabilizing to the project on the whole. Little can measure up to what Carrie is feeling, and so her two closest friends feel increasingly ancillary.
And their complications are, in the first four episodes, explored unproductively; four new characters, all women of color, seem to exist, first, as sounding boards or reactive forces, to refine and reframe the racial politics of the leads, and of their show. When, for instance, friendship with Nicole Ari Parker’s character forces Charlotte to confront how few Black women she knows, or taking a graduate course taught by Karen Pittman’s character leads Miranda into a bizarre cascade of microaggressions, white women’s experience remains at the center of the frame. The intent cannot have been to bring on characters of color as subordinate partners to guide the white leads, and yet that is how it can too often read.
This could change in the season’s back half. The show gestures towards giving its new performers something to play: Parker’s Lisa has a frustrating mother-in-law, while Pittman’s Nya expresses ambivalence about potential parenthood. And the characters in Carrie’s orbit, benefiting from “And Just Like That’s” fundamental imbalance, fare better: Sarita Choudhury’s Seema directly confronts Carrie on her thoughtlessness, the sort of cards-on-table interaction in which two characters are forced to really see each other that “Sex and the City” always did well. And Sara Ramírez’s Che, the anchor of a podcast on which Carrie appears, feels more effectively braided into the show — indeed, for a couple minutes she takes it over, delivering a comedy routine that culminates with urging her audience to “step out of that box and change!”
That advice has been taken to heart. “And Just Like That” changed its cast, its tone, and its focus, removing “sex” not just as a word in its title but as an experience in its reality. Marriages, here, are unhappy — the ones that last — and friendships frayed. Carrie’s presence in conversations feels tenuous and uncertain. (Notably, her writing has been almost entirely sidelined.) The city remains, but suffused with reminders of vividity and life that’s faded away, or been ripped out of the story. This is a show that’s done more than step out of the box — it looks effectively nothing like franchise fans will expect.
It’s not a fear of novelty that makes this startling. (Some of the changes — like the potential suggested by the new cast additions and a plotline involving Charlotte’s family — remain intriguing, close to the season’s halfway point.) It’s that the show can seem as if it’s taking on a new project grander than the “Sex and the City” toolbox can meaningfully address. In this show’s universe, friendship endures, and solves, all; what does it mean that a key friendship is insolubly broken, and others are dissolving into characters seeing past one another?
That last part strikes this viewer as the reversal that haunts this show the most. Back in 2004, as “You Got the Love” played, Carrie exhorted viewers that it wasn’t just love that matters — it was finding someone “who loves the you you love.” In different manners, Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda seem not just to be stripped of their defenses but of their senses of self; the laughs, when they come, aren’t just rueful and hard-won but strained. We recognize these characters, but it’s not just someone at the table who’s missing — it’s an energy. Carrie Bradshaw might have called it that “zsa-zsa-zsu,” once. But her spirit isn’t coming through clearly enough, yet, to know what she’d say today.