“And Just Like That . . .” Has One Too Many Cosmopolitans

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There are few products of the current I.P.-driven reboot era more cynical—on paper, at least—than “And Just Like That . . . ,” the Max series that resurrected the global icons of “Sex and the City” nearly two decades after the show ended. The first season, conceived during the pandemic, returned to the original friend group (minus Kim Cattrall), updating their problems to be more menopausal and more in tune with the social and political concerns of the present moment. In the opening scene, Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte meet for lunch at the Whitney Museum’s in-house café, giddy and dressed to the nines. Lest the viewer wonder whether any of these women has been plagued by the financial turbulence that has unsettled the world in the past two decades, Charlotte is toting an Oscar de la Renta garment bag, sheathing a new dress for her teen-age daughter to wear to a piano recital. Twenty years later, the socioeconomic perches and social dynamics of these women would seem to be intact. But the show’s writers loudly signal that the world around them has dramatically shifted and that the women have tried to adapt: when Carrie snaps a photo of a stranger’s extravagant outfit, she posts it to her Instagram. “When I first started doing it . . . it was just for fun,” she says, of the social-media platform. “But now that I’m on that podcast, it’s kind of growing into a thing.”

From there, the first season undertakes a series of box-ticking gestures that seem designed to address criticisms of the original “Sex and the City.” The main characters befriend the women of color who’ve suddenly waltzed into their lives; Miranda leaves her husband, Steve, for a nonbinary comedian named Che Diaz, and Charlotte grapples with the prospect of her adolescent daughter questioning her gender. Carrie Bradshaw, the show’s chirpy protagonist, is now podcasting about sex and relationships rather than writing about them. (Her show is called “X, Y, and Me.”) At its worst, “And Just Like That . . .” exploits viewers’ nostalgia by jamming headlines and cultural touchstones of the moment into the psyches and lives of old, beloved characters. It’s a collision of aesthetic and topical excess that almost feels as if it were created to provoke the most grimaces possible.

And yet, in spite of all this, there is something that feels emotionally genuine—and narratively compelling, even—about the first season of “And Just Like That. . . .” When “Sex and the City” wrapped, in 2004, it left many viewers with a strange, overly sweet taste in their mouths. For six seasons, the showrunner Michael Patrick King and the creator Darren Star had persistently steered the four women toward the darker, peskier, and more unsettling aspects of growing older. The women’s lives, no matter how resplendent their closets or quick their pun reflexes, disappointed them. They suffered career frustration, breast cancer, fertility problems, and profound existential loneliness. Their lives tended toward mess even when the writing and structure of each episode was perfectly tidy. But, in the final stretch of the series, “Sex and the City” settles for a disingenuous storybook ending for Carrie, who moves to Paris with the Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky. After constructing elaborate fantasies about what a life in Paris will look like, Carrie is stunned to discover the reality of the situation, which is that she feels alienated, neglected, and adrift in her new station. Rather than allow her to return to New York City in her own confused anguish, the show’s writers sent a knight in shining armor—Mr. Big, her longtime on-and-off romance—to rescue her. The series ends in the most treacly way possible: with the pair kissing on a bridge in Paris.

And so the matter of Carrie’s too-happy ending has always felt like unfinished business to both diehard and casual fans of the show. “And Just Like That . . .” tackles this problem quickly, by thrusting the characters into new depths of catastrophe and disappointment. In the shock ending of the première, Carrie’s happily-ever-after fantasies are swiftly demolished when she walks into her Fifth Avenue apartment to find Mr. Big, in the aftermath of a Peloton-induced heart attack, on the brink of death. The other women, too, receive the unhappiness that the “Sex and the City” finale was perhaps too afraid to give them: Miranda is developing a drinking problem and a midlife crisis that forces her to admit that she was never happy with Steve, and might have regretted the decision to have a child. Charlotte believes that she has the long-desired biological daughter of her dreams, but now said daughter is shattering her tightly held feminine ideals. Samantha, the sexpot fourth member of the group, played by Kim Cattrall, is estranged and living in London, leaving her three friends feeling achy and regretful.

And, even twenty years later, these sometimes-insufferable characters remain compulsively watchable, in part because they’ve remained true to the icky, lovable personas that made them into cultural archetypes. Carrie’s life has quieted down, but she still hasn’t shaken the self-involvement that made her such an anti-heroic protagonist to begin with. When her friends invoke their own (very real and urgent) life problems, she can only divert their attention back to her grief: “Big dying . . . is something,” she reminds them. Miranda, meanwhile, is still constantly tripping over her own scruples and self-righteousness, to the point of alienating others, while Charlotte’s social conservatism and vanity are still so deeply entrenched that she feels comfortable scolding Miranda for letting her hair go gray. The tonal and emotional continuity of these characters from their “Sex and the City” origins is impressive—and likely a testament to the fact that Sarah Jessica Parker (Carrie) and King are in charge of the reboot. If you were a fan of the original, it seems inconceivable not to tune in and bask in the warm comfort of these women’s company. As such, the first season of “And Just Like That . . .” broke an HBO-streaming-service record.

In its second season, however, “And Just Like That . . .” is testing viewers’ desire to spend time with these characters. After the profound life disturbances undertaken in the first season, new episodes fall back on shtick and familiarity. Suddenly the show feels paralyzed by self-awareness, and characters seem to be in constant conversation with topical Internet chatter. Perhaps no television character in history has been more despised (rightfully so) by audiences than Miranda’s love interest, Che Diaz. The new episodes are not so intent on developing the character as they are in satisfying the bloodlust of their critics. Admittedly, Che’s downfall is quite satisfying. When they move to L.A. to film a semi-autobiographical sitcom pilot, they finally come under the scrutiny of an audience. One person in a focus group, after watching the pilot, articulates the consensus opinion of the Che Diaz character: “Just some phony, sanitized, performative, cheesy-ass, dad-joke, bullshit version of what the nonbinary experience is. It sucked.”

And the characters themselves, rather than moving forward, have become lost in their own nostalgic reverie: Carrie’s new solo podcast, after all, is even called “Sex and the City.” She unearths a familiar old gown to attend the Met Gala; later, she is struck by a whimsical desire to e-mail her former love, Aidan. Miraculously, he is divorced and available for a dinner date, on Valentine’s Day, no less. Any of the joy that their rekindled romance might have elicited was already wrung out by the photos released in January to tease the reunion. At times, it feels as if the cultural legacy of “Sex and the City” has been reduced to a series of gasp-inducing snapshots to be posted on social media.

Originally, “And Just Like That . . .” emerged from a restless creative impulse: the creators had scrapped plans for a third “Sex and the City” movie, but there was still material left to be explored. During the pandemic, Parker, like so many of us, was feeling especially nostalgic, and she noticed that “Sex and the City” had accrued a horde of new, younger streaming fans. Carrie Bradshaw was calling her name yet again, and Michael Patrick King got to writing during the summer of 2020, with the idea that any reboot would have to “break the old show,” as he told Rachel Syme. “And Just Like That . . .” was originally intended as a limited series meant to scratch a very specific itch, but its success could not be ignored. Season 2 was a commercial inevitability.

Storytelling pursuits have a kind of sacred alchemy that can go seriously awry. Forcing narratives beyond their organic life spans tends to ruin them—best to leave them untouched, to be admired from afar. This was, at least, the consensus until, in recent years, the financial rewards of dredging up the past became too substantial to resist. As a result, the past continues to tighten its grip on our pop-cultural psyches as the reboots, remakes, and never-ending sequels become the main course rather than the side dishes. Now we are left with a lot of navel-gazing art that seems to exist simply because of the market, not because it has anything new to say. Cattrall, though she has been dismissed as ridiculous, was wise to understand this fact early on. She has said in an interview that she played Samantha Jones “past the finish line” of the show. Now, in absentia, Samantha Jones is the most compelling character in “And Just Like That. . . .” Of course, everyone has a price: it was announced earlier this year that, after so much resistance, Cattrall would be appearing as Samantha Jones in the upcoming Season 2 finale. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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