It's been a decade since HBO’s beloved series went off the air, so we figured it was time to look back and see what still works, and what doesn't.
On Saturday, February 22, it will have been 10 years since the end of Sex and the City, Darren Starr and Michael Patrick King’s ravishingly decadent romantic romp through pre-crash New York City. Ten years and two movies later, the show has ceded its cultural prominence, as a new generation fixes its eyes on an entirely different kind of aspirationalism. What that aspiration is, exactly, isn’t yet clear, but the days when thousands, if not millions, of young women trained their gaze on a city life of flashy careers and upscale brunches and fabulous parties seem decidedly over.
If, of course, they ever existed in the first place. There’s no doubt that Sex and the City had some pretty hefty cultural influence, elevating once-niche luxury brands to household-name status, serving as inspiration for countless blogs and articles about dating and city life and, anecdotally anyway, leading to a huge uptick in brunching. But really, who knows how many people actually followed the show's siren call to Manhattan, only to face inevitable disappointment.
A decade later, those trends are largely gone, but there’s still the show—this great, thrilling, maddening, occasionally dumb show. As a longtime fan of the show who hadn’t watched an episode in some time owing to exhaustion—I probably tore through the whole series at least twice in 2005 and 2006—I decided to re-watch the entire thing recently to see how it looks now that its of-the-moment modernness has given way to vintage charm. Here’s a ranking of the seasons, from worst to best, as it looks a decade later.
What’s Good: Well, this is the season that started it all, that introduces us to Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte, and Big and a few other recurring characters. You have to admire the strange moxie it took, for HBO to put together a half-hour sex comedy, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and two other women in their 30s (and one in her 40s), run by gay men. The casting is perfect, the writing is flirty and sharp, and Carrie still smokes. It's important that Carrie smokes. I can’t exactly explain why, but it is.
What’s Not: Oof, well, it’s obviously the most dated, in terms of both its cultural references and its social viewpoint. It’s all too easy to forget that Season 1 of SATC feels derivative partly because so many shows and movies that came after it were imitations. It’s like watching Pulp Fiction now and trying to separate it from every hip crime movie it inspired. Aside from the problems of time, the first season relies heavily on not only the corny people-on-the-street interviews, but Carrie’s direct address to the camera. It’s hard to say which gimmick I like less, but certainly neither has aged well.
Best Episode: “The Baby Shower” Oddly, it took Carrie and friends getting out of Manhattan to get the show moving toward its thematic groove—Carrie is skeptical about the settled-down life, Miranda is caustic (and correct), Samantha is brassy, and Charlotte is a pinched bore, but not yet the insane person she would later become.
Worst Episode: “Models and Mortals” The series’s second episode is way too enamored of its own supposed edginess, presenting us with a narrow sliver of a male demographic that only sleeps with models. Sure, there are guys like that out there, but this “type” is played up as such a universal fact that the show has rarely felt more extra-dimensional.
What’s Good: A transitional season that was truncated because of Parker’s real-life pregnancy, these eight episodes hum with a ruefulness that is probably largely owed to the fact that they were the first to be written and shot after September 11. In an odd way, that chilly, nervous air works for the show in some places. Carrie is an uncertain mess, Charlotte struggles with divorce, new mom Miranda is exhausted and crabby, and Samantha warily gives a man a misguided second chance. There’s a weird episode where Samantha and Carrie take a train to San Francisco that works when it really shouldn’t. (It’s also the episode that Charlotte and Harry began their nice romance, which helped Charlotte come down closer to Earth after spinning into madness during the Trey years.) Carrie’s skittishness about entering a new relationship and her utter nastiness over the publication of her book offer a sly meta-criticism of the show in its particular time—how useful or meaningful is all this ultimately inconsequential stuff in a world where so many terrible things happen? Downbeat isn’t really the best tone for this series, but Season 5 is still an interesting peer into the show’s version of the abyss.
What’s Not: Well, the haircut for one. Like wayward Felicity Porter before her, Carrie returned for this new round of episodes having chopped her trademark mane of curly hair into a bob that’s way sadder than it is sassy. Season 5 also introduces us to the boring downer that is Jack Berger, a character that never gets off the ground and is played with an unpleasant sense of veiled anger by a bored-seeming Ron Livingston. This season feels, understandably, a bit lost.
Best Episode: “Critical Condition” When The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani ends her warm review of Carrie’s book with a reference to the men in Carrie’s life being “disposable,” it sends Carrie into a tailspin of self-doubt that has her seeking out the woman who dated Aidan right after her. It’s a smart, searching episode that also includes a rare Miranda/Samantha dual subplot—one that acutely addresses the frivolousness of all this fabulousness.
Worst Episode: “I Love a Charade” The goopy finale episode hardly advances the plot (Berger’s back! Who cares?) and features an irritating guest appearance by Nathan Lane.
What’s Good: The random people interviews are sparser and the tone and themes feel tighter. Each character, but especially Miranda, is still smart enough to question this whole enterprise—one episode even has Miranda openly complaining that all they talk about is men. Season 2 also hits some satisfying emotional highs as Carrie jumps back into an ill-advised relationship with Big, only to have it come crashing down on her in devastating fashion when he announces his engagement to Natasha. Miranda has a wonderful, dispiriting, all-too-relatable plotline in one episode when an old friend she suddenly wants to be more than a friend falls for her interior decorator instead. Later on, she’s further humanized when she starts dating rumpled old Steve. Charlotte lets loose a little when the girls take a jaunt to the Hamptons, while Samantha’s naughty schtick hasn’t yet started to seem overdone. Oh, and a man accidentally ejaculates on Miranda’s face during a tantric sex demonstration. It’s hilarious!
What’s Not: People are still talking to the camera, which is a problem. Watching this season again, it struck me as the show’s magical realism season, with odd tonal veers, like the bizarrely cartoonish “Freak Show” episode and a dubious “cameo” by Leonardo DiCaprio. (The unseen man who pulls Samantha out of a literal and figurative ditch was John F. Kennedy Jr. in the original broadcast, but after he died, DiCaprio’s name was subbed in. That’s not the show’s fault, obviously, but even with Kennedy, it’s a silly moment.) Some of the humor seems dated here in 2014, and despite considerable honing from Season 1, the show feels like it’s still grasping to figure itself out. And then there’s Dan Futterman’s guest-starring role as a “gay straight man,” a character that probably played as a wicked, perhaps even astute, identity-bending tweak back in 1999, but is now just offensive—to both gays and straights.
Best Episode: “Ex and the City” The finale moment when Carrie dramatically walks away from Big after sending him off to his young fiancé may be a little on the nose, and may have launched a thousand mean jokes (look it up), but it remains one of the most indelible scenes of the whole series—sexy, poignant, and free-spirited, it’s what first solidifies this show as a classic.
Worst Episode: “Games People Play” This isn’t the one with the “gay straight man” (an otherwise good episode that has Miranda, foreshadowingly, contemplating fertility), but it’s got weak conceits, like a guy who will only sleep with Samantha if his sports team wins and Jon Bon Jovi as a ho-hum one-off for Carrie, who finds herself in post-Big therapy.
What’s Good: This is when the show really begins to hit its stride. Romantic, clever, and wise in a way the show hadn’t yet been, Season 3 introduces us to the second love of Carrie’s life, the much-mourned Aidan Shaw. Not one to let a good thing last too long, Carrie risks her steady, enriching relationship with Aidan to enter into an affair with Big, a series of episodes that gives the show its first true stabs of darkness. Parker is fantastic in this thoroughly compelling storyline, turning our beloved Carrie into someone who’s almost detestable, but pulling her back just before she crosses into true villainy. (And, not for nothing, her just slightly disheveled Jackie O-esque trench coat and aviator glasses look in one episode is maybe the best she ever had.) Elsewhere, Miranda and Steve’s relationship explores credible topics of everyday intimacy, while Samantha begins to struggle with age and just the faintest hint of loneliness. And, best of all, Season 3 is when we first meet the show’s wonderful, bun-wearing fairy godmother, Magda.
What’s Not: I know lots of people prize this as the show’s best season, but here’s why I’m only putting it in the middle. First off, the icky, seemingly never-ending Trey arc begins in Season 3, marking Charlotte’s rapid tumble into fastidious psychopathy. After Season 3, Charlotte is never fully human again. Which is a shame, because Kristin Davis is a good actress who deserved more. As did Samantha. Though some effort is made to round out her character, the show had become enough of a hit that the writers started giving poor Kim Cattrall groaner after groaner of punny innuendo (not to mention the increasingly goofy sexcapades). At least the show was too classy to give her a catchphrase. And, it should be said, from today's perspective, every time Sam says the word “tranny” it lands with an uncomfortable thud. Two episodes that bring the girls to Los Angeles are largely wastes of time that rely way too heavily on an overstated New York vs. L.A. dichotomy. And Season 3 also sees the debut of Mario Cantone’s wretched Anthony, the most appalling recurring character of the show’s run. But the real problem with Season 3, and please don’t tar and feather me for saying this, is that Aidan is just such a dweeb. In all his laid-back doofus-ness, he is so clearly a wrong fit for Carrie that it’s hard to root for him at all in the season’s centerpiece love triangle. I know that to many, Aidan represents the nice guy that Carrie should have ended up with, but knowing what lies ahead for Carrie, it’s plain to see when re-watching Season 3 that he’s just too easy for our frazzled, wild heroine.
Best Episode: “Running With Scissors” The inevitably disastrous crescendo of the Big/Carrie affair almost plays like a thriller, especially in one harrowing scene that involves a stair chase and a face-plant that is the most jarring of the show’s many artfully unpleasant moments of sudden, jagged physical discomfort. (Think Carrie’s horrifically mortifying restaurant exit in “Ex and the City.”) This episode is also notable for finally addressing Samantha’s risky sexual behavior, but in a way that’s more counseling than scolding.
Worst Episode: “Escape from New York” Carrie meets Matthew McConaughey, Samantha does a thing with dildos, Miranda complains about L.A., and Charlotte puts postage stamps on Trey’s penis. Zzz.
What’s Good: The final season, broken into two parts, is the show’s glossiest and most creatively assured. The smartest thing the season does is set Carrie up with a guy who should fit her to a tee: Aleksandr Petrovsky is accomplished, interesting, an urban sophisticate, and isn’t too interested in the conventional trappings of coupledom. But the show’s sneaky way of getting Carrie back with Big by the joyous, pitch-perfect season finale is having Carrie learn that there is, in fact, a happy medium between the settled, boring life the show had long been allergic to and the free-wheeling, relatively rootless fabulosity it supposedly preached. In episodes like the winsomely affirming “A Woman’s Right to Shoes,” Carrie investigates the weight and worth of expectation and tradition as one ages, the expected options seemingly starting to wink out of existence while other, odder ones flicker into being. Season 6 is the most grown-up the show ever felt, fitting for its final run. All the main characters begin gracefully closing one circle or another in this season. While dealing with breast cancer, Samantha enters into a relationship that is surprising not because he’s a younger soon-to-be-movie star, but because it’s genuine and equal. Charlotte and Harry have a nice rapport throughout as they explore their fertility options and struggle with very real setbacks. And Miranda assures her place as the show’s most scrappily lovable central character, creating a life in the relative sticks of Brooklyn with a goober like Steve in her own defiant way, becoming comfortable with the hard-won realization that compromise doesn’t mean giving up. Yay for lessons!
What’s Not: Well, O.K., to be fair, I’m mostly talking about the second half of Season 6, as the first half still has us mired in Berger boredom and foisted the horrid phenomenon of “he’s just not that into you” upon the world. Everyone’s also at their meanest in this season, with Carrie more self-involved and frustratingly tunnel-visioned than ever before (how dare she abandon those sweet French fans!), Charlotte saying one really horrible thing to Harry, Miranda being cruel to Steve’s well-intentioned girlfriend, and Samantha . . . well, actually, Samantha’s pretty cool in this season. Though the end result mostly makes up for this, some of the early Petrovsky episodes plod along, and he’s maybe too obviously not The One in a way that saps the lead-up to the finale of some of its stakes.
Best Episode: “Splat!” A deliriously nasty kiss-off to the show’s old party girl ways, people mostly remember this episode for Kristen Johnston’s gloriously brash guest appearance as the doomed Lexie Featherston. But what happens after that scene is the true jewel of the season: a raw, bruising fight between Carrie and Miranda—in the snow! There’s never snow on this show!—that lays bare some of the problems gnawing at the entire series’s foundation. Who are we in relation to where we live (our city), our relationships (our sex), and what we do for a living? Is tying our identity up in any or all of those things missing some vague forest for more easily definable trees? The show never quite answers these questions, but that it is willing to address them at all is admirable. Plus, that fight scene is probably some of the best writing and acting in the show’s entire run.
Worst Episode: “The Catch” While I love Carrie’s vase-hurling moment at the end of the episode, Berger’s out-of-nowhere, unceremonious goodbye is confirmation that the show was spinning its wheels for eight episodes. But at least Berger’s gone!
What’s Good: Oh, so very much! Yes, Aidan is back, but this time there’s a tentativeness, a guardedness and a woundedness to his and Carrie’s relationship that allows the show to look at a failing relationship through a less sensational lens than the previous season's torrid affair. Carrie’s restlessness, and her confusion about that restlessness, has never been better illustrated than in this fine run of episodes. Similarly, the Charlotte/Trey relationship tackles subtler issues, giving Davis an opportunity to imbue Charlotte with some genuine sadness and disappointment. And Samantha experiences her first real heartbreak, finally letting Cattrall show some range. This is also a season that addresses death in a sensitive, realistic way; Miranda’s simple “My mom died,” somehow both resigned and disbelieving, is one of the best-delivered lines of the whole series. Carrie also gets a satisfying bit of comeuppance for her financial recklessness, even if the eventual resolution to that plot confirms what a ludicrously privileged world these women live in. Season 4 is serious, bittersweet, and bravely disillusioning. And its lovely finale, “I Heart NY,” gives “Moon River” its best showcase since Holly Golightly strummed a guitar in an apartment window.
What’s Not: Well, Aidan’s still a dweeb. And this is perhaps the onset of Carrie’s truly miserable narcissism. (It was always there to a degree, but something in the writing goes particularly sour around this point.) There’s something vaguely unsettling about how a pregnancy is what rescues Miranda from an especially pitiful, sad singleton phase. Samantha’s dabble in lesbianism respectably doesn’t deal in too many clichés, but it feels too arbitrary, like it’s just wedged in there so the writers can check that topic off a big master list. (Charlotte’s brief friendship with an obnoxious group of power lesbians in Season 2 didn’t do the trick. Which, in Season 4’s defense, it shouldn’t have.) Season 4 is very crowded, and watching it in bulk, I sometimes found myself wishing that it would slow down. But these are minor complaints about a great show’s best season.
Best Episode: “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” Though the Aidan breakup episode, “Change of a Dress,” has an exquisite final scene that features the show’s best use of metaphor, and “My Motherboard, My Self” in some ways marks a big, important turning point for the show, the episode in which Miranda finds out she’s pregnant and weighs her options is my favorite. The way that writer Jenny Bicks handles an issue as prickly as abortion with grace and careful wit is this show at its finest. Carrie’s wistful, honest “any day now,” when asked when she finally got over her own abortion, alone puts this episode at the top of the series heap. In a season that explores a lot of questions about the dynamics of modern feminism (really! It does!), “Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda” contains the most thoughtful and nuanced moments.
Worst Episode: “Sex and the Country” Why does Carrie hate Aidan’s country house so much? It’s gorgeous!
15 (5) of Carrie Bradshaw’s Best Outfits
On the anniversary of the end of Sex and the City, we look back at Carrie Bradshaw’s incomparable fashion
The rest of Carrie's best looks at Source.
What were your favorite SATC episodes or moments?