Can The “Sex And The City” Revival Work Without Samantha?

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HBO / Via screenshot

Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones in Sex and the City

On Sunday, Sarah Jessica Parker posted a short video clip on Instagram that, within a day, had over 6 million views. The teaser, filled with stock footage of a bustling Manhattan, confirmed a much-anticipated, upcoming Sex and the City revival. A snippet of a Carrie Bradshaw voiceover revealed its title: And Just Like That. HBO Max released a press release that same day, divulging how the 10-episode series will follow Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte as they navigate “the complicated reality of life and friendship in their 50s.” The show’s stars will also act as executive producers, reportedly banking a cool $1 million per episode.

But what was most notable about the announcement was who wasn’t included: Kim Cattrall, known best for playing the lusty Samantha Jones.

Her absence isn’t exactly surprising. In 2017, she’d put the kibosh on hopes for a third film or any resurrection of her iconic character. Her strained relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker has been well documented, and Cattrall says she and her castmates were only ever colleagues, not friends. (Parker denies any feuding and mostly avoids discussing the issue, but has called Cattrall’s comments “upsetting.”)

True to her character, Cattrall has put her happiness first, even if it means (or requires) going solo. “It’s a great part,” Cattrall said of Samantha in an interview with Piers Morgan in 2017. “I played it past the finish line and then some, and I loved it. And another actress should play it. Maybe they could make it an African American Samantha Jones or a Hispanic Samantha Jones, or bring in another character!”

It’ll be a while before we see how Samantha’s void is explained and/or filled — filming begins in the late spring, pandemic conditions permitting, and no premiere date has been announced. But there are much bigger questions to ask: Will the revival even work without Samantha? Can it really work at all?

HBO / Via screenshot

Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, Cynthia Nixon, and Sarah Jessica Parker in the first episode of Sex and the City

Sex and the City first aired over 20 years ago, but its cultural currency — particularly on social media — has endured in a notable way, with each character getting some love. Carrie Bradshaw was the inspiration for both a prequel series and an internet-famous drag queen (Carrie Dragshaw) as well as countless “I couldn’t help but wonder…” typing memes. Charlotte’s become a fanfic vehicle for correcting the show’s more ignorant moments, while Miranda’s evolved into a once-unlikely aspirational figure, complete with a book devoted to her merits.

But when it was revealed that Samantha Jones — the glamorous, bold, ever-quotable, DTF PR professional — wouldn’t be part of the upcoming revival, fans’ fervent devotion to the hypersexual bombshell seemed to eclipse the news of HBO Max’s newest acquisition. Some likened it to making the Golden Girls without Blanche while even the ASOS Twitter account questioned the veracity of the franchise’s title (which might explain the upcoming series’ new name). Others more seriously pointed out that not only would the show’s libido be gone, but so would the show’s heart.

For those who didn’t watch the original series, the reactions might seem hyperbolic. Samantha was undoubtedly the most over-the-top of the foursome: horny to the point of hilarity and prime material for parody. And admittedly, that’s a major reason why the new series feels like it’s operating with a shortcoming: Samantha’s sexcapades and bawdy aphorisms were often the show’s main source of comic relief, with show writer Michael Patrick King calling her the “Lucille Ball of the bedroom.” But she was also otherwise integral to the show’s success and its very premise.

As the unapologetic patron saint of casual sex, Samantha constantly pushed the envelope on how women’s sexuality is depicted — an aspect that is arguably the series’ main claim to fame.

It’s important to remember — and easy to forget — just how groundbreaking Sex and the City was when it first premiered in 1998. To be a woman who openly enjoyed sex was still fairly taboo (and still sometimes is). The show’s portrayal of unmarried women in their thirties was also pretty progressive. “Sex and the City transformed singledom from a drab Cathy comic strip into something enviable,” writes Jennifer Keishin Armstrong in her 2018 book Sex and the City and Us. The show presented one’s thirties as a time of growth, not an expiration date. Together the characters sparked many discussions on how sex, dating, friendship, and gender intersect; topics that had once felt off-limits were made candid and, eventually, mainstream.

The four women operated as archetypes that, together, helped illustrate the complexities of being a woman. There was Charlotte (Kristin Davis) as the prim and prudish romantic; Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) as the snarky, pragmatic, and ambitious lawyer; Samantha as the confident, lascivious perma-bachelorette; and Carrie as the neurotic heroine and proverbial It girl. Each played an intrinsic part, but when it comes to the character that embodies what made Sex and the City so unparalleled, it’s Samantha.

Not only was she the most vulgar of the four, but Samantha had the most sex scenes and often the most explicit ones, at that. Carrie was of course the show’s protagonist and considered ground-breaking for other reasons. But as the unapologetic patron saint of casual sex, Samantha constantly pushed the envelope on how women’s sexuality is depicted — an aspect that is arguably the series’ main claim to fame. Indeed, King once described Samantha as “the leader of the rebellion,” while critic Hannah Giorgis has gone as far as to declare Samantha to be the real star of the series.

This doesn’t discount the other characters’ or actors’ contributions to Sex and the City — they’re all remarkable in their own way, and there’s an interplay and symbiosis between all four women that helps give the series its magic. But as Emily Nussbaum wrote back in 2013, “Sex and the City’s real strength was its willingness not to stack the deck: it let every side make a case, so that complexity carried the day.” And now it seems as if the girls’ conversations and debates will inevitably be lop-sided, without Samantha’s much-needed, often extreme takes (especially as the only purposefully single, unmarried woman in the show). A key (albeit imperfect) voice of the show will be missing.

Yui Mok – Pa Images / Getty Images

From left: Sarah Jessica Parker, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall, and Cynthia Nixon arriving for the UK premiere of Sex and the City 2 at the Odeon, Leicester Square, London

When discussing 2010’s Sex and the City 2 with Billy Eichner — one of the film’s rare defenders — Parker mostly kept mum, but pointed out that the panned film made “an enormous amount of cash.” Chances are, whatever it ends up like, this revival won’t hurt for numbers either. SATC has a huge, loyal following. Despite my skepticism of its quality, I know I’ll be tuning in and I’m hopeful it can capture some of the original series’ charm. Still, I worry it’ll only further taint the show’s legacy. After all, the franchise’s track record since the series ended hasn’t exactly been encouraging.

Given the offensiveness of the second film, is this new chapter really a good idea?

If the films are any indication, King (who wrote and directed both) might not be the best person to take the reins here. (Full disclaimer: I actually didn’t mind the first movie, but its issues are undeniable.) Both installments grasped at straws for storylines and made love interests act out of character to generate conflict (e.g., Steve cheats on Miranda, and a married Aidan kisses Carrie in the second film, respectively). What’s even worse has been their attempts at incorporating diversity into the blindingly white, ultra-heteronormative show.

While groundbreaking when it first aired, the series has since been called out for its reliance on gay stereotypes and anti-trans jokes, as well as its dismissal of bisexuality. It was also clumsy in its rare attempts at racial inclusivity, with zero people of color as series regulars and an episode centered on reverse racism. Upon the series’ 20th anniversary in 2018, writer Hunter Harris put it simply: “It was a show that was simultaneously progressive and regressive, where people of color were either stereotypes or punchlines.”

The movies seemed to take this note…and run it into the ground. The first film did introduce a black character, but as Carrie’s assistant, Louise (played by Jennifer Hudson). She becomes a textbook example of the “Magical Negro” trope. Sex and the City 2, in which the women travel to Abu Dhabi, was far more egregious. A slog of classist and Western imperialist propaganda, the amount of xenophobia, racism, and Orientalist stereotypes crammed into its 146 minutes was staggering.

The films are known for disappointing the show’s audience — so much so that some fans flat-out refuse to acknowledge the movies exist within the Sex and the City universe. Given the offensiveness of the second film, is this new chapter really a good idea?

“I can see where we fell short on that [second] movie, and I’m perfectly happy to say that publicly,” Parker admitted at Vulture Festival in 2017. And Parker’s been upfront about the original series’ shortcomings as well, discussing what the show would look like if it were made today. “I think it would be a different show, frankly,” said Parker at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival in 2018. “First of all, there were no women of color — let’s talk about that — on our show. And there weren’t substantive conversations about the LGBTQ community.”

Compensating for an entire trio of — for all intents and purposes — Karens? That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a new character.

And so it’s possible, particularly after the atrocity that was Sex and the City 2, that this new chapter could be a palate cleanser — a chance for the franchise to redeem itself. But given its fumbles, it won’t be easy. If King — who’s already been named an executive producer — takes the lead on writing again, it seems increasingly unlikely that the franchise’s diversity issues will be handled in a thoughtful, nuanced way. (One of his series after Sex and the City, 2 Broke Girls, was also accused of being racist and otherwise offensive, and King seemed to double down on his creative choices on the newer show.)

If the writers room is more inclusive this time around and the show finally builds complex characters of color into the mix, there’s hope. But it’s a fine balance to strike, and attempts at inclusivity might feel ham-fisted, disingenuous, or just plain cringey if not handled thoughtfully. Plus, it’s hard to imagine how any new lead can single-handedly make up for the other characters’ myopia, particularly in a 10-episode arc that will inevitably — and understandably — focus primarily on the three original characters and their journeys. Compensating for an entire trio of — for all intents and purposes — Karens? That’s a lot of heavy lifting for a new character.

The overall concept of the revival admittedly has some merit; TV should show older women as vibrant, sexual beings more often. But do we really need a show centered on the sex lives of affluent, white women in Manhattan? (The Real Housewives of New York has that market covered.) And while Carrie was a radical antihero in her heyday, she’s not necessarily the hero — anti or otherwise — that we need now.

“I think the show itself was a zeitgeist for the time,” Cattrall told E! News last September, when asked (yet again) about doing a third Sex and the City film. This was likely her way of politely avoiding further prodding, but maybe she’s right. The show was originally about single, thirtysomething women navigating relationships in the ’90s and aughts. Not only was the prerecession time period part of its charm, but its whitewashed version of New York seemed more easily forgivable then. Now, however, rewatches make it feel like a period piece: comforting, but far removed from the current reality. Sometimes, some things are simply best left in the past.●


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