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‘And Just Like That …’ Our Culture Has Moved Past ‘Sex and the City’

In the ’90s, it was easier to present four white, straight, wealthy women as the avatars of a melting pot like New York. In 2021, it requires some adjustment.

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

Not 30 seconds into And Just Like That …, the follow-up series to Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) heaves a sigh. She’s waiting for her party of three—not four—to be seated at Clee, a fictional restaurant New Yorkers in the know will recognize as the Whitney Museum’s lobby café. The original, Barefoot Contessa–ish theme music plays, updated for the EDM age with a pulsing beat. Ducking and weaving through the crowd, Carrie finds her two—not three—closest friends, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) and Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon). She’s relieved, but exasperated. “Remember when we legally had to stand 6 feet apart from one another?” she asks. “I miss it.”

The line is the show’s first real bit of dialogue, and it’s not a great start. And Just Like That … is not the only series to hand-wave the pandemic with unartful exposition, but Carrie’s opener exemplifies a show forced to grapple with all manner of inconveniences. Some couldn’t be anticipated, making the ensuing awkwardness more forgivable: actor Willie Garson, who played Carrie’s close friend Stanford Blatch, passed away in the period of production in September, necessitating a hasty pivot. Others, however, could. After years of tension with the rest of the cast, and especially Parker, Kim Cattrall declined to participate in the show, turning the famous foursome into a trio and robbing And Just Like That … of the indelible Samantha Jones. In both cases, the resolution is positively Poochie-esque. Each is whisked offscreen to some far-flung location, an abrupt and anticlimactic end to an iconic pair of characters, especially Cattrall’s. Samantha’s sudden move to London is handled about as smoothly as the glaring lack of masks.

As formidable as these absences might be, the biggest roadblock facing And Just Like That … is arguably cultural. In the ’90s, it was easier to present four white, straight, wealthy women as the avatars of a melting pot like New York. In 2021, it requires some adjustment. New cast members fill in for Samantha while adding a diversity that Sex and the City never had, even at its peak. Meanwhile, every veteran gets their own teachable moment, committing cringeworthy faux pas as they learn to navigate “this climate.” When a radicalized Miranda leaves corporate law to study human rights, she can’t stop herself from commenting on the hairstyle of her Black professor, played by The Morning Show’s Karen Pittman. It’s supposed to make you wince, though probably not so much that you hit pause and sink into the floor, as I did.

And Just Like That … has a lot in common with Gossip Girl, another beloved, aughts-era New York show about conspicuous consumption reborn as a lure for subscribers on HBO Max. Both revivals prompt the same reflexive skepticism: When a series is this tied to a time, place, and cultural moment, is it even worth the overhaul it takes to remake it in the present day? Too little change and the show seems dated; too much and you puncture the fantasy bubble that was always part of its allure.

With And Just Like That …, there’s also the looming shadow of the two Sex and the City movies, both written and directed by showrunner Michael Patrick King. (The original show was created by Darren Star, who’s currently occupied with Emily in Paris.) The first was bloated but sweet, centered on Carrie’s stop-and-start marriage to Mr. Big (Chris Noth). The second was a shonda through and through, a Middle Eastern misadventure more tone-deaf than anything in the original—and the original included an episode where Samantha proclaims, “I don’t see color, I see conquests.” It’s good that Sex and the City 2 will no longer end the story on such a sour note, but it does raise reasonable doubts as to whether the well has run dry.

In the beginning, the show puts its worst, Manolo-shod foot forward. After the pandemic and Samantha, the third strike may be Carrie’s latest career venture: cohosting a podcast on sex and relationships with Che, a nonbinary stand-up played by Grey’s Anatomy alum Sara Ramirez. Carrie’s pivot makes perfect sense; the days of getting $4 a word from Vogue are long gone, and we’ve mostly encountered her column via voice-over in the first place. Less coherent is the actual show she appears on, which plays more like a morning radio hour than anything on Earwolf. There’s even a shock jock whose canned catchphrase is—brace yourself—“woke moment!”

And Just Like That … thus falls prey to a predictable pitfall: attempts at relevance from a show that, even at its zeitgeist-y peak, was hardly on feminism’s bleeding edge. (Carrie may have lots of casual sex, but she still marries a financier.) Yet it also benefits from its natural strengths, when it’s smart enough to lean into them. This is a show about rich white people, of which there’s no shortage on TV these days. But the people in question are women in their 50s. It’s a demographic more represented than it used to be in releases like Julie Delpy’s On the Verge—though not with characters this beloved, who we’ve known since, as Big puts it, they kept their sweaters in the oven.

The brunch table has always been Sex and the City’s symposium, a place for debate on pressing issues like whether Charlotte should save herself for marriage or Carrie complains too much about men. In the first scene of And Just Like That …, Miranda and Charlotte get into a new debate: whether Miranda should dye her hair, or whether Charlotte’s use of color means she’s putting on a false front. It all goes off the rails when Miranda draws a false equivalence between her own conundrum and her professor’s wearing braids, but at first, it’s a poignant, low-stakes example of what female friends discuss among themselves—exactly what Sex and the City once did best.

In a way, the characters’ newfound maturity makes And Just Like That … more realistic than Sex and the City ever was. After all, this is who can actually afford to live in Manhattan these days: not single writers subsisting on a column a week, but socialites wed to Wall Street types and divorce attorneys. The characters name-drop elite private schools like they’re designer handbags; if you weren’t aware of Trinity or Dalton before this, you will be now. When one character develops what may be a drinking problem, it’s a comment on wine mom culture from the show that made the cosmopolitan a household name. These are plots that come naturally to Sex and the City’s bourgeouis milieu, and they’re the ones that make And Just Like That … feel like it has something to say, not just checks to collect.

Still, this is Sex and the City we’re talking about. It’s in no danger of settling into a social-realist farce; Nicole Holofcener may have helmed some early episodes, but she’s not involved in the revival. You have to take the good with the absurd, like a twist that turns a Peloton bike into a kind of emotional totem. At times, And Just Like That … has shades of Twin Peaks: The Return, a redux that verges on the uncanny by ditching signature devices like Carrie’s voice-over. (Just one line ends every episode, always beginning with “And just like that …”) But it’s almost compulsively watchable, even when it’s hard to tell if said watching is of the hate variety. Just four episodes were provided to critics, of an eventual 10; I burned through all of them in a morning, then felt bereft that there weren’t more. And just like that, I was back in Carrie Bradshaw’s clutches. I didn’t want to leave.