It was my Dad who got me into Sex and City.
As it started airing on B92, the purveyor off all things Western in the early 2000s, post-Milosević Serbia, my Dad lauded it as an instruction manual of not only the sexual and social mores of the day in the West, whereas I, just entering my teenage years, liked the title. Needless to say, my Mom, a liberal Serbian woman, could not stand it and considered it fake and annoying, rolling her eyes hard at the supposed “liberated” women it depicted.
Anyhow, it were Sex and the City and Seinfeld (and to a lesser extent Will and Grace, Fraiser and Just shoot me), that shaped my early understanding, or rather, dreams about what my adult life would look like, ideally if I moved away from Serbia. I assume I was certainly not the only one, as the series was so popular that it spawned a decent-ish Serbian version “Lisice” – which followed four women around “New York of the Balkans” as Belgrade likes to call itself.
While the humour and references in Seinfeld gave me an idea of what good jokes and friendships would be like,
it was Sex and the City that was about the material and the fleshly aspects of my desired life after I grew out of my teenage nerdy life in transitional Belgrade, not really sure, what to expect after the world of my parents and grandparents disastrously crumbled during my childhood.
These expectation, of highly intellectualised pop-culture infused humour, mixed with constant availability of sex with hot people and comfortable affluence in a global city, spurred my (failed) attempt to move to New York as a student and had me ending up in Western Midlands, where things looked and worked very much differently compared to the hunting grounds of SATC girls. Still my escapist indulgence in American TV helped me become fluent in the globalised culture of my fellow students, and my dream was kept alive, even as the Global Financial crisis took my generation far away from the living the glamorous lives of Mr. Big and Carrie.
Still, woking in the UK, I always felt that that life that I dreamed of as a teenager was not impossible and a fiction, but something just slightly out of reach so when I went for the first time to New York as a tourist in 2013, I indulged in a daydream how much better things could have gone, had I ended up there instead of in the much less buzzing London.
Although I watched the two films (liked the first one, hated the second) and occasionally put a few episodes to remind myself of the good old teenage times, SATC, with its aesthetic and sensibility, felt ever more distant, especially after having moved back to Belgrade, after somewhat dissatisfying few years filled with fancy brunches, impressive clubs, nice hotels and nice clothes. Thus I was very lukewarm about the reboot of a series, which I religiously watched with my father and saw it as just another example of the sad status quo of the current global creative industry.
And just like that, last night, when I saw that the two first episodes of its sequel series were available on HBO, I could not resist and put it on at midnight.
Although I secretly hoped for it to once again provide escapist entertainment, even if it might be of the eye-rolling type, what I got was something very different, and probably much more interesting.
The main impression, after I finally went to bed at 2 AM was that the new SATC feels extremely awkward.
While the general topic of the original SATC was navigating various awkward circumstances of being single in a big city in your 30s – from sexual encounters with people with awkwardly sized genitals and badly tasting bodily fluids to facing career challenges, heartbreak, bereavement and infertility alone – the problems were strictly personal and the four protagonists were always fluent with the rules of the wider world: they knew their place in the social, sexual and economic pecking order and knew the mainstream societal rules, even when they chose to flaunt them every once in while. Indeed the premise of the show was that they consciously decided to counter the mainstream pathway of marrying early to any random wealthy, ideally ok looking man, having a kid and indulging in the high society of New York and accepting its fashions, but they still understood its rules and values (the most important being to be fashionable and wealthy).
In the new series, however, the premise is upturned: all three old protagonists are now comfortable in their private lives (until they change at least), but feel awkward when they are faced with the wider society.
The awkwardness of seeing these queens of Gen X glamour who seem suddenly trapped in a world that is very different from the one they are used to is fascinating to watch, as dramatically implausible as it might be.
Although much is said about the “diversity” requirements in new series and films which probably had a bearing on the choice of themes “ And just like that” decided to tackle to be relevant and on the “good side” of Twitter (gender fluidity, racial relations in the upper crust of New York, podcasting) here the decision to charter what happens when you put the epitomes of late neoliberal aspirational world in the post-pandemic post-aspirational liberal-anarchic setting yields interesting results.
The previous world of Manolo Blahniks, overpriced cupcakes and fancy cocktails was maybe vapid and awful, but it had a logic – here one is not sure if there are any rules, so much so that it is difficult to understand if a particular funeral scene was meant to be played for emotional and comedic effect.
Part of it, of course, is that when one occupies the social and economic milieu of Carrie and the girls, being conversant in the present day issues, gives you a similar social cache same as having Blahniks did in the 90s and 00s. Ona cannot but ask if the part of that might be because now having a Carrie lifestyle is not only aspirational like it was in 90s – it is completely off limits, impossible, and, indeed, potentially infuriating to most viewers who work in a gig economy, despite being wannabe sex columnists and podcasters. Indeed, the show itself hints to leaner times as Carrie had to lay off Samantha as the book sales and columns disappear. Having a podcast is what millennial wanna-be Carries can ever hope to afford, while their Gen X counterparts could reasonably hope to get a nice smallish apartment in the village.
Underneath the awkwardness, skilfully hidden behind a facade of openness and willingness to tackle new challenges, is a deep sense of grief and terror, which ties will with the other major theme of the show, which is loss.
The worst part of losing somebody suddenly is this immediate loss of own world and its logic.
As much as you try to adapt, you feel like an intruder in your own life, uncertain how to proceed and quite often unwilling to do so as you think nothing will ever make sense again (even if you cannot really show that unwillingness to the wider world). The mourning after the death of the patriarchal, cis-, privileged MacGuffin (as well as the arch representative of liberated feminine) from the first series ties well thematically with the mourning for the world of the old SATC. Back then there was logic and normality in having series revolving around a sex positive feminist liberal news columnist lusting after a cis white investment banker who burns through models, but in the world of “And just like that” that is much more of a problematic proposal.
Most change in life – from being a teenager, to losing a loved one, to dying – happens “gradually, then suddenly”, as Hemingway would have it. When it happens, we try to find our place in the new circumstances. The same goes for societies and mores. I wonder what my dad will make of the new world of his favourite heroines.