The other day, the Better Half and I were lounging on the couch and came across a rerun of “Sex and the City.” I had caught the occasional (full-length, non-bowdlerized) episode back during its initial run, and enjoyed it well enough. Watching a few random episodes seemed a pleasant-enough way of passing an idle hour or so.
My main reaction to it back in the day was aspirational, at least in a certain way. (Let’s all be clear that I didn’t get around nearly as much as certain members of that particular foursome.) Carrie et al lived the kind of glam, chic and cultured life that I associated with New York City at its most opulent and enticing. They actually shot part of one episode (which I never saw) at the hospital where I was working at the time, and so I got to see Sarah Jessica Parker emoting at Chris Noth, though from a distance. (The woman who I took to be the director seemed incredibly unpleasant, and kept shrieking at the people who had gathered to watch to be quiet. I mean, hey… it was our hospital they were in, and I don’t recall anyone being particularly noisy anyway. For the record, the nurses who eventually managed to snag autographs reported back that SJP was every bit as nice as her reputation indicates.) I remember being kind of thrilled when there was a scene in a bar (specifically the bathroom, which had a big fish tank in it) where I had hung out a few times.
Mind you, I didn’t lead anything like a life so glamorous myself. Much of my time was spent lying in exhaustion on a certain best friend’s comfy furniture, watching television of varying quality and eating carry-out. That was my real New York, and certain best friends are more central to my love of Manhattan than all the fancy cocktails in the world. But insofar as I liked to style myself a sophisticate, it was that kind of sophisticate I tried to pretend to be.
What a difference a few years makes.
Friends, those women are awful. Awful. There was absolutely nothing that appealed to me as I watched them sulk their way through their cosseted, shallow and narcissistic lives. It didn’t help at all that I found the whole thing reeking of artifice, with stilted, mannered performances (sorry, SJP! I hear you really are a super-nice person!) and glib writing. But the characters themselves (Samantha and Carrie, in particular) were just obnoxious and unbearable. Perhaps I am being unfair to the show, and am drawing too much on a couple of episodes, but there was nothing I could see about these characters that would endear me to them.
I hope against hope that I am nothing like them.
Part of what I found so gross is how New York is represented as this luxe playground for the privileged. Sure, as many people have lamented over the years, it is increasingly becoming hard for any but the most affluent to live there. But it remains a vibrant and vital metropolis, full of color and excitement far removed from the trendy bars of the pampered. I feel like the City deserves better than the one-note depiction it gets in “SATC.”
But then, I remembered the words of a certain best friend regarding another show about a different set of privileged people:
If you reject a film or show because it does not adequately critique its culture, you are basically saying that art should reflect your own social views. But why? You already have those views. You don’t need to be convinced. So art is…not for you? Really?
I am not saying that there is nothing wrong with a system of landed gentry. Or that World War I was a walk in the park, or that women who wanted the vote did not go suffer to earn that right. I do question whether it is the sole job of every single work of fiction set in that time and place to educate people as to those facts. In addition to an education about broad social issues, art can also educate about interpersonal issues, about moral issues. And, dare I say it, some of the functions of art may not be educational at all.
I agreed (and agree) with everything that Rose wrote about “Downton Abbey,” a show I unabashedly adore. Why is it that I feel that “SATC” fails in some way when “Downton” does not? Is it merely my personal connection to life in New York during the years the show was set, and so I know far more about how the City looked and felt than I ever will about life in a genteel manor house? Is it that the writing and acting on “Downton” are so much better, and most of the characters so much more likeable? (I was less bothered by some of the rather more bothersome plot twists in Season 2 than I probably would have been had I not enjoyed the performances so much.) Is it because “the City” is essentially made a character in “SATC,” such that it’s right there in the title, and I feel that the real place that I love has been replaced by a high-gloss facsimile?
Or is this all just resentment that, for all the bills I racked up buying booze in glitzy bars (and on occasion clothes I couldn’t really afford at Barney’s), that wasn’t the life I led? No doubt people more genuinely fabulous than me would recognize a more authentically Bradshaw-esque City than I ever lived in. Who knows?
So, before this becomes another installment of “Russell Gets Analysis from the Internet,” what say you? Is there some line of authenticity a work of art should try to cross before claiming to depict something real, or should I just get over it and enjoy the pretty people at play the next time Kim Catrall flounces across my TV screen?