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Why ''Sex in the City'' is badly overrated

Bruce Fretts throws cold water on the steamy HBO series about dating, deceit, and ”Do Me” shoes

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Why ”Sex in the City” is badly overrated

Am I the only person in America who thinks ”Sex and the City” sucks? When the HBO sitcom based on Candace Bushnell’s book debuted two summers ago, most critics were unimpressed, and ratings were mediocre.

Then the cable net’s mighty marketing machine took over, and the show suddenly acquired a hip cachet. It was said to influence fashion — although why anyone would want to dress like a 1970s hooker, as Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie does, is beyond me. Even more shockingly, it got a reputation as a quality show, a comic companion to HBO’s ”Sopranos.”

There’s just one problem: ”Sex” isn’t funny, and it certainly isn’t fresh. I don’t know why I’d expect depth from Darren Star, the man who created ”Beverly Hills, 90210,” ”Melrose Place,” and — let us not forget –”Central Park West,” but ”Sex” makes the profoundly shallow ”Ally McBeal” look like ”Anna Karenina.”

As its quartet of single white females (Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis, and Cynthia Nixon) traverse the Manhattan dating wilderness, we’re treated to such stale observations as: Men are afraid of commitment! And: Women love to shop! Still, the show earned a surprise Emmy nomination for Best Comedy Series last summer (beating out such superior competitors as ”Sports Night,” ”Will & Grace,” and ”The King of Queens”), and ratings began to build. The third season premiere, which aired June 4, drew 41 percent more viewers than the corresponding installment last year.

Why do people like ”Sex”? Some say it presents empowering images of women. Yet Davis’ tremulous Charlotte just wants to land a rich husband, and Cattrall’s sharklike Samantha only demonstrates that women can be just as superficial as men (in this season’s second episode, she dumps a guy for being too short). Maybe it’s the sheer titillation factor that attracts viewers. Because it airs on HBO, ”Sex” can say and depict things commercial network sitcoms can’t. If only the writers used that freedom to explore truly mature themes, rather than engaging in sniggering puns and shock jokes. In the upcoming episode ”Politically Erect” — nudge, nudge! — Carrie freaks when the city comptroller candidate (John Slattery) she’s been dating asks her to — tee-hee! — pee-pee on him.

”The Larry Sanders Show,” starring Garry Shandling as a self-obsessed talk show host, made use of HBO’s anything-goes standards by showing how people in show business really talk. Yet Shandling’s series never resorted to cheap nudity or gross toilet gags to stimulate audiences.

”Sex” is more reminiscent of Dennis Miller’s ”look Ma I can say the F word” immaturity. Then again, Miller has won an armload of undeserved Emmys. Why doesn’t HBO put the same kind of PR muscle behind more deserving programs, like the prison drama ”Oz” or the drug-themed miniseries ”The Corner”? Maybe it’s because those shows deal with the kind of people the fabulous ”Sex” babes step over on their way to buy a new pair of shoes for their next hot date.