At a certain point this season, Sex and the City stopped being a sitcom and started being a drama with wisecracks. There’s a certain irony in this—after all, it recently won an Emmy as a comedy series. But it makes sense in terms of the development of the series’ characters. Give creator Darren Star and executive producer-writer Michael Patrick King credit: They recognize that New York City gals Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) are no longer the wiggly, trend-crazy chatterboxes they were when the show began three and a half years ago. These are, we’re meant to believe, women in their mid-30s, still as swingingly single as the day they debuted, but far less chipper about it.

Earlier in the summer, these sling-backed sorority sisters were politely escorted from their Sunday corner to make way for a Band of Brothers. They return with six new episodes to wrap up their season, and the half hours find them swearing like soldiers. It’s telling that the sex act, which used to elicit peals of giggly puns and a rat-a-tat raunchiness, now inspires sullen soliloquies about ”f”-ing and being ”f”-ed. Viewers who used to identify with these characters as libertines in Manolo Blahniks may be depressed by their heroines’ new identities: middle-aged working girls who are either ambivalent about marriage (Carrie breaks out in hives contemplating her engagement to John Corbett’s Aidan), finished with marriage (Charlotte separates from Kyle MacLachlan’s Trey), pregnant without the comfort of marriage (Miranda is ripe with child, Sex‘s best subplot), or looking to replace zipless ”f”s with, if not marriage, at least monogamy (randy Samantha finally falls in love with a rich gent, played by James Remar, whose eyes say romance but whose smile is all smarm). Unfulfilled in ways that match their strengths and neuroses, these sophisticated ladies-who-lunch are sated with dating; tired of the hunt for the perfect man, their enthusiasm (to reconfigure another HBO show’s title) has been curbed.

If you think I’m giving away plot details, you’re crazy—aside from not wanting angry e-mails accusing me of spoiling surprises that fans have been anticipating, I’m also mindful that this is the network that could send an Oz parolee or a Sopranos hit-man to my house if I revealed so much as the sex of Miranda’s baby. Instead, I’ll say that at this point in the series, even my heart flutters when Chris Noth reappears as Carrie’s woulda-coulda-shoulda fella, Mr. Big: Noth makes capitalist piggery seem like the height of suave romance. (Carrie and Big have a scene set to, of all things, Henry Mancini’s version of ”Moon River” that’ll get you in your heart.) And that Cynthia Nixon finally gets to show some of the subtlety and range she’s used on New York stages for years in a terrific episode about her baby shower. And that Candice Bergen is utterly ab-fab as a ferocious Vogue editor who gleefully eviscerates Carrie’s freelance story about accessories. When the series hits its sleek stride in moments like this, it makes most other half hours look flat-footed.

All this, plus good jokes about Rogaine, Fendi, and The Producers (in which Parker’s real-life partner, Matthew Broderick, stars). Also, for anyone contemplating a move to Sex’s glorious city, interesting real-money figures are bandied about in the fourth episode. (This I will divulge: Carrie pays $750 a month for her comfy, rent-controlled apartment and accompanies a real-estate agent to an above-a-restaurant hovel that goes for $2,800 a month. Also, writers take note: Carrie says proudly, ”I have been offered four dollars a word at Vogue; that is a lot—most people get two.”)

In a poignant time lag, Sex and the City went on its planned hiatus in August, and now returns to a post-Sept. 11 world with shows that were in the can before the tragedy. There’s a scene in the second episode with a melancholy Carrie shaking a snow-globe containing what I must sorrowfully refer to as the old Manhattan skyline; it’s a moment that may leave you shaken as well. B+

Sex and the City
Sex and the City
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