The Last of the Red Hot Mamas: Looking back on Sex and the City
As they head into their final season, the single and fabulous women of HBO's 'Sex and the City' take a look back at the hoopla, the heartbreak, and the haute couture
“Oh, so you just get to walk away?”
It’s a gorgeous, camera-ready May night in the Village. Street lamps illuminate quaint brownstones. Tree blossoms flutter down to the damp pavement. And the Sex and the City crew is hard at work filming Sarah Jessica Parker (as love-challenged Carrie Bradshaw) huffily hoofing away from Ron Livingston, who, as latest boyfriend Jack Berger, is calling after her in exasperation. Parker plays out the emotional merry-go-round scene convincingly, but the perfectionist in her isn’t pleased with her performance and she asks for a redo. ”Make it go away,” she says of her last take, scrunching her face and waving her hands like she just downed a four-alarm chili pepper. ”Make it go away….”
Soon enough, it will. Ever since HBO announced last January that its flagship comedy, which debuted in 1998, would call it quits after this season, millions of Sex fans have been weeping and rending their Prada pencil skirts. Here are a few tidbits about season 6 to tide you over: Samantha bags a beau in twentysomething waiter Jerry (Jason Lewis); Charlotte ponders converting to Judaism for her attorney boyfriend, Harry (Evan Handler); Miranda falls for an opposite-of-Steve guy; and Carrie gets busy, first with writer Jack and then with a legendary European artist (the role will be cast soon). Big and Aidan pop up again, and Sex exec producer Michael Patrick King teases, ”There will be a wedding or two.”
As Carrie & Co. primp for their final hurrah — the first half of the season begins June 22; the second half kicks off in January — we offer a sneak peek ahead and a lusty look back at what made Sex the funkiest, spunkiest comedy on TV.
The big bang theory begins with a single star — Darren Star, who created Fox hits Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place before heading to New York City to launch CBS’ 1995 glitzy miss Central Park West. It was there that Star befriended Candace Bushnell, author of a titillating column for The New York Observer called ”Sex and the City.” And he couldn’t help but wonder: What if he turned her column into a TV series that explored sex and relationships from a female perspective?
DARREN STAR In the summer of ’96, I had conversations with a couple of networks. I met with ABC, and my question to them was ”Could you even call it Sex and the City?” I’d been a big Larry Sanders fan, and I envisioned a single-camera film comedy that wasn’t a sitcom and would be really adult in tone. I knew HBO was the only place that would allow that kind of freedom.
CAROLYN STRAUSS (HBO executive VP, original programming) He pitched it as Mary Tyler Moore for the ’90s, but with sex. Our ears perked up. And I think he was on the phone from the Hamptons, so obviously we were jealous.
II: Cruising for Chicks
In spring 1997, Star began casting the colorful quartet: hard-edged lawyer Miranda; uptight optimist Charlotte; Samantha, a flashy publicist who samples men like finger food; and Carrie, our charming, bumbling columnist-narrator…
SARAH JESSICA PARKER I was doing a musical. It had been eight to 10 years since I’d worked on a series, and this script came to me. It was a strikingly unique voice. But I liked my life the way it was. I gave the script to my agent and Matthew [Broderick, her future husband] and my brother Pippin. They all found it intriguing.
STAR Sarah Jessica was the one. She had a very empathetic quality, which was important for a character who smokes, drinks, [and] has sex with strangers — and yet she’s our heroine.
PARKER I was getting married in three weeks, and I was set to tell Darren I couldn’t do this. Every time I tossed out a reason to not do it, he would bat back five reasons to do it. There was nudity in the script for my part. I’d never done it, and I certainly didn’t want to start. And he kept saying “It’s fine, it’s fine….” “I’m never leaving New York.” “We’re never going to leave New York.” I think we moved that day into contract discussions.
CYNTHIA NIXON (Miranda) I auditioned for Carrie and thought, “Not such a good match.” I’m rarely proactive about jobs, but I called my agent and was like, “Look, I’ll be happy to read for any of these women.” They thought maybe Miranda.
STAR When I first met Cynthia, her hair was blond, and I thought, “Miranda’s a redhead. This is never going to work.” And then when she showed up with red hair, I’m like, “Oh, my God, this is exactly how I pictured the character!” Like, exactly.
KIM CATTRALL (Samantha) I passed…. Then came a phone call from a friend, Dennis Erdman, who is Darren Star’s boyfriend. And he said, “You’d be great for this.” So I [had] lunch with Darren. I remember walking away thinking “Great lunch, nice guy, I don’t want to do it.” He talked about Samantha having a child and I was like, I don’t want to have a child. I had three kids on this other series [1993’s Angel Falls], and they drove me crazy.
STAR Kim turned me down, so we did end up casting another actress. The thing is, it never felt right.
CATTRALL I got a phone call from Dennis, and he said, “This is your role and you’re making a really big mistake.” I didn’t sleep all night. I woke up in the morning and called my agent and said, “Look, this is knocking on the door too many times for me to let it just slip away. Call Darren.” That day, we went in to HBO, and I read a couple of scenes and they paid off the other actress.
STAR I was thinking of Kristin Davis for Charlotte because I knew her from Melrose. She could really be funny.
KRISTIN DAVIS [After my audition], Darren comes out, and he looks nervous. He’s like, “You have to go again. And you have to be bigger! Be really funny!” In my mind, Charlotte shouldn’t have to be bigger. And he’s like, “I know, just do it for now.” So I tried my best to be big. Didn’t really succeed. I think Darren had to go in there and beg for me.
III: Getting Under the Sheets
In June 1997, the Sex pilot was shot in New York City, and Carrie posed the first of her provocative questions: Can women have sex like men? HBO gave the green light, and in June 1998, one of TV’s boldest experiments debuted.
PARKER I wasn’t thrilled with the pilot. I felt like I could’ve been better from beginning to end. Except I love that last scene. Mr. Big [Chris Noth] drops me off at my apartment, and I knock on the window of his town car, the window rolls down, and I say, “Have you ever been in love?” And he says, “Abso-f—in’-lutely!” And she turns away and it freeze-frames on her face. That freeze-frame — it killed me. It broke my heart.
MICHAEL PATRICK KING The first 12 episodes were basically just Darren and I in a room, laughing: “Can we say ‘up the butt’?” The first episode I wrote was “Valley of the Twentysomethings” [in which Charlotte worries that she’ll be labeled the Up the Butt Girl if she has anal sex]. When they started saying that dialogue at the table, they got beet red and laughed through it. The tension and dynamic was exactly what stayed in the scene.
DAVIS If it was never repeated to me again, I would be happy. I just wished it’d entered the lexicon without me.
PARKER We tried a lot of silly stuff. I hated talking to the camera. The only person I’d ever seen do it well — I swear — is my husband in Ferris Bueller. We got rid of it pretty quickly.
DAVIS We were afraid that women would be mad at us. We were afraid that the feminists would be mad at us. We were afraid that everyone would be mad at us. So when people liked it, we were happy. Darren and I used to have these jokes about how maybe one day we’d get nominated for a CableAce award.
IV: Adventures in Envelope Pushing
CATTRALL For me, playing Samantha, it always comes from a positive place. The message is explore yourself. Why shut off that part of yourself, whether it’s a sexual act or an emotional act or an intellectual act? Just explore it all.
PARKER On the art of the fart: There’s things they’ve talked me into, like the episode when Carrie’s in bed with Big, and she farts. I didn’t want to do it. To me, that’s as vulnerable as taking your clothes off. When we were filming it, Chris Noth wanted a real sound, so he had the dolly grip doing a sound, we had whoopee cushions. It was just so embarrassing, but I was so glad we did it.
DAVIS On doing nudity: We were at the Supper Club in Manhattan, and there were 300 extras [at the Fleet Week party scene in “Anchors Away,” in which Charlotte bared her breast]. It was a nightmare. I had cramps in every muscle in my body from tension.
KING [In “What Goes Around Comes Around,” when Miranda] went out with that really good-looking detective — and she’s so insecure that she got drunk out of her mind — there was a scene we cut. They’re making love and she’s like, ‘Oh, baby you’re the best,’ and she projectile vomits on him.
NIXON I loved the vomit — it was so fantastic. But I think they decided it was just one stage too far in terms of making Miranda pathetic. The humiliation factor was just too high.
V: Why Ask ‘Y’ (as in Chromosome)?
With the exception of Carrie’s gay pal Stanford (Willie Garson), men have not lasted long on Sex — literally or figuratively.
STAR I really wanted to do a show that objectified men.
DAVID EIGENBERG (Steve) The thing with the guys is, you gotta make the finale. If you start out early in the season, sometimes you don’t make it to the end of the season. If you make the finale, then you’ve got like a 75 percent chance of coming back. It’s like waiting for the [results] of the tryouts for the high school play.
CHRIS NOTH Man, you’re a guy in a girl’s show, and sometimes it’s like, gimme an M16, not a hairbrush. This guy likes good wines, he’s spoiled and smokes cigars and is worried about his relationship. Meanwhile, Tony Soprano’s out there killing people and screwing whores, and you feel like, God, I’m such a wuss.
JOHN CORBETT (Aidan) I don’t think people warmed up to me until the second season. The first season I’d get a lot of people in the street saying “Hey, Aidan. We like you. But you know she’s going to end up with Big.” And I’d say, “I know it!”
KYLE MACLACHLAN (Trey, Charlotte’s impotent husband) I definitely went through “Oh, God, does it have to be that?” Then I thought, “I sort of made my career playing characters that are suffering from some interior darkness.” If I can make it through Showgirls and still be working, I can make it through a silly impotence problem.
NOTH I find it remarkable that people keep wondering what Big’s real name is. As if it matters… The fact is, his name is Freddy.
VI: Hot ‘Sex,’ Coming Through!
During the second season in 1999, the show picked up steam — and only heated up from there. The women introduced phrases like “funky spunk” into the vernacular, snagged the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy in 2001 (a first for a cable show), and were pulling in 7 million viewers a week by season 5.
PARKER Two years ago, there was a really important election in Israel. And [Barak], the prime minister who was not reelected, said, “I will have more time to watch Sex and the City.” And I thought, “Well, that’s it. That is it. This is huge.”
CATTRALL We said that wheat grass was supposed to change the taste of a man’s [well, you know…]. Apparently wheat grass sales went skyrocketing. But women all over reached out in fan mail and grabbed me on the street and said, “Honey, it’s pineapple juice! It’s not the green crap!”
NIXON There’s a soap store near my house called Soap in the City. You’ve really got to reach for that.
VII: Fashion as Fetish
Carrie’s remarkably extensive and forward wardrobe (orchestrated by costume designer Patricia Field) begat several national fads, like personalized nameplate necklaces and oversize flower accessories. Manolo Blahnik even introduced an SJP stiletto.
PATRICIA FIELD I see women as sexy and powerful. To me a confident woman is a sexy woman. So I’m not afraid to dress them that way…. I like to play the woman up, make her stronger.
PARKER Carrie is a free-for-all in the wardrobe department, and that’s a wonderful liberty. A lot of people hated the Heidi dress [“The F— Buddy”], but I loved it. I don’t remember what the show was about. To me, the whole episode’s about the Heidi dress. It was like a dirndl from Germany, and I had them put braids in my hair and paint freckles on my face…. And people had reservations about the tutu in the opening sequence, but Pat and I stuck to our guns.
FIELD I was in a showroom and there was a basket of for-sale junk stuff and I pulled [the tutu] out and said, “This is cute, how much is it?” I didn’t know that I was going to use it in the opening, but I liked it and it was five dollars.
CATTRALL Regrets? Fewer hats than I would have liked.
DAVIS One of Pat’s friends came by the set. And this woman said, “Your character is my favorite character…. Pat told me I can have that Prada outfit that you wore when you fell in the street.” Oh, there was some trouble after that. I was like, “If anyone lays their finger on my Prada lipstick skirt, there will be hell to pay!” So that skirt’s hanging in my closet, and I love it very much.
PARKER I get to keep a lot of the outfits. It’s in my contract. The weird part is I tend not to wear stuff from the show. I give it away. I archive it. I’m talking a whole storage place full of these things.
VIII: Deeper! Deeper! Deeper!
In season 3, Sex began moving beyond the doomed-date-of-the-week dilemma: Carrie became entangled in an affair with Mr. Big, while Charlotte’s marriage unraveled. In coming seasons, Miranda would lose her mother and gain an unexpected baby, and most shockingly, Samantha would fall in love.
CATTRALL We had to go deeper. Or else, who cares? Especially for Samantha — it was still fun and jazzy but we needed to see why, why she was like that and what she was hiding.
STAR In the third season where Carrie started cheating with Mr. Big, we were casting our heroine not in such a great light. She was making bad choices, and I think the audience got very polarized.
KING The biggest risk was Carrie not marrying Aidan. Like, “What??? She had this great guy, and she didn’t want to marry him?” That’s decadent. She broke Aidan’s heart twice. Twice. Messy like life — not like TV.
PARKER They had to pry Aidan from my hands. I was pretty seriously broken up about it. To this day, I wonder, Did we do the right thing?
KING [For Miranda], we thought, “Okay, the most controlling, shut-down woman of them all will get accidentally pregnant and have to change.” It was hard…but what was she going to do — keep going to Korean delis and getting take-out food?
NIXON We certainly weren’t going to do a beatific-glow-of-motherhood take on it. Which is why Miranda had the baby rather than, say, Charlotte.
IX: The End of the Affair
In early 2002, after much deliberation, Parker and King (who became the main showrunner when Star assumed an executive consultant position following season 3) informed HBO that the sixth season would be the final one. Though Parker already hints at an eventual reunion — “What’s exciting about this is that it leaves the door open. Who knows how we might revisit the show?” — it’s Breakup City for now.
KING Have you ever stayed too late at a party? Yeah, we don’t want to do that. We want to be the first ones out.
CATTRALL Oh, I think it should go longer.
NIXON They want us to go out while we’re still high and great, but I feel like we’ve got far to fall. We could get a little worse before it went out, you know?
DAVIS We work until February. There’s so much that’s going to happen between now and then, I don’t feel done at all.
PARKER It’s time. It’s a really rich, dense thing that we try to do, and I don’t want mediocrity to be the car that we’re driving. It’ll be awful to walk away, but it’ll be thrilling. And I think you must do what is thrilling, even if it’s painful sometimes.
X: One Final Fling
Season 6 brings big changes for Miss Bradshaw.
PARKER Carrie thinks her world is fabulous and big, and all of a sudden she meets somebody and it’s revealed that her world is little and this whole new world has opened up to her. And I mean world, culturally and artistically.
KING It’s not going to end with a four-wedding ceremony in Central Park. I would shoot myself. And single women would find us and kill us.
PARKER When Carrie walks out her door, there’s just potential everywhere. The potential for great disappointment and great victory and love and loss and literature and poverty and overindulgence and insanity and beauty and architecture and art and dirt and shit, literally shit, and drugs and flowers — that feels hopeful to me, and the show has always felt like that to me. And if it’s the ending I think it’s going to be, I feel like that will never be lost.
Sex and the City