But they talked more explicitly, certainly about their bodies, but also about their desires and discontents outside the bedroom, than women on TV ever had before. As if that were a good thing. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. In fact, it was a bold riff on the romantic comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run.
In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies and gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw. Please, people, I can hear your objections from here.
But first think back. Ally McBeal was a notable and problematic exception. They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, and they were also, crucially, adorable to men: vulnerable and plucky and warm.
Me, too! In contrast, Carrie and her friends—Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, and sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Out popped a chatterbox with a schnoz, whose advanced fashion sense was not intended to lure men into matrimony. For a half dozen episodes, Carrie was a happy, curious explorer, out companionably smoking with modellizers.
Instead, Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth. There is already a melancholic undertow, full of foreshadowing. I wear little outfits: Sexy Carrie and Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing. That was the conundrum Carrie faced for the entire series: true love turned her into a fake. She and Big fixed things, then they broke up again, harder. He moved to Paris. She met Aidan John Corbett , the marrying type. During six seasons, Carrie changed, as anyone might from thirty-two to thirty-eight, and not always in positive ways.
She got more honest and more responsible; she became a saner girlfriend. But she also became scarred, prissier, strikingly gun-shy—and, finally, she panicked at the question of what it would mean to be an older single woman. In a departure from nearly all earlier half-hour comedies, the writers fully embraced the richness of serial storytelling. In a movie we go from glare to kiss in two hours. So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind?
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. The first was emotional: Carrie and Charlotte were romantics; Miranda and Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte and Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power of femininity, from opposing angles.
The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha and Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began to glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear. When Carrie sleeps with a dreamy French architect and he leaves a thousand dollars by her bed, she consults her friends. The friends pile into a cab for a raucous debate about whether her choice is about power-exchange Miranda or about finding a fun new hole Samantha.
When Carrie and Aidan break up, they are both right. When Miranda and Carrie argue about her move to Paris, they are both right. Endings count in television, maybe too much. David Chase fled to the South of France. It felt ugly, and sad, in a realistic way. When did everybody pair off? The show always had a realpolitik directness about such social pressures; as another HBO series put it recently, winter was coming.
It honored the wishes of its heroine, and at least half of the audience, and it gave us a very memorable dress, too. But it also showed a failure of nerve, an inability of the writers to imagine, or to trust themselves to portray, any other kind of ending—happy or not. What if it were the story of a woman who lost herself in her thirties, who was changed by a poisonous, powerful love affair, and who emerged, finally, surrounded by her friends?