Sex, Change

With last weekend's ending to the bonus season of Sex and the City, HBO drew the curtain over a proverbial third act for its heroines. Once viewed as a frothy brew of so-fashionable-they're-hideous outfits and quips about a parade of stank-breathed, ball-scratching "toxic bachelors," the show got serious this season, pitching its characters into mid-drama crises where each of them received their karmic comeuppance -- be it a baby, a divorce, a breakup, or (horrors!) unexpected love.

To be sure, Sex and the City is still as pink, tangy, and sharp as one of main character Carrie Bradshaw's trademark Cosmopolitans. The brazen outfits -- gold chains and screaming colors, Manolo Blahniks and giant bags -- are all present and accounted for. So is the show's acid-tongued sense of humor. Only now the characters face different dilemmas. Each episode, sex columnist Carrie taps out a different question on her computer, the thematic glue for the show -- "How much does a father figure figure?" Or, "Do women really want marriage and children? Or are we just programmed?" The question for this season, however, was more like: "What's a girl to do when her unspoken fears come true?"

It was an interesting turnabout. The two characters devoted to the pursuit of fairy tales -- Charlotte and Carrie -- found only unhappy endings. Charlotte (played by Kristin Davis), a traditionalist obsessed with becoming a well-heeled wife and mommy, winds up divorced and childless. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), who wants both her independence and a Prince Charming, nearly ends up with neither. After breaking up with her fiance Aidan, Carrie faces eviction, a tiny bank account, and an exploding closet of $500 shoes. "I'll be a bag lady--a Fendi bag lady, but a bag lady," she says gamely.

Meanwhile, the two women who had avoided emotional entanglement find themselves with a messy abundance of it. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a prickly-pear workaholic and avid believer in personal space, finds hers invaded by an unexpected baby and the ministrations of the sweet but drippy father, her ex, Steve. Samantha (Kim Cattrall), an ├╝ber-minx devoted to the zipless fuck, falls in love and gets her heart broken.

Ending a season this way certainly works as a lure for viewers, who are left to wonder: Will Miranda, who nearly dropped a friend's baby off her couch, be able to mother her new child? How will Charlotte cope with her "failure" to become a high-society wife and mother? Will Samantha return to her cartoonish zest for sex, or is she chastened by her brush with love? And will Carrie recover from the loss of not only her fiance, but of her big love for Mr. Big, a dapper, commitment-phobic financier who is moving away from New York and his years-long involvement with her?

The answers lie in what might be the strongest part of the show -- the women's relationships with each other. While the men are often horrors -- Carrie's new father figure actually wants to get in her panties, and Big and Aidan bellow and fight with each other like walruses on the beach -- the women are one another's truest support. Miranda discovers her motherly side as she consoles Charlotte over her childlessness. Carrie reaches out to her female friends for the stability she needs. And the show's writers even seem to propose that the women are symbolically married to each other. After Carrie catches a horrified glimpse of the ring Aidan has bought for her, Samantha goes shopping with him and picks out the perfect one. Charlotte saves Carrie from eviction by letting her pawn the engagement ring from her failed marriage.

All in all, then, Sex and the City has done a remarkable job of deconstructing the romantic myths that many straight women grapple with. The show gives us elements of fantasy outside the bedroom -- with the characters' fancy clothes and glamorous jobs -- and nightmare in the bedroom, with an incredible freakshow of male farters, burpers, baby-talkers, stalkers, and no-shows. But it also gives us something else -- a richly detailed depiction of female friendship. It's next to revolutionary to portray women's relationships as anything but catty in the world of TV. How much better to give viewers what they may be secretly yearning for, or cherish already: a group of women confidantes who are smart, savvy, and unflinchingly honest.

So while Miranda, Charlotte, Carrie, and Samantha stride, mince, teeter, and strut down the streets of New York toward their uncertain futures, they are not alone. At this critical juncture in their lives, with motherhood or lonely nights looming, it helps that they already know how to be a family.

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