New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum is one of the best in the biz not just for the way she writes about television but because of the shows she writes about. Highbrow publications — a category we’ll leave unexamined for the nonce — tend to cluster their coverage around a handful of “serious” shows, which is great if you’re a fan of Mad Men, less so if you’re a devotee of Parks and Recreation or the late, insufficiently lamented Fringe.
Nussbaum’s latest piece is a full-throated and awfully convincing defense of Sex and the City, a show who’s greatness, she argues, has been eclipsed by the redefinition of quality TV in the post-Sopranos era.
The Sopranos deserves the hype. Yet there’s something screwy about the way that the show and its cable-drama blood brothers have come to dominate the conversation, elbowing other forms of greatness out of the frame.
Even as The Sopranos has ascended to TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of Sex and the City has shrunk and faded, like some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show to a “guilty pleasure,” to mock its puns, to get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered and blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series debuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no Sex and the City, they say. As if that were a good thing.
Not surprisingly, the piece has sparked some blowback, ranging from Twitter snark to a rebuttal posted this morning to Flavorwire. Under the title “Let’s Stop Using Feminism as an Excuse for Loving Sex and the City,” Judy Berman writes:
If you want to use feminism as an excuse for liking an admittedly groundbreaking show that was often fun and sometimes provocative but rarely transcendent, by all means, continue to enjoy Sex and the City guilt-free. But if it’s truly great turn-of-the-millennium depictions of women you’re after, then you’re better off returning to Six Feet Under.
Berman objects to the comparison between Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw, whom Nussbaum calls “the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television,” a rhetorical subtweet to recent essays — many of them centered around Brett Martin’s Difficult Men — calling attention to the uniformly white, male, and psychologically troubled character of the TV renaissance’s protagonists.
Nussbaum’s not arguing that Carrie stands alongside Tony as a towering, iconic creation. Instead, she’s making a slipperier, and, I think, more important argument for an alternate understanding of what makes a show “important” — an argument that, beyond its feminist implications, could serve for the sitcom as a whole.
So why is the show so often portrayed as a set of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior….
Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged to contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. 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.
Every conversation the friends had, at brunch or out shopping, amounted to a Crossfire-like debate.
I’d argue that allegorical quality can be found, to a greater or lesser extent, in almost all sitcoms, which as a rule are set in a stylized version of the real world. By and large, hour-long dramas follow the stylistic template developed by feature films, but the sitcom is unique to television, and that quality is a big part of what makes it so.
Read more: How ‘Sex and the City’ Lost Its Good Name