When asked what’s changed in television since “Sex and the City” went off the air, Sarah Jessica Parker has no problem citing a number of “big” differences. From the sheer quantity of shows to how and when they’re being consumed, it’s clear the film and television actress — who hasn’t starred in a series since her landmark HBO comedy ended in 2004 — is still quite in tune with the medium’s momentous, ongoing development.
Yet one statement is more telling than most, especially in regard to her new black comedy, “Divorce.”
“How do you make something you believe in, knowing you get one chance with people?” Parker said in an interview with IndieWire. “In a crowded field of really incredible programming, how do you call attention to yourself but not tell a story to call attention to yourself? You have to get eyeballs, [but] you can’t try to be controversial or be provocative just so people watch. You have to tell the story you believe in and hope that somehow you get a commitment from someone — at least one time — and you better be deserving of those 30 minutes you’re getting because they could choose anything.”
Such was not the case when “Sex and the City” debuted on HBO, and Parker is well aware of how much more competitive TV has become since she last fronted a series.
“Nobody owns anything anymore,” Parker said. “[With ‘Sex and the City,’] we were like, ‘Sunday nights! Nobody does original programming in the summer on a Sunday night!’ Well, that’s just not the case anymore.”
“Divorce” will undoubtedly test the mettle of viewers, especially those expecting to see Parker jubilantly jaunt through the streets of New York again. Her return to HBO is far from an extension of her old show, delving further into the nitty gritty repercussions of long-term relationships rather than the common challenges of finding your partner.
Frances is not a grown-up version of Carrie, even if many fans will be watching with the “Sex and the City” character in mind.
Parker, who says she’s “not burdened” by any association people hold between her and Carrie Bradshaw, feels it’s unattractive to discuss the legacy of “Sex and the City.” But the artist remains flattered by any connection people see between the groundbreaking series (my words, not hers) and where television finds itself today.
“I know that in terms of programming for female voices, we got to be part of creating a signal for it in some way,” Parker said. “But we were also part of a network that wanted that; that was supportive of [women] and that let us tell our story any way we wanted.”
“It’s nice to see how many women are doing interesting, exciting things on television,” Parker continued. “My guess is that would’ve happened [even without ‘Sex and the City’], but it’s nice that people associate us with being part of that change.”
That being said, not all associations are good: Parker can see the differences between “Divorce” and “Sex and the City” clearly, and fans will see it when the series debuts Sunday, October 9. Parker even points to the opening scene — a crude spat conducted in a civil manner between husband and wife — as a knowing moment of separation between this character and any other from her past.
“From that moment on, she feels different,” Parker said. “It was hard to take on somebody so new, so wonderfully different and somebody who is not buoyant; not full of all sorts of color — like Carrie Bradshaw, for instance. She’s someone who doesn’t naturally skip down the street, but is weighed down more by circumstances that are… not pleasant. Someone who is quietly introspective, versus Carrie who’s introspective and then wants to talk about it and ask questions. She’s a much more private and chilly person than Carrie. She’s withholding and can be severe and not always kind — but I like that. She’s so different and so different than I am.”
Even though the reasons separating the roles are as clear as they are vast, Parker was aware of “red flags” during filming, before audiences were exposed to the new role — just in case confusion could create inaccurate speculation.
“In an episode, Frances goes to New York and she’s looking to find someone to fill a position at Sothebys,” Parker remembered. “She’s off the Metro North train, and she’s in town walking to a cocktail party, and all of a sudden I go, ‘Oh no. I’m in a decent dress and decent shoes and I’m walking down the streets of New York. If anyone snaps an image of this, they’re going to tell the story, but it’s not the story they think we’re telling.’ Times like that, I became aware of connections and people’s projections.”
After two “Sex and the City” films came out following the series finale, one can easily see how signals could be misinterpreted. But Parker is excited to leave the film world behind.
“When [former HBO President] Michael Lombardo asked, ‘Are you ready to come home?,’ I realized I was.”
“Film has its virtues, but it’s a very specific time period in which you get to do it,” Parker said. “Most films aren’t telling the life of a character. It’s a chapter, a moment, a snapshot.”
“I discovered on ‘Sex and the City,’ I love the pace of television. I love the immediacy, the urgency, the chaos and the limitations. But I especially love that I can play someone for a really long time and in some cases spend more time as that other person than being myself. It just allows you to live a really complete life.”
It’s important to note Parker’s only experience as a lead in television was “Sex and the City,” a show that could have (and might still) go on forever. Great ratings, critical raves and virtually across-the-board appeal made it a smashing success. “Divorce” is playing a very different game. It may be working within the same medium, but no one has to tell Parker how much that medium has changed, nor how different “Divorce” is from her previous hit.
“We’ll see who the audience is,” Parker said. “I’m not sure myself. You can’t make a show with them in mind. You have to tell a story you are interested in and challenged by and are excited about. You can’t pick an audience and write a show for them.”
In other words, after all that’s changed, the best shows should still win out — we hope.
“Divorce” premieres Sunday, October 9 at 10pm on HBO. New episodes will debut on HBO, HBO NOW and HBO Go weekly.