‘And Just Like That’: The Shoe Must Go On

In the ’90s, “Sex and the City” celebrated single women. Can a new, more nuanced version make a comedy of middle-aged ones?,

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When we last left the ladies of “Sex and the City,” the pathbreaking, cupcake-inspiring HBO series and film franchise, Miranda had joined a new law firm, Samantha had achieved orgasm atop a Mercedes G-Class SUV, Charlotte was hosting a child’s birthday party, and Carrie and Big were snuggling on the sofa as a black-and-white movie played, a happily ever after for everyone.

This was the peaceable close of “Sex and the City 2,” the strained 2010 movie that sent its characters into the Middle East and critics into ecstasies of disdain. (Here is A.O. Scott’s comparatively mild pan in The Times: “Your watch will tell you that a shade less than two and a half hours have elapsed, but you may be shocked at just how much older you feel when the whole thing is over.”) Still, another movie was planned, only to fall apart, largely on Twitter, in 2017. Like a Fendi baguette, the series seemed to have gone out of style.

But the ’90s are extremely on trend right now, and the women of “Sex and the City” (well, most of them) have returned for another strut down the premium cable runway. “And Just Like That,” a 10-episode limited series, premieres on HBO Max on Dec. 9. Don’t call it a reboot! The characters so rarely wore boots!

Like the original, this new version follows the author Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), the lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and the former gallerista and current homemaker Charlotte (Kristin Davis). But in the place of Kim Cattrall’s libertine Samantha are four new actors: Sarita Choudhury, Nicole Ari Parker, Karen Pittman and Sara Ramirez. Their presence remedies the original’s blinding whiteness, though if the promotional materials are any indication, not its appetitive glamour and unacknowledged privilege.

So here’s a question for Carrie: Can a show adapt to changed characters and changing times while still supplying what fans loved about the original?

On break from a shoot at Brooklyn’s Steiner Studios, Michael Patrick King, a “Sex and the City” executive producer and the showrunner of “And Just Like That,” had an enthusiastic answer. “It’s dangerous. It’s exciting. It’s a challenge,” he said, bent forward on the sofa in his office. “It’s not a cash cow. It’s not a cash in.” Besides how else could he get a show about middle-aged women greenlighted?

“I don’t think that anybody would take on new women characters at 55 without proof that people will watch,” he said. Which means that ladies might have some new paths to break, if they can walk them in heels.

The original “Sex and the City” was always two shows. One was a fidgety, philosophical comedy about single, successful women who didn’t need a man to complete them. Or maybe they did? And really, what is completion anyway? The other was the show as fans received it — and the show that it arguably became — a high-gloss romantic comedy and a fashion romp. What, you think it was the existential crises that motivated the bus tours?

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New stars like Nicole Ari Parker (center, with Davis and Pat Bowie) keep “And Just Like That” from being as overwhelmingly white as the original.Credit…Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

That latter show had long ago reached its conclusion. Because in a romantic comedy, once the girl gets the guy — or as in Samantha’s case, the many guys — where can the story really go? This structural roadblock explains why the second movie spun its wheels. (Those wheels were camels, which King now somewhat regrets.) So it seemed destined to live on only in reruns, rewatches and Instagram accounts devoted to its outfits.

But early into New York City’s pandemic lockdown, King and Parker began to chat about making a behind-the-scenes podcast. At some point, those chats turned more imaginative, speculating about what the lives of the characters might look like now. As Parker, speaking by telephone from the set of another sequel, “Hocus Pocus 2,” put it, they began to ask themselves, “Why are we not thinking about the thing that we’ve touched on many times, which is, are there more stories to tell?”

Having already resolved the characters’ questions about marriage, partnership and children during the original series — King maintains these weren’t the relevant questions, but few plot lines centered on anything else — the new show claims to look elsewhere and largely inward, just as the first series did in its early seasons. Parker ran down a few of the current interrogations: “Who am I? What will change do to me? Can I change? How do I react to big change?”

The show has undergone changes big and small — some thematic, some aesthetic, many structural. King recalled that during the first series, he felt as though he had to tie up each episode with a little bow, a concession to an audience that might not view them sequentially.

“Streaming is like, untie the bow,” he said. “Untie it.”

That doesn’t mean that “And Just Like That” encompasses much mess. During my visit to Steiner Studios, where I felt extremely underdressed, King took me around the various sets, each immaculate. Miranda’s Brooklyn brownstone and Charlotte’s Park Avenue palace have each received glow-ups. Carrie’s old apartment has lilac paint and statement wallpaper now. Her closet? Sublime.

So Carrie still has two apartments, but “And Just Like That”no longer centers her experience. The show has mostly done away with her voice-over, making way for dialogue for its four new main characters: Choudhury’s high-end real estate agent, Parker’s documentarian, Pittman’s professor and Ramirez’s podcast host.

Why didn’t the show have more characters of color before? “It was a show that was based on material that was very much of its time,” Sarah Jessica Parker said diplomatically, referring to Candace Bushnell’s New York Observer columns.

Though Nixon has stuck with the franchise, she said she had been “horrified” by the lack of racial diversity during the show’s original run. Like Parker and Davis, she said that she insisted that the characters in this new version couldn’t function as trendy accessories for the original cast.

“In order to get great actors to do these parts, they would have to be not supporting us,” Nixon said. That meant also insuring that the writers’ room was staffed with several women of color and that their story lines followed these new characters even when Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte headed offscreen.

“Each of the episodes, at this point, they’re all around 43 minutes,” King said. “Because there’s seven fully realized people in it.”

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The new series doesn’t try to reform the characters, Parker said: “We don’t try to make a point of, ‘Look, they’re mature, they’re better, they’re smarter.'”Credit…Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

On the day I visited the set, I watched one of Nicole Ari Parker’s scenes. Dressed to the nines or maybe the tens, she performed a marital spat with her series husband, played by Christopher Jackson. A few days later on the phone, I asked her if she had seen the original series — she had — and if its overwhelming whiteness had bothered her.

“A little bit,” she said. “But I wasn’t expecting ‘Sex and the City’ to be realistic.” She was talking to me while she shopped for shoes at Nordstrom, which seemed nicely on brand.

“I mean, every now and then I felt sorry for them,” she said. “Like, if they had a Black girlfriend, they wouldn’t be having these problems.” But she appreciated how complex a character the show had created for her and that she wasn’t the only character of color.

“They understand that one Black friend is not going to cut it,” she said.

Still, this new series shouldn’t be seen as a repudiation of the old one or even as a corrective to its oversights — well, some its oversights. Sarah Jessica Parker knows that not everyone liked the original characters, Carrie in particular. This new show doesn’t aim to fix them.

“We don’t try to make a point of: ‘Look, they’re mature, they’re better, they’re smarter. See, they’re sorry for the things you didn’t like,'” she said. “I don’t think that’s our best approach.”

The occasional tutu aside, “And Just Like That” isn’t intended as fan service either. The series doesn’t pretend that the women haven’t moved on with their lives in the intervening years; it doesn’t deny that they have aged. When some first-look pictures and a teaser trailer emerged, social media briefly blew up with comments about the women’s looks and the cosmetic interventions they had or hadn’t undergone.

“And Just Like That” has several scenes that discuss these issues directly. King mimed a bit involving Nixon’s Miranda and her neck. Generally, it aims for stories about women in their 50s as rich and bright and complicated, if not as raunchy, as the ones the original told about women in their 30s. (Same city. Less sex.) Which is to say that it’s trying for just a little more nuance than “The Golden Girls.”

“I am a woman in my 50s, so I am well aware that your life does not end whether you find a guy or a girl or not, whether you have kids or not, right?” Davis said. “We can testify to the fact that it’s not over, and it’s not boring. So I was never in doubt that we could tell interesting stories.”

What those stories were, no one would spoil. Eager fans have analyzed that 30-second teaser clip with the exegetical rigor typically reserved for ancient hieroglyphs. So here is what I did learn: Big (Chris Noth) is not dead. Samantha is not dead, though Cattrall’s absence means that she doesn’t appear onscreen.

“Nobody’s dead,” King said. Nobody? “Nobody.”

And yet, Willie Garson, who played Carrie’s gay best friend, Stanford Blatch, died during the filming of “And Just Like That,” a sad reminder of time’s passage and the grief it can bring. His death wasn’t written into the show.

“Because it wasn’t charming,” King said. “And I knew that the audience would know.”

“And Just Like That” wants to charm. It isn’t the first comedy about middle-aged women. Since “Sex and the City” ended, television has offered “Cougartown,” “Hot in Cleveland,” “Younger.” September brought Julie Delpy’s “On the Verge.” But a few statement necklaces aside, none of those shows had quite the glamour of “Sex and the City” and none were quite as revolutionary — in the frankness of the sex talk, in the insistence on female subjectivity, in the championing of single women, even if it did pair just about all of them off.

Will “And Just Like That” exert the same cultural, fashion-forward influence, even in a culture obsessed with youth, even in a world glutted with content? King, predictably but not unreasonably, argues that it might.

“If it was aspirational — aspirational apartments, aspirational clothing, aspirational people — it’s still aspirational,” he said.

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