HBO loses its ‘Sex’ drive

“Can women have sex like men?” was the first question posed by Carrie Bradshaw. And the questions never stopped: “To be in a couple, do you have to put your single self on a shelf?” “Are there women in New York who are there just to make us feel bad about ourselves?” “Maybe mistakes shape our fate?” “Is that living, or just procrastinating?” Until now. Sunday’s penultimate episode of “Sex and the City” really was the beginning of the end – there was no question typed on Carrie’s PowerBook.

On Sunday, the final episode of “Sex and the City” will air on HBO, marking the end for Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha after six seasons – 94 episodes. It is unlikely, however, that the show will disappear. There are already rumors that the cast has signed on for a pay-per-view “Sex” movie deal, and edited episodes will air on TBS beginning June 15.

I wish I could say I watched “Sex and the City” when it first premiered. But way back in June 1998, I was more concerned about Mulder and Scully saving the world from aliens than a HBO show about sex in New York City.

But over the next two years, as I and my TV viewing habits matured, I became a “Sex” addict, just in time for the show’s sensational third season. The summer of 2000 belonged to “Sex and the City.” That was when the series escaped from its HBO niche and burst into the mainstream.

Perhaps America finally accepted the show’s four sexually strong women, or perhaps it was the numerous awards and accolades the show was receiving. But the reason for the hype is less important than the fact that the hype has remained consistently strong. The early seasons of the show remain special, though, because they sparked the types of conversations that became benchmarks for the series.

The debates varied: Who should Carrie be with, Big or Aidan (and I guess now The Russian)? Would you give up a healthy sex life for marriage? And how exactly do you tell a guy he has funky spunk?

But beyond the debates, “Sex and the City” was younger and fresher and had a welcomed, albeit unexpected, innocence that gradually morphed into a more experienced perspective on life. In the early episodes, Carrie decided to quit smoking, not to move to Paris. Miranda and Steve had the baby talk but just got a dog instead. Charlotte was searching for the ideal husband, not the ideal adoption agency. And Samantha fainted after an HIV test; now she’s losing her hair after chemotherapy.

The serious tone “Sex and the City” has taken on this season still makes for quality television, but it neglects the fabulousness and extravagance that used to be at the heart of the series. True, the characters are growing older, and the show now exists in a post-September 11 New York that calls for more sensitivity – plus the actresses keep having to hide pregnancies – but even with all the changes, “Sex and the City” remains a fantasy series.

But its fantastical element is unique in that it presents fantasies that young women actively pursue. The simplest manifestation of this phenomenon – and the show is a phenomenon, for its risque content and immense popularity – is identifying with a character. I am Carrie, although I used to be more Charlotte. My one friend used to be Miranda, now she’s Charlotte. You could be Carrie and have an inner-Samantha.

This is why “Sex and the City” will be missed. Girlfriends will surely still find time during the week to sit and gossip and drink Cosmos, rave about fashion and gripe about relationships, but, in time, their connection to the women of “Sex and the City” will fade. Unfortunately, the writers of the show have already arrived at this point. Not only has Carrie quit her column and left New York, maybe for good, but they brought Big into the show’s inner-sanctum – the coffeehouse.

The girls have spent countless hours in those four chairs at that one table, analyzing, criticizing, romanticizing and idolizing the men in their lives. To have Big sitting at that table – declaring his love for Carrie, nonetheless – is a turning point for the series, a turning point that could only come at the end.

Since it was announced last year that “Sex and the City” would be ending this February, everyone has developed an opinion about what would happen in the last episode. A classmate of mine adamantly insists that Carrie will stay with Aleksandr. A co-worker thinks Carrie will end up alone. My mom wants Carrie to be with Big, even though she admits he’s wrong for her. What bothers me, though, is all the focus given to Carrie. And while it’s legitimate to focus on Carrie – after all, she is the show’s narrator, column or no column – it is also frustrating for some viewers to pay so much attention to such a selfish character. Even so, it’s been refreshing to see Carrie start to stand up for herself in the last few episodes.

But the point is, as the series ends, bigger issues are being discussed. It’s not just about Samantha sleeping with half the city anymore – on the contrary, she’s in a committed relationship – it’s about whether Carrie can truly be happy as the quintessential single woman, or whether she is destined for monogamous bliss. As the series has evolved, its viewers have evolved with it, making saying goodbye next Sunday harder than anyone would have guessed when “Sex and the City” first aired.

My hope for the series is that Sunday’s final 45-minute episode ends with a feeling of contentment for the characters. Because happiness just might be better than great sex.

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