HBO // 2003 // 240 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 11th, 2004
"Seems like you might be experiencing a 'been there, done them' existential crisis." -- Carrie
For a television series that revolves around a single theme, like Sex and the City's focus on...well, sex and the city, the challenge in its later years is keeping the show relevant to that theme while maintaining the flow of fresh ideas and allowing its characters to grow and develop. It's a tall order, and one that few, if any, series have been able to fill. At some point, everything that needs to be said has been said, and there is nowhere for the show to go without radically altering its focus and mission.
When Sex and the City first hit the scene in 1998, it did so with a deservedly spectacular splash; this four-woman ensemble comedy series, given the creative freedom possible on a cable channel like HBO, went further than any network TV series could ever go in discussing, with scandalous frankness, issues of sexuality and relationships. And it did so with clever, funny writing and four engaging lead actresses.
In the six years since, Sex and the City has held onto a loyal fan base, becoming a genuine cultural phenomenon. But the world has moved on in those years, and the sexual candor that once seemed so audacious is now almost ubiquitous in popular culture. As the series wraps up its sixth and final year on HBO in 2004, it does so with its loyal audience firmly in tow, but does Sex and the City have anything new left to say about either?
The Complete Fifth Season of Sex and the City, drastically abbreviated to a mere eight episodes owing to the pregnancies of stars Sarah Jessica Parker and Cynthia Nixon, has more of the feeling of an interlude than a full chapter in its heroines' lives. The characters all appear to be in a state of flux and transition as the season begins: neurotic sex columnist Carrie (Parker) is struggling for inspiration for her column as well as her love life; Miranda (Nixon) is slowly coming to terms with being a single mother; Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is extricating herself from the last vestiges of her failed marriage while looking -- doubtfully -- to the future; and for Samantha (Kim Cattrall), still boiling over boyfriend Richard's infidelity, the challenge is dealing with her friends' existential angst, as well as Miranda's baby, all of which is putting a damper on her fun.
The two central issues facing the characters this season are the search for "the next great love" and the fear of growing old alone (as symbolized by a pack of "Old Maid" cards given to Charlotte as a gag gift on her 36th birthday). Along the way, viewers will be treated to just about everything they've come to expect from Sex and the City -- witty banter, "I can't believe she did that" moments, and a parade of hunky, well-groomed men.
While I can enjoy Sex and the City on a sitcom level, I have to admit that I've never been a fan. Near-lethal estrogen quotient aside, the series comes across as glib and overly pat in its characterizations; and as clever as the dialogue can be, the writing simply isn't as intelligent or sharp as its creators evidently believe it to be. Sex and the City desperately wants to be seen as a witty, sophisticated précis of contemporary sexual and romantic relationships, and it occasionally brushes up against that high bar, but more often it goes for the cheap shot and the easy, predictable laugh over any genuinely penetrating insight. The series is so relentless in its pandering to its female audience that it's almost as if it were created by a group of sociology grad students trying to construct the perfect TV series for women in the 18-35 demographic.
The key problem with Sex and the City is stated by one of the characters as early as its second season: "So what are we going to do? Sit around bars, sipping Cosmos and sleeping with strangers when we're eighty?" That's a question these women need to ask themselves more often, it seems, because three seasons later that's still pretty much all they're doing. Although the show makes concessions to the advancing ages of its characters by introducing such relevant life issues as parenthood and the prospect of finding true love before menopause, at heart it's basically the same as it ever was: four single women chasing "cute boys" and blathering endlessly over breakfast about sex, relationships, and sex.
In any other context than fictional television, the notion of four attractive, intelligent women in their mid- to late-30s obsessing over men and sex with the mawkish self-absorption of teenagers would strike most observers as pathetic; but here, we're asked to sympathize and relate to these characters. If this were Season One, it wouldn't seem so ridiculous, but this is the fifth year, for Pete's sake, and they're still going through the same crap, the same way, having apparently learned next to nothing since the first episode? Granted, I just described the overall arc of Seinfeld, but the characters on Seinfeld were intended to be pathetic and over-the-top. They certainly weren't presented as realistic representations of real-life human beings.
In truth, Sex and the City has more in common with Seinfeld than its creators probably intended. After five years of meeting, screwing, dumping, or being dumped by men, all the while dismissing scores of suitors on the basis of one petty failing or another, it's clear where the real problem lies. As the characters endlessly prattle on about why they can't find their "great love," it never occurs to them that it may be less about finding some guy to love them, and more about becoming the kind of people that can be loved. Ironically, at least one episode this season pokes vicious fun at self-help books and seminars, when in fact these characters could probably benefit from a few of them. But no, it's not about inner growth or self-empowerment; it's about finding "great love."
It's this fundamental dishonesty that sinks the show for me. Yes, the series is self-aware enough to acknowledge its characters' failings -- one scene early this season, in which Carrie flirts pathetically with a cute stranger only to be witheringly shot down, demonstrates that the show's creators are conscious on some level of what is wrong with these women -- but it lacks the integrity to explore that issue with any enthusiasm. After all, to do so would alter the tried-and-true structure of the series; they can't have the characters actually grow and mature, because then they might get real lives and put the kibosh on the neurotic sex talk and sleeping around that viewers have come to expect. It might even force the series to graduate to a more sophisticated level of storytelling and discourse, one that may well be beyond the grasp of this creative team. Why go to the trouble of realistically portraying adult-level relationship issues of women and men, when it's far easier and funnier to pull out yet another vibrator gag or gay joke? (It's another measure of where the show is at, in terms of emotional maturity, that nearly all of the gay characters are ridiculous stereotypes, either flaming drag-queen style caricatures or tight-jeaned pretty boys. Haven't we moved past these clichés yet?)
For a series that attempts to portray a feminist vision of strong, empowered, self-motivated women taking control of their own fulfillment, Sex and the City does more to degrade that image (while pretending to do the opposite) than anything dumped into the pop culture wading pool since Charlie's Angels. These are supposedly successful career women, yet we are rarely shown the women actually working, or doing much of anything but pining after guys and moaning about their romantic problems. Far from being a progressive image of women, it serves merely to reinforce the pre-feminist notion that women only exist as sexual objects who cannot function properly without the presence of men. Putting the women into the aggressor role doesn't alter the fundamental problem one whit; anyone, man or woman, who looks to Sex and the City for genuine insight into relationships is in serious trouble.
"But Your Honor," you're probably saying, "isn't this just a sitcom? Aren't you asking a bit much of a light comedy?" Sure, and if I were reviewing the fifth season of Friends these wouldn't even be issues. But Sex and the City sets itself up for tougher criticism; through its very "sex column" premise and Carrie's ongoing "what it all means" narration, it purports to be not simply a situation comedy, but also a discourse on relationships and sexuality. And as entertaining as it might be, it never says much more than what we already know, or, more often, what we want to hear.
You have probably realized by this point that I am not part of this show's devoted following. But even if you are, you might have reason to be incensed by this fifth season DVD release. The major issue that is riling fans is that, despite this set containing only eight episodes (less than half of the previous season's 18), at a list price of $49.99 it's priced identically to previous full-season collections. For viewers who have faithfully purchased each set, it's like getting a half-for-one deal. It's not difficult to understand why people aren't happy.
One would think, or at least hope, that HBO would make up for this seriously underweight season by packing the set with extra features to justify its price tag, but alas, while the three commentaries by executive producer Michael Patrick King (on the first episode, "Anchors Away," mid-stream episode "Plus One is the Loneliest Number," and the season closer, "I Love a Charade") are entertaining and informative, as is the 20-minute featurette on costume designer Patricia Field, it's essentially the same amount of extras as Season Four. This would have been a great opportunity to include a full-length documentary or deleted scenes/outtakes at the least, but it's an opportunity HBO has not taken.
Video quality is fine -- the original full screen transfer is as good as can be expected with the 35mm print elements at hand, which apparently weren't great to begin with. Given a series as style-conscious as Sex and the City, one might expect a glossier look, but too often the images are dull and grainy. I'm not sure that The Sopranos should boast a prettier image than Sex and the City. It's just wrong.
In terms of audio quality, Sex and the City's Dolby 5.1 Surround track shouldn't disappoint anyone; it's clear and flawless, and if it makes minimal use of the surround channels, so what? It's certainly active and bright enough to convey the romantic angst of neurotic New Yorkers in its full digital glory.
As disappointed as I am with Sex and the City, I have to admit that much of that disappointment stems from the fact that the show is just good enough to make me wish it were better. The performances by the four lead actresses are never less than compelling; even when their characters are at their most irksome, Parker and gang keep me interested by sheer force of talent and charisma. Even Cattrall's Samantha manages to be charming, funny, and only occasionally grating, even if her character is basically a younger version of Blanche on Golden Girls. That "good enough to be a letdown" quality infects every aspect of the series, from the dialogue, which is more often clever than genuinely witty, to the situations the girls find themselves in, which hold so much potential for profound insight and yet only rarely tap that potential.
Sex and the City is The Man Show for women. While presenting itself as at least a quasi-realistic depiction of urban thirty-something women in the 21st century, it's more like a wish-fulfillment fantasy of the kind of life that single women would like to lead. A female friend of mine had this to say about the show: "I think women like to pretend that they're like those women -- that they're actually getting hot sex, that their girlfriends will actually sit around and talk to them about it like a bunch of teenagers, and that friendship is still number one on a woman's list after age 25." But it bears about as much resemblance to a real human experience of life as an issue of Cosmo. Ultimately it's neither true to life nor true to its characters.
While fans of the show will want to pick up this release in order to complete their collections, the fact that HBO has not reduced the usual price despite offering less than half the usual content makes it an extremely raw deal. This time, it's not just the characters getting screwed.
Sex and the City: The (In)Complete Fifth Season is found guilty of shameless pandering and is sentenced to gain 30 pounds, trade in the designer clothes for jeans and a sweatshirt, and move to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, until it grows up and learns something about life in the real world.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bryan Byun; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 240 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Season Index
* Audio Commentary by Executive Producer Michael Patrick King on "Anchors Away," "Plus One is the Loneliest Number," and "I Love a Charade"
* Behind the Scenes Featurette with Costume Designer Patricia Field
* Interactive Trivia Game
* Official Site