Our last dance with 'Sex and the City'

Fun, wise HBO series heads into the first of its last romantic whirls

Television

January 04, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Talk about fabulous fantasies. Tonight, as HBO's Sex and the City returns with the first of its final eight episodes, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) gets to sleep with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Next week, even better, she gets to dance with him.

The bedroom experience is meaningful enough that, once Carrie is out of his arms and back home alone in front of her computer, she asks what she calls the "classic question" for women in the wake of such moments: "Where is this all going?"

It's the same question many longtime fans of the acclaimed HBO series are asking as Sex and the City hits the home stretch of its sixth and final season.

A partial answer is possible: There's a wedding ceremony for one of the leading characters next week and a life-altering bombshell for another. But to be any more specific about these story lines would surely diminish the pleasure of watching a series that is far too much fun to be called a drama, and far too wise to be pigeonholed simply as a sitcom.

In giving voice to the sex and fantasy lives of women like no other television show had ever done, Sex and the City was already a groundbreaking series by the end of its first season. But, as the finale approaches, the producers are clearly reaching for something grander than the sexual fulfillment of Carrie, Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) and Charlotte York-Goldenblatt (Kristin Davis).

They are exploring, in as profound a way as can be found in our popular culture, the notions of community and happiness and how to achieve some sense of fulfillment in adult life. The series is far beyond the time when happiness could be found in a night of wickedly naughty sex or an afternoon that climaxes with the purchase of an incredibly expensive pair of shoes with stiletto heels.

Groundbreaking marriage

The best illustration of how Sex and the City has gone beyond being a mere guilty pleasure involves the marriage of Charlotte and her Jewish divorce attorney, Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler), last year. This TV marriage is being discussed, debated and hailed in Jewish intellectual circles like no television series since the final season of Seinfeld in 1998.

From the CBS sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie in 1972, to such current series as NBC's Friends, there has been a remarkably consistent pattern in prime-time network television of Jewish characters distancing themselves in various ways from any overt markers of their ethnic or religious identity. Intermarriage -- with the Jewish half of the couple having no connection whatsoever to Jewish life -- is the most obvious expression of this impulse. Think of Paul Buchman (Paul Reiser), of the NBC sitcom Mad About You (1992 to 1999), as the poster boy for Jewish characters losing their religion.

But it didn't happen that way on Sex and the City. Charlotte, the earnestly nice WASP member of the quartet, transcended her suffocating straitjacket of propriety via her relationship with Harry. She converted to Judaism for him, and her conversion and marriage were treated with intelligence and respect.

As an article in the prestigious Israeli magazine The Jerusalem Report put it last week: "In an unprecedented move for TV, this time it is the shiksa goddess who converts to Judaism in order to be united with her Jewish lover."

"I thought the wedding ceremony hit the perfect pitch that has characterized all of the Harry-Charlotte courtship," Samuel G. Freedman, author of Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry, said in an interview.

Freedman, a professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, expanded on that thought in an article he wrote for USA Today: "No television show had ever presented a conversion with such visual and theological detail. Even more important is what the approving portrayal represents: a reversal of the entertainment industry's tradition of viewing Jewish identity as something to be shed in the quest to become American."

"I thought the conversion was very real -- I liked the whole portrayal," says documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner, winner of a New York Film Critics Award for The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg.

"I think it's amazing what Sex and the City has done for the popular culture image of Jews," added Kempner, now working on a film about broadcasting pioneer Gertrude Berg, producer and star of The Goldbergs, a 1949 CBS sitcom about a Jewish family living in the Bronx.

"No matter what befalls Sex and the City's other three bachelorettes, Charlotte York-Goldenblatt has helped to further raise the iron curtain from the small screen, making Jews not only visible but desirable," The Jerusalem Report article concluded.

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