Its dialogue seemingly cribbed from “The Rules,” “Men Are From Mars …” and other ’90s relationship psychobabble, “Sex and the City” follows four upscale, attractive women through the sexual subway of contempo Gotham. Single and in their 30s, each is a distinct blend of guile, guts and needfulness, traipsing through the dating world with predictable and even trite results, their chatter constantly hitting on sex, relationships and sex. Some good acting and some nicely shot romantic interludes provide some redemption for the series, but scripts need to loosen up and inherit some of the playfulness the actresses bring to their roles.
It’s a hopeless world out there, but newspaper columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is throwing her libido in the laboratory to sort it all out for the masses. The self-described “sexual anthropologist” gets her information from praisery owner Samantha (Kim Cattrall), willing and able to do anything; art dealer Charlotte (Kristin Davis), who’s on the constant lookout for Mr. Right; lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), a study in the overstudied approach to all things male; and, of course, her own independent activities.
HBO is launching its 12-part comedy series, based on Candace Bushnell’s book of the same name, with a doubleheader — the pilot and episode “Models and Mortals.”
Pilot finds Bradshaw studying women who have sex like men — do the act and feel nothing afterward. “Models” has her observing men and women who only date beauties from the catwalk and magazine pages, asking that age-old question: How much power do beautiful people have? Talkshow fodder played out as a fact-driven drama.
Both episodes play spin the bottle with the issues and land everywhere but the right places. They possess a wanton thirst for either pleasure or interrogation, and predictable actions and consequences abound: Samantha will wind up in bed, Miranda will question a man’s every word or motive, Bradshaw will draw up some pithy comment. (A couple that goes from shopping for a townhouse to breakup in one step attracts the observation, “Cupid has flown the co-op.”)
Cattrall, Davis and Nixon inhabit their characters with full-bodied believability, cracking the dating minefield with moral codes that range from “What? Me worry?” to the straight and narrow. Their gabfests, while not neces-sarily enlightening, bring out the shadings of each woman; collectively they feel lost in their 30s, too established for the carefree twentysomethings and too under-the-radar for the career-obsessed men in their 40s.
Parker’s presence provides a star quality, though she plays directly to the audience with a bit too much regularity, doling advice one moment and rhetorically asking for help on which path to take the next. Yet creator Darren Star (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) has given her very precise targets — she beats up on “toxic bachelors” and “modelisers” rather than men in general, and she goes after women as much as she slams men. Still, the Brad-shaw character rarely laughs at these foibles — her cynicism is less than that of her comrades in general and, in particular, your average newspaper columnist.
A compelling subplot concerns run-ins with rich power broker Mr. Big (Chris Noth), that provides the show’s greatest sexual tension. Noth (Detective Mike Logan on “Law & Order”) is the great “what if?,” the potential suitor who commands attention and ample flirting without committing to as much as a date. It’s a pattern that drove the early years of “Moonlighting,” “Remington Steele” and even “Friends,” and here Noth and Parker have a chemistry articulated with coolness and restraint, a rarity in series television.
Carol Sue Baker supplies a nifty Latin theme to accompany an incongruous credit sequence that suggests Bradshaw is living a serious bad-luck streak. Locations are top-notch, from A-1 Gotham apartments and splashy restaurants and nightclubs to grungy hangouts and hovels. Pacing is crisp and mood-setting lighting is always on target.