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‘Sex and the City’ Brought ‘Candid and Comical’ Take on Relationships to HBO 20 Years Ago

It’s the 20th anniversary of “Sex and the City,” which debuted June 6, 1998, under lots of pressure. Pay cabler HBO needed a tentpole hit to replace its popular “The Larry Sanders Show,” which was ending after six seasons. Some pundits were skeptical about the new series, but in an April 27, 1998, interview with Variety, HBO exec Chris Albrecht predicted success: “It has a great female point of view and that’s something we don’t have a lot of.”

The series, created by Darren Star based on Candace Bushnell’s newspaper columns, centered on four women in their mid-30s and older, as they dealt with work, romance, sex, health, fashion and life. But the core of the show always remained the friendship among the quartet. It became a huge hit, and when “The Sopranos” debuted six months later, HBO got an unprecedented one-two punch, with comedy and drama series that could score big in industry awards, media coverage and audience buzz.

Creators of any TV series hope for one home-run hit. With “Sex and the City,” Star had the distinction of three enduring series — including “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” — that tapped into the zeitgeist.

In an interview with Variety’s Michael Sheats shortly before the debut of “Sex and the City,” Star praised HBO, saying, “I can’t think of another place that would give us the freedom to produce this candid and comical take on contemporary sex and relationships.”

The “candid and comical” combination proved keys to the show’s drawing power as the women — played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Kim Cattrall, Kristin Davis and Cynthia Nixon — explored their personal triumphs and insecurities, as well as those of their partners. The show was consistently funny, often touching and sometimes shocking.

In a 1998 preview of upcoming cable series, Variety had it as Pick to Click. The show took a quantum leap from its pilot to its second episode. And while the first season was popular, the comedy really hit its stride in the second season, among both men and women (including “Which character are you?” discussions). It also helped set fashion trends, thanks to the imaginative work of costume designer Patricia Field.

A team of women writers and producers, as well as directors including Nicole Holofcener, Allison Anders and Susan Seidelman, helped ensure that the female point of view was presented accurately and with a sense of fun.

“Sex and the City” earned 54 Emmy nominations, with seven wins; there were two big-screen adaptations, and the series remains popular in repeats. Now, 20 years later, the stars are still creating headlines, from the online feud between Parker and Cattrall, and the New York gubernatorial candidacy of Nixon.

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