Brow Beat

Gateway Episodes: Sex and the City

Steve and Miranda in “Are We Sluts?”

HBO Studios

Summer is here, the perfect time to catch up with a few of those shows everyone is always saying you should watch. But there are so many! How can you decide which to try? You need to find the gateway episode, one you can watch without any background knowledge and which will give you a real sense of the show—and whether you’ll like it.

Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote a smart essay for The New Yorker about Sex and the City, arguing that many critics—such as Brett Martin, the author of Difficult Men—had failed to give the show, about four friends living in New York, its due. I don’t agree with every point Nussbaum makes; the idea that Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a female “antihero” on par with Tony Soprano feels like a reach. But she conveys something that often gets lost in debates about the series (even the ones prompted by Nussbaum’s piece): just how enjoyable the show is. So much talking has been done about the social ramifications of Sex and the City that it’s easy to forget that the series, at its best, could be smart, silly, fantastical, melodramatic, and poignant all at the same time.

So those who are new to the show should start with an episode that balances more or less equally the ridiculous and the true-to-life. The Season 3 episode “Are We Sluts?” is a perfect example. As usual, each of the four ladies’ storylines offers varying degrees of drama on a common theme—in this case, promiscuity. Prim and proper Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is embarrassed by a paramour who calls her a “whore” in the throes of intimacy. Samantha (Kim Cattrall) is shamed by her upper-crust neighbors for being a “tart” when a surveillance camera captures a burglar entering her apartment building behind one of her many late-night visitors. Across town, Carrie wonders why her newest love interest, Aidan, hasn’t tried to sleep with her yet after a week and a half of dating.

The episode has plenty of good comic moments. (A classic SATC pun via Carrie’s voiceover: “Clearly, the guy came in behind the guy who came in Samantha.”) But the heart of the episode is found in the situation of friend No. 4, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon). After years of sexual activity, the thirtysomething lawyer, who has always avoided STD tests, discovers, during a routine doctor’s checkup, that she has chlamydia.

Miranda tells her new boyfriend, Steve (David Eigenberg), and, after a beat, he says, “I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds like a problem.” The quip, said in his thick Brooklyn accent, sounds chuckle-worthy at first. But it becomes sobering when you realize that adults can be just as ignorant about their sexual health as the most uninformed teenagers. She convinces Steve to get tested as well, and he endures a nerve-wracking experience at the doctor’s office. Miranda, on the advice of her own doctor, calls up all of the men she’s slept with to let them know—and possibly find out from who gave it to her in the first place. This forces her to tally up her lifetime total of sexual partners, and prompts her to agonize over her personal number.

This wasn’t the first time SATC addressed STDs. Crabs are used as a crude punch line for Charlotte’s tryst with a twentysomething in a Season 2 episode. And in another episode from Season 3, a potential partner refuses to have sex with Samantha until she gets tested for HIV, sending her into a panic. The series could have done more to promote the use of condoms and frequent testing for all STDS, actually, but it did help to open the door for other shows to follow suit—several years later, GirlsSATC’s poorer, more dour descendant, took the discussion further when Hannah, who always had protected sex, contracted HPV. (Obviously, fictional TV shows should not be the only sources one consults for comprehensive sex ed.)

“Are We Sluts?” is informative, but never feels like a “very special episode.” In fact, the show finds the very narrow sweet spot between the comedy and tragedy of STDs, in part because the disease is curable—and thus doesn’t have long-term consequences for its characters—and in part by keeping the drama lighthearted. It feels mortifying just watching Miranda call the men she never had any intention of seeing again to tell them they may possibly have chlamydia, possibly thanks to her. Yet there’s humor in that scene, too. “Sorry to bother you,” she tells one ex. “And congratulations! I guess now that you’re married, you don’t have to worry about stuff like this.”

See the Gateway Episodes for The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, and more.