Television

The New Sex and the City Shows the Problem With HBO’s Reboots

I couldn’t help but wonder: Can a beloved TV series survive a revival?

Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under.
Sex and the City, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by HBO.

In 2003, TBS began airing reruns of Sex and the City. The show, which premiered on HBO in 1998, would end the following year, and, aside from two increasingly ill-advised feature films, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha have lived in infinite syndicated loops ever since. But the versions of them that persist on basic cable aren’t quite the ones we remember. It’s not just that the episodes have been edited for content, although that would be an understatement. No cursing and no sex means, more importantly, that there’s basically no Samantha either. Whether you’re a fan of Kim Cattrall’s foul-mouthed sexpot or not, it’s impossible to deny that turning Samantha into a saucy ghost fundamentally alters Sex and the City. It’s just not the same show without her.

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I thought about that bizarre accidental conceptual art project a lot when watching And Just Like That, HBO Max’s new revival of the original series, but not just for its uncanny Samanthalessness. The absence of Cattrall’s load-bearing fourth lead is certainly the most immediately noticeable change from the original, but it’s not the only one. The new episodes senselessly balloon to around 45 minutes apiece, shifting the scale from sitcom-length to network drama, and, perhaps more strangely, they jettison Carrie’s ubiquitous, pun-soaked voiceover narration. The impulse behind And Just Like That,  created by original writer Michael Patrick King, is nothing if not nostalgic, but, at the same time, the new show seems eager to move away from its turn of the century ancestor. As I watched this show that looked a lot like Sex and the City but felt almost nothing like it, I couldn’t help but wonder: Can a beloved TV series survive a revival?

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[Read more: I’m Turning in My Miranda Card]

And Just Like That marks HBO’s second attempt this year at resurrecting a founding stalwart of its vaunted, turn of the century golden age, only to accidentally usher in a zombie apocalypse. Earlier this fall, the network’s parent company, Warner Bros., released The Many Saints of Newark, David Chase’s feature film return to the New Jersey of The Sopranos. But the film, like this new SATC reboot, was missing something crucial. As a concept, Many Saints seemed brilliant, with Chase using the leverage of The Sopranos to make a long-held passion project about the Newark riots of his youth. But by the time the first trailer dropped, it was clear that the film had been inexorably pulled back into the orbit of Tony Soprano, with James Gandofini’s son playing a teenage version of his iconic character. Populated by Muppet Babies versions of all of our favorite DiMeo crime family associates, Many Saints felt both too far away from the original series’ magic and too close to it. Chase, co-writer Lawrence Konner, and director Alan Taylor never seemed up to tackling the intricacies of the riots that serve as the film’s central conflict, and the film remains uncomfortably reliant on cute connections to the original series. The voiceover narration—by a ghostly Christopher Moltisanti is so hackneyed and wedged-in that there’s an entire corner of the internet convinced that we’re meant to understand that Christopher wrote the movie himself. That may be a convoluted rationale for why Many Saints feels so half-baked, but it stems in part from the movie’s confusion over what it’s relationship to the series is meant to be. It’s neither its own thing nor this thing of ours.

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Many Saints and And Just Like That both seem more interested in resuscitating long-gone characters than revitalizing the TV series that made us care about them in the first place. Rather than return to the formula that made those series great, Chase and King chose to tinker around in the HBO Golden Age Extended Universe. It’s understandable that these writers would want to explore new possibilities while relying on their beloved cast of characters as a safety net, but, especially for shows that did so much to reinvent the form of TV in the 21st century, it’s somewhat baffling how little the new series seem to care about how those stories were told.

By way of contrast, the HBO Max revival of Gossip Girl—a property with considerably less cultural weight—both understands the form that made the original CW series a success and maintains a relatively playful internal relationship wiith the original characters. Whatever its many flaws, the reboot does exactly what it does, unbothered about the influence of Blair Waldorf. Many Saints and And Just Like That, on the other hand, are more concerned with extracting valuable IP from their original series than substantively engaging with the series themselves. The Sopranos wasn’t interesting because it was a story about Jersey mobsters, and Sex and the City wasn’t interesting because it was a story about women at brunch in Manhattan. Those stories reached viewers because of how they were told. But the revivals venture away from the forms that made the originals successful while treating their characters as museum pieces. There is, of course, a pleasure to reconnecting with beloved old characters after a long time away. The questions raised by And Just Like That—whether Carrie was always a prude, for instance, or if Miranda would have actually become a clueless, pronoun-bungling, white feminist cliché—are fun and even illuminating, especially as somewhat self-conscious critiques of the original show. But the thrill of that reunion can’t last forever, and reboots have to contend with what happens when it’s no longer a novelty to be around our old pals again.

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For all the focus on Sex and the City’s groundbreaking characters, the structure of Sex and the City was never merely incidental to its impact. In an essay on Sex and the City and The Sopranos in 2013, Emily Nussbaum argued that, while SATC was often condescended to as a shallow sitcom, its true form was a kind of philosophical romantic comedy, using the horizonless expanse of serial TV to stage symbolic debates about sexuality, femininity, and love. The brunch table wasn’t just a pit-stop between A and B plots, and the voiceover wasn’t just throwaway exposition; they were where the messy, critical work of the show got done. Sex and the City famously leaned harder into will-they-won’t-they plotting and operatic melodrama as the series went on, but it always retained that critical, conversational core. And Just Like That is the show’s culminating pivot from comedy to tragedy.

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[Read more: Dana Stevens’ review of The Many Saints of Newark]

Many Saints of Newark suffered from almost the reverse problem. The Sopranos was a television show, and it was great because and not in spite of that. Producing a feature-length period coming-of-age film tethered so closely to the fates of the series’ original characters neglects the fact that The Sopranos made the impact it did because of its patient week-by-week reinvention of multiple TV genres, from the soap opera to the mob show to the Western. One of the things that was revolutionary about the Sopranos was the way that it made spectators live with these bad men, to see past the spectacle of their violent acts to the boredom and conservatism and ordinariness of their lives. The age of the anti-hero—an age that, as Nussbaum said and we must be reminded, was inaugurated by both Tony Soprano and Carrie Bradshaw—was thus a unique product of serial TV. That notorious mix of identification and repulsionemerged slowly, beat by beat, week by week. The innovation wasn’t in telling stories about bad guys, it was about convincing us to spend time with them. The Sopranos was a re-imagination of the gangster genre. Many Saints is just another gangster movie. David Chase, famously, initially envisioned The Sopranos as a standalone film. But if Chase had made a two-hour movie about a mafioso and his shrink, I don’t know that anybody would have cared.

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This week, it was reported that HBO is planning a return to another beloved early 2000s series by reviving Six Feet Under. The outcry was instant, in part because its finale  is often held up as the gold standard for a satisfying ending. The idea of rebooting a series that ended with such conspicuous and resonant finality feels almost like parody.

But, given that And Just Like That has apparently been a huge success for HBO Max, and David Chase seems back in the fold with a standing order for more Sopranos content, it’s unsurprising that HBO is going back into the vaults for more. The obvious solution to this problem is to simply stop putting time and resources into bringing the dead back to life, but, in our current moment, that seems about as likely as Mr. Big buckling back into his Peloton. Nor do I think that forgettable carbon-copy revivals like NBC’s Will and Grace reboot are the way forward. When Many Saints was released this October, it was met with a swell of discourse about whether or not The Sopranos was indeed the greatest of all television series. That conversation has always felt premature, not because I doubt the greatness of The Sopranos—or Sex and the City, for that matter—but because a conversation like that presumes we’re at an ending rather than a beginning. Critics and viewers love to make pronouncements as if it’s been a hundred years since the current era of television production began. In terms of the history of prestige TV, we’re still closer to the Big Bang (The Bada Bang? The Mr. Big Bang?) than the end of the world. But debates like those, as well as reboots like these, threaten to stall the medium’s momentum, siphon energy away from the next series that might actually re-imagine television. If networks like HBO keep turning to the past, the much-ballyhooed revolution might pass them by. And just like that… the show would be over.

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