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Bad Sex

Posted: January 30, 2004

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

The willfully deluded wannabe contestants on American Idol aren't the only people on TV right now with a tragically over-developed sense of their entertainment value. For a jaw-dropping crash course in just how gruesomely unlikable TV characters can be, you have to look beyond Fox (and even Fox News) to HBO. Specifically, to the grating, tiresome and ferociously self-involved "women" (if you want to be charitable) of Sex and the City.

Unlike The Sopranos, which makes its cast of violent, even evil, characters genuinely compelling, or Curb Your Enthusiasm, which plays Larry David's nebbish-y misanthropy for farcical effect, Sex and the City seems unaware of just how annoying and unpleasant its principal characters are. How ironic and appropriate, then, that last Sunday's episode, "Out of the Frying Pan," features sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw wrestling with the merits of denial. Sex and the City has been in denial for years.

How little will we miss this show when it's gone? Let us count the ways, starting with Carrie herself, whose only remotely redeeming quality is that she happens to look exactly like Sarah Jessica Parker. Unfortunately, this doesn't do much to counteract the fact that Parker plays Carrie as a shrill, shallow and shoe-obsessed twit with a pathological need to sabotage the good things in her life. She's also possessed of a miraculously prodigious whining gene and a fashion sense so hideous that it beggars description. Would anyone be surprised, in the coming final episodes, to tune in to find her wearing a dress bedecked with wind chimes, or perhaps bits of Peat moss or jagged shards of glass? (Actually, that last outfit would serve some practical purpose; to put this imbecile out of our misery forever.)

In the aforementioned episode, Carrie is in fine clueless form. While her aging sexpot of a best friend, Samantha (Kim Cattrall), deals with cancer, Carrie strives to redefine the limits of her imbecility. Discussing Samantha's illness with her current waaaay-out-of-her-league lover Aleksandr (Mikhail Baryshnikov), she blows her circuits when old "Aleks" begins talking about how a dear friend of his died of the disease. Well, but Samantha's going to be fine, you see, because, because she just is! Carrie goes apoplectic at Aleksandr's attempts to inject a little brutal realism into her blinkered worldview. Well, um, sweetie, thing is, he's right!

This stupidity doesn't hold a candle to a previous episode, however, in which Carrie is stunned to learn of Aleksandr's vasectomy. Having never displayed the slightest inclination toward having children (not to mention a shred of evidence that she's even remotely suited for motherhood), she's suddenly sideswiped by the fact that her boyfriend isn't interested in going there. This is Carrie's yin and yang in perfect disharmony: She spouts feminist rhetoric while sliding into childish passive-aggressive behavior. She obsesses over Mr. Big's (Chris Noth) evident lack of comfort with commitment, but breaks out in hives when the genial, low-key Aidan (John Corbett) -- a much better fit -- wants to get married. She's had intercourse with more men than a Thai sex slave, but she turns into a dithering prude when Samantha turns lunchtime chatter in a ribald direction (to say nothing of when she walks in on Samantha performing oral sex).

Over the course of a couple of seasons, this writhing mass of eye-rolling contradictions is tolerable. But at this point, it's lazy and untenable, because she never learns anything. She does conveniently indulge in one thoughtful bit of callow reflection per episode, when she's posed at her laptop, tapping out the pat, cutesy drivel that passes in Carrie's world for wrestling with big ideas. (That's another thing: Carrie Bradshaw is an appallingly amateurish writer.) No wonder she's oblivious to the fact that she's out of her depth with, and completely ill-suited for, a worldly artist like Aleksandr. One suspects this bit of stunt-casting, which has strained credulity since Day One, is meant to set up a climactic choice between the fatherly, emotionally available Aleksandr and the emotionally distant, but much more relatable, Big.

Carrie's self-obsession would give Narcissus a run for his money, but her character isn't the only one who's gotten old. Samantha's eleventh-hour illness is a contrived effort to give her sexually liberated man-eater some depth (much like her brief lesbian fling), which only underlines the character's one-note shtick. In her own over-the-top way, though, Samantha's actually the most level-headed member of her group of friends; her staggering libido may lead her to make odd relationship choices, but she's self-assured and comfortable in her world. By contrast, prudish princess Charlotte (Kristin Davis, who was much more engaging on Melrose Place) has long worn out her welcome; why is this rigidly hopeless romantic, so fixated on husbands and babies, even friends with these women? Or uptight lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), whose broad, cartoonish stereotypes (She's fussy! She hates romance!) doesn't jibe with her marriage to scruffy puppy-dog Steve (David Eigenberg).

When it first aired, Sex and the City did seem faintly revolutionary in its depiction of brassy girl-talk. But it's long since devolved into a frustrating jumble of caricatures so unflattering that your first instinct is to laugh at them. Which would be fine, except that Carrie, Miranda, et al are played rigidly straight, and you're never given any reason to believe anyone knows how ridiculous they are. Or how blithely offensive they can be: Carrie and Miranda react with abject horror at the idea of the latter leaving Manhattan for the wilds of (gasp!) Brooklyn, leading one to wonder if it's ever occurred to the producers and writers that the show may have fans in that burg.

No matter. It'll all be over soon. Like bad sex, the show has provided some morbidly titillating moments, but, also like bad sex, it leaves you unfulfilled; looking at your watch, reflecting on how much better you'll feel when it's over.

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