Note: This review contains a major spoiler for the first episode of "And Just Like That ..."
What are the non-cynical reasons to extend a TV series beyond its inevitable end? "Sex and the City" ran for six seasons, from 1998-2004, but it never answered that question in its two subsequent films, somehow managing to retroactively sour any good vibes the show had generated during its run. The age of streaming has made everything ripe for a do-over, or do-again, which means "SATC" is back, this time with a new title. "And Just Like That …" on HBO Max returns the franchise to its TV roots, where it always belonged — minus, notably, Kim Cattrall's Samantha — while retaining the awkward ponderousness of its cinematic incarnations.
So here we are. But where is "here," exactly?
Let's start with grief. There has been so much of it in the world these past two years since the pandemic began, and the new show takes that as its cue. Maybe executive producer Michael Patrick King thought it would be more honest this way, instead of reverting back to the sardonic breeziness that defined the early seasons of the original show when sex columnist Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), corporate attorney Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), gallerista Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and PR maven Samantha (Cattrall) would trade zingers and dating war stories over brunch or Cosmopolitans. (Would I have titled a new show after one of Carrie's hackier writerly crutches? Probably not. Would Carrie? Oh, yes.)
There was a delightful fluidity to the way those ridiculous "Sex and the City" stories unfolded and the half-hour format demanded a tidy storytelling discipline. Whatever bedroom misadventures the women may have been up to, the show always circled back to the friendship bonding the central foursome.
Which is now a threesome, with Cattrall declining to return. I don't blame her — "SATC's" time has come and gone — but the show is lesser without her (the character moved to London, we're told) and you're left to mourn the loss of Samantha's sex-happy joie de vivre, her shrugging quips and, above all, her deep loyalty to Carrie.
There is also the real-world death that happened off camera. Willie Garson, who plays Carrie's gay bestie Stanford Blatch, died in September at the age of 57, and I found it movingly bittersweet to see him on screen in the first few episodes.
(Major spoiler ahead. Proceed accordingly:)
And then there's the death that is central to the storyline itself.
Mr. Big (Chris Noth), Carrie's husband who finally got a real name somewhere along the way — that would be John James Preston — drops dead of a heart attack in the final moments of the premiere.
This transforms "And Just Like That …" into a more serious proposition than its predecessors, at least on paper. (Critics were provided with the first four of 10 episodes, which will be released on a weekly basis.)
Are fans looking to dive into a seasonlong study in grief? King is betting yes. I'm less convinced. "My Motherboard, My Self" from Season 4 of "SATC" was a memorable portrait of Miranda struggling in the immediate aftermath of her mother's death. It felt real and messy. That was one episode. Devoting an entire season to this same theme is maybe more than this particular show is equipped to handle. The writing's just not there. And too often, "And Just Like That …" lands on the phoniest conceits.
Let's talk about how the women are portrayed now that they've reached their mid-50s. Carrie, the one-time sex columnist, makes a regular appearance on a comedian's podcast (apparently this is her entire career now?) and we see her squirming uncomfortably when she's asked to, you know, talk about sex. It's a missed opportunity that the new show doesn't nudge Carrie to contemplate her innate prudishness and the (often equally prudish) column that she wrote for so many years. Also, the podcast seems terrible? Miranda calls it a "nice blend of polemics and farts."
After Big's death, Carrie insists on a "chic funeral" (her words) and this detail is played in all seriousness but I found it unintentionally funny; her choice is an empty white room devoid of life. Perhaps her tears are tastefully chic as well? At the memorial service, Susan Sharon (an acerbic character who appeared in a couple of "SATC" episodes, played by Molly Price) cuts through the bull — "Am I the only one that remembers what a prick he was to her?" — and for a moment, there's a glimmer of the show that used to be.
Charlotte remains obsessed with appearances, but has added performative diversity to her bag of tricks. She somehow makes Big's death about her and, sure, I could see her calcifying into that kind of person. Miranda, once the voice of reason, has morphed into a secret alcoholic who is forever stumbling over her words and doing too much in a sweaty attempt not to come off as an entitled white woman.
They are massively wealthy women but they are our massively wealthy women, or at least that is the show's insistent subtext, even if things are pretty ugly if you look beyond all those gleaming surfaces. Are we really meant to be rooting for them? I don't know if the show itself even knows. Are they antiheroes in Manolo Blahniks, or simply our old pals who were sometimes awful but not always, who have aged into fumbling, selfish, boring, out-of-touch women still living their cosseted lives of privilege but who now deign to invite people of color into their homes?
The show has a lot of anxiety about what Miranda calls "this climate" (what she actually says is: "I was just so worried about saying the wrong thing in this climate that I said all the wrong things"). The women are an overflowing factory of microaggressions (this is on purpose, King isn't letting them off the hook) and that's meant to be offset by the addition of new characters in their orbit, all of them people of color who have no patience for any of this garbage but who are won over nonetheless.
Sara Ramírez is the queer, nonbinary podcast host who employs Carrie. Sarita Choudhury is the glamorous real estate agent who elegantly shuts down Carrie's tantrums. Karen Pittman (so underused on "The Morning Show" and just as underused here) is Miranda's professor, who has to suffer through her verbal diarrhea (oh, right, Miranda has gone back to grad school). And Nicole Ari Parker is Charlotte's newest friend, a fellow mother at their children's private school who has similarly upscale interests and the super-smooth manners of a woman who seems to have it all. They're all terrific actors, full stop.
The way they're incorporated into the story, though, feels like a self-conscious attempt to remedy "SATC's" almost exclusively straight white framing, but this strategy only goes so far; they are side characters who exist only to flesh out — or call out — the main three (so far, at least). Entire scenes might as well be cribbed from Twitter's most heated moments instead of just capturing the cringe and comedy of how people actually speak and flounder and screw up as they move through the world. You want Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte to be flawed because you want them to resemble human beings. Instead, "And Just Like That …" is an uncanny valley of life as it is lived for now.
It's easy, if weirdly unconvincing, viewing, but without the puckish humor that used to animate the original. There's no real form or shape to the episodes, which stretch beyond the 40-minute mark. I suspect people will stick with it — the lingering loyalties are strong and pretty clothes on pretty people has its appeal — but as a cultural moment, the story of Carrie & Friends is perhaps best left in the past. Dragging it into the present can only offer diminishing returns.
'And Just Like That …'
Rated: ** out of 4 stars
Where to watch: Premiered Thursday on HBO Max.