Forced to Watch: Too Much Sex

The smug divas of Sex and the City just wore me out. Gotta wonder, is HBO good for Canada?

By Steve Burgess 30 Dec 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It's probably pointless to criticize the adventures of columnist Carrie Bradshaw and her New York pals, a Friday night social ritual for happy, cocktail-swilling little groups everywhere. The show has come to represent so much--adult entertainment on regular TV, honest perspectives on sex and relationships, unabashed celebrations of sexual joy, women on top. Sex and the City has indeed done yeowoman's service in breaking new ground for honest discussions of intimate situations.

And the show's writing has often provided quality TV of the sort any discerning viewer could appreciate, especially after going a few rounds with Everybody Loves Raymond.

But time's up, at least for me.

In this, its sixth and final season (on Bravo in Canada) I seem to have developed an allergy.

When Carrie went all Woody

It happened with Woody Allen movies, too. One day I was watching Manhattan Murder Mystery on the tube when suddenly an internal switch flipped and I realized I probably couldn't watch a Woody Allen movie ever again. The clunky exposition, that stammery Woody Allen voice he provides to all these different characters--I had become allergic.

Same with Carrie Bradshaw and friends. I was watching the episode where Mikhail Baryshnikov makes his big debut as Carrie's new hunk, and I snapped. Shut off the TV and cancelled that weekly Friday appointment. The creators of the series have announced that it is nearing its end anyway, but I'm way ahead of them. Sex and the City is over.

Maybe I have it in for the Big Apple. It's true that I do grind my teeth over that whole New-York-is-all-that-matters ethos both Allen and Sex and the City share. It gave Carrie and the gang a self-satisfied, we're-hot-and-you're-not air that always worked against my appreciation of the show's finer points.

The attitude also infected the show's writing. Sex and the City worked best when it examined the genuine hurts and pains of dating and love. But there were always other, parallel tracks to the show--the gags-and-gasps routines.

Sex and the City has always set out to shock, often to its detriment. When Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) scratched her crotch at a café table (itchy because her shaved pubic hair was growing back in), did viewers nod knowingly and say, "Oh, how true?" My ass itches occasionally, but it's hardly profound and not particularly funny (Rob Schneider films notwithstanding).

Clever but too self-conscious by half


Another plotline about bad-tasting sperm was just one of the show's many ridiculous attempts to top itself in the dare department. The only ground being broken here is in the perennial field of lowbrow humour--these are the kinds of things Benny Hill would have done if he could.

The cast--Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie, Kristin Davis as Charlotte York, Cattrall, and the excellent Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes--engage in relentlessly snappy dialogue that often belies the show's image as near-reality TV. When someone at the girls' favorite café table gets off a good line, no one seems more pleased than the show itself--you can almost hear the rim-shots. Self-conscious cleverness becomes irritating fairly quickly, and Sex and the City has always had it in spades.

Cattrall has always been one of the show's major weak points. Her Samantha is a potentially appealing character, a woman with a take-no-prisoners sexual attitude. (Most of the show's writers have been men, and it has been suggested elsewhere that for Samantha's character the writers simply did a trans-gender operation on a single, sexually adventurous gay man.) But Cattrall's smug diva act gets old quick. In her hands Samantha has always seemed a paper-thin caricature. As for the show's writers, where Samantha is concerned they sometimes miss the line between sassy and pathetic. In one episode Samantha papers a New York street with flyers proclaiming that her ex is a jerk, a move that is portrayed as spunky and bold. Creepy and sad would have been about right.

An article in Salon.com decried another sad Sex and the City trend, namely the gradual deification of star Sarah Jessica Parker and the resulting effect on Carrie Bradshaw, her character. Bradshaw, the article pointed out, frequently looked ridiculous in early episodes--something any long-term single person can relate to, and a major part of the show's charm. Now it seems Parker has been reading her own press clippings. The result has been the emergence of Queen Carrie, always flawless, suitable only for the fabulous likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Enough. Sex and the City has had its cultural moment. Save it a place in the dustbin of history, somewhere beside Woody and Mia's wedding photos.

What HBO means to Canadians

Of course, we will still have HBO's other contributions to the Canadian television universe:  The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and whatever else they are cooking up in their "cutting edge TV" laboratories.

HBO programs were already considered groundbreaking in the US, but in Canada the shows have taken on an extra, unintended significance. Created for pay TV, they were thus free to abandon the middle-of-the-road morality required of broadcast television and indulge themselves in sex and profanity to their heart's content. Since those same shows are airing in Canada on basic cable channels like Bravo and even broadcast networks like CTV, they have been transformed into boundary-pushing experiments in audience tolerance (not to mention the new ground they have plowed in the field of content warnings. CTV's terrifying on-screen cautions preceding the Sopranos rival those found on cigarette packages).

True, cable companies recently failed in their bid to bring HBO to Canada--their lobbying to the CRTC trumped by complaints from Canadian broadcasters and specialty channels that HBO would be unfair competition.  For law-abiding Canadians, it means that HBO programs will continue to be scattered around the dial as Canadian channels cherry-pick the best.

The best being…what?  Well, I'd say if Sex in the City is the nag overdue for the glue factory, Six Feet Under is The Pretender and The Sopranos is the Champ. More on those shows in my next column.

Forced to Watch is a new occasional column at The Tyee about what's good and not on television, and widely published writer Steve Burgess is hogging the control.  [Tyee]

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