When people talk about the rise of great TV, they inevitably credit one show, “The Sopranos.” Even before James Gandolfini’s death, the HBO drama’s mystique was secure: novelistic và cinematic, David Chase’s auteurist masterpiece cracked xuất hiện the gangster genre lượt thích a rib cage, releasing the latent ambition of television, and launching us all into a golden age.

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Though “The Sopranos” may have sparked the bad-boy revolution of cable TV, Carrie Bradshaw was the first female anti-hero.Illustration by Andy Friedman
“The Sopranos” deserves the hype. Yet there’s something screwy about the way that the show and its cable-drama blood brothers have come khổng lồ dominate the conversation, elbowing other forms of greatness out of the frame. It’s a bias that bubbles up early in Brett Martin’s otherwise excellent new book, “Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From ‘The Sopranos’ & ‘The Wire’ to lớn ‘Mad Men’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” a deeply reported and dishy trương mục of just how your prestige-cable sausage is made. I tore through the book, yet when I reached Martin’s chronicle of the rise of HBO I felt a jolt. “It might as well have been a tourism campaign for a post-Rudolph Giuliani, de-ethnicized Gotham awash in money,” Martin writes of one of my favorite shows. “Its characters were types as familiar as those in ‘The Golden Girls’: the Slut, the Prude, the Career Woman, the Heroine. But they talked more explicitly, certainly about their bodies, but also about their desires & discontents outside the bedroom, than women on TV ever had before.”

Martin gives “Sex & the City” credit for jump-starting HBO, but the condescension is palpable, và the grudging praise is reserved for only one aspect of the series—the rawness of its subject matter. Martin hardly invented this attitude: he is simply reiterating what has become the reflexive consensus on the show, right down to the hackneyed “Golden Girls” gag. Even as “The Sopranos” has ascended khổng lồ TV’s Mt. Olympus, the reputation of “Sex and the City” has shrunk và faded, lượt thích some tragic dry-clean-only dress tossed into a decade-long hot cycle. By the show’s fifteen-year anniversary, this year, we fans had trained ourselves to downgrade the show khổng lồ a “guilty pleasure,” khổng lồ mock its puns, khổng lồ get into self-flagellating conversations about those blinkered & blinged-out movies. Whenever a new chick-centric series débuts, there are invidious comparisons: don’t worry, it’s no “Sex and the City,” they say. As if that were a good thing.

But “Sex and the City,” too, was once one of HBO’s flagship shows. It was the peer of “The Sopranos,” albeit in a different tone và in a different milieu, deconstructing a different genre. Mob shows, cop shows, cowboy shows—those are formulas with gravitas. “Sex and the City,” in contrast, was pigeonholed as a sitcom. In fact, it was a bold riff on the lãng mạn comedy: the show wrestled with the limits of that pink-tinted genre for almost its entire run. In the end, it gave in. Yet until that last-minute stumble it was sharp, iconoclastic television. High-feminine instead of fetishistically masculine, glittery rather than gritty, and daring in its conception of character, “Sex & the City” was a brilliant and, in certain ways, radical show. It also originated the unacknowledged first female anti-hero on television: ladies & gentlemen, Carrie Bradshaw.

Please, people, I can hear your objections from here. But first think back. Before “Sex và the City,” the vast majority of iconic “single girl” characters on television, from That Girl khổng lồ Mary Tyler Moore and Molly Dodd, had been you-go-girl types—which is to lớn say, actual role models. (Ally McBeal was a notable và problematic exception.) They were pioneers who offered many single women the representation they craved, & they were also, crucially, adorable to lớn men: vulnerable and plucky và warm. However varied the layers they displayed over time, they flattered a specific pathology: the cultural requirement that women greet other women with the refrain “Oh, me, too! Me, too!”

In contrast, Carrie & her friends—Miranda, Samantha, và Charlotte—were odder birds by far, jagged, aggressive, & sometimes frightening figures, like a makeup mirror lit up in neon. They were simultaneously real and abstract, emotionally complex and philosophically stylized. Women identified with them—“I’m a Carrie!”—but then became furious when they showed flaws. And, with the exception of Charlotte (Kristin Davis), men didn’t find them likable: there were endless cruel jokes about Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), và Carrie as sluts, man-haters, or gold-diggers. Lớn me, as a single woman, it felt like a definite sign of progress: since the elemental representation of single life at the time was the comic strip “Cathy” (ack! chocolate!), better that one’s life should be viewed as glamorously threatening than as sad & lonely.

Carrie Bradshaw herself began as a mirror for another woman: she was the avatar of the thủ đô new york Observer columnist Candace Bushnell, a steely “sexual anthropologist” on the prowl for blind items. When the initial showrunner, Darren Star, & his mostly female writing staff adapted Bushnell’s columns, they transformed that icy Carrie, pouring her into the warm body toàn thân of Sarah Jessica Parker. Out popped a chatterbox with a schnoz, whose advanced fashion sense was not intended lớn lure men into matrimony. For a half dozen episodes, Carrie was a happy, curious explorer, out companionably smoking with modellizers. If she’d stayed that way, the show might have been another “Mary Tyler Moore”: a playful, empowering comedy about one woman’s adventures in the big city.

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Instead, Carrie fell under the thrall of Mr. Big, the sexy, emotionally withholding forty-three-year-old financier played by Chris Noth. From then on, pleasurable as “Sex & the City” remained, it also felt designed to lớn push back at its audience’s wish for identification, triggering as much anxiety as relief. It switched the romantic comedy’s primal scene, from “Me, too!” khổng lồ “Am I like her?” A man practically woven out of red flags, Big wasn’t there lớn rescue Carrie; instead, his “great love” was a slow poisoning. She spun out, becoming anxious, obsessive, and, despite her charm, wildly self-centered—in her own words, “the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity.” Their relationship was viewed with concern by her friends, who were not, as Martin suggests, mere “types” but portrayals of a narrow slice of wealthy trắng thirty-something Manhattanites: the Waspy gallerina, the liberal-feminist lawyer, the decadent power nguồn publicist.

Although the show’s first season is its slightest, it swiftly establishes a bold mixture of moods—fizzy and sour, blunt và arch—and shifts between satirical & sincere modes of storytelling. (It’s not even especially dated: though the show has gained a reputation for over-the-top absurdity, I can tell you that these night clubs & fashion shows vì exist—maybe even more so now that Manhattan has become a gated island for the wealthy.) There is already a melancholic undertow, full of foreshadowing. “What if he never calls & three weeks from now I pick up the thủ đô new york Times and I read that he’s married some perfect little woman who never passes gas under his five-hundred-dollar sheets?” Carrie frets in Episode 11. In a moment of clarity, she tells Miranda that, when she’s around Big, “I’m not lượt thích me. I’m, like, Together Carrie. I wear little outfits: Sexy Carrie và Casual Carrie. Sometimes I catch myself actually posing. It’s just—it’s exhausting.”

That was the conundrum Carrie faced for the entire series: true love turned her into a fake. The Season 1 neurotic Carrie didn’t stick, though. She and Big fixed things, then they broke up again, harder. He moved lớn Paris. She met Aidan (John Corbett), the marrying type. In Season 3, the writers upped the ante, having Carrie vày something overtly anti-heroic: she cheated on a decent man with a bad one (Big, of course), now married khổng lồ that “perfect little woman,” Natasha. They didn’t paper over the repercussions: Natasha’s humiliation, and the way Carrie’s betrayal hardened Aidan, even once he took her back. During six seasons, Carrie changed, as anyone might from thirty-two lớn thirty-eight, and not always in positive ways. She got more honest and more responsible; she became a saner girlfriend. But she also became scarred, prissier, strikingly gun-shy—and, finally, she panicked at the question of what it would mean to lớn be an older single woman.

Her friends went through changes, too, often upon being confronted with their worst flaws—Charlotte’s superficiality, Miranda’s caustic tongue, Samantha’s refusal lớn be vulnerable. In a departure from nearly all earlier half-hour comedies, the writers fully embraced the richness of serial storytelling. In a movie we go from glare to lớn kiss in two hours. “Sex and the City” was liberated from closure, turning “once upon a time” into a wry mantra, treating its characters’ struggles with a rare mixture of bluntness và compassion. It was one of the first television comedies to let its characters change in serious ways, several years before other half-hour comedies, lượt thích “The Office,” went và stole all the credit.

So why is the show so often portrayed as a phối of empty, static cartoons, an embarrassment to womankind? It’s a classic misunderstanding, I think, stemming from an unexamined hierarchy: the assumption that anything stylized (or formulaic, or pleasurable, or funny, or feminine, or explicit about sex rather than about violence, or made collaboratively) must be inferior. Certainly, the show’s formula was strict: usually four plots—two deep, two shallow—linked by Carrie’s voice-over. The B plots generally involved one of the non-Carrie women getting laid; these slapstick sequences were crucial khổng lồ the show’s rude rhythms, interjecting energy và rupturing anything sentimental. (It’s one reason those bowdlerized reruns on E! are such a crime: with the literal & figurative fucks edited out, the show is a rom-com.)

Most unusually, the characters themselves were symbolic. As I’ve written elsewhere—and argued, often drunkenly, at cocktail parties—the four friends operated as near-allegorical figures, pegged khổng lồ contemporary debates about women’s lives, mapped along three overlapping continuums. The first was emotional: Carrie và Charlotte were romantics; Miranda và Samantha were cynics. The second was ideological: Miranda and Carrie were second-wave feminists, who believed in egalitarianism; Charlotte & Samantha were third-wave feminists, focussed on exploiting the power nguồn of femininity, from opposing angles. The third concerned sex itself. At first, Miranda and Charlotte were prudes, while Samantha & Carrie were libertines. Unsettlingly, as the show progressed, Carrie began khổng lồ glide toward caution, away from freedom, out of fear.

Every conversation the friends had, at brunch or out shopping, amounted khổng lồ a “Crossfire”-like debate. When Carrie sleeps with a dreamy French architect và he leaves a thousand dollars by her bed, she consults her friends. “Money is power. Sex is power,” Samantha argues. “Therefore, getting money for sex is simply an exchange of power.” “Don’t listen khổng lồ the dime-store Camille Paglia,” Miranda shoots back. The most famous such conversation took place four episodes in, after Charlotte’s boyfriend asked her lớn have anal sex. The friends pile into a cab for a raucous debate about whether her choice is about power-exchange (Miranda) or about finding a fun new hole (Samantha). “I’m not a hole!” Charlotte protests, và they hit a pothole. “What was that?” Charlotte asks. “A preview,” Miranda & Samantha say in unison, & burst out laughing.