How Sarah got her groove back

In HBO's voyeuristic treat "Sex and the City," Sarah Jessica Parker finally gets a role fit for a comedy goddess.

Published June 14, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sarah Jessica Parker looks like a walking doodle, a daydreamy collision of curves and straight lines. The wavy mane and wiggly bod don't quite prepare you for the playful intelligence of her long face, though, or the warmth of her gaze. Parker still bears traces of the roles she played as a kid actress -- spunky Little Orphan Annie, awkward Patty Greene, her teenage nerd from the '80s cult sitcom "Square Pegs" -- and you don't expect to find those particular humanizing qualities in someone who looks so hot in Prada. The element of surprise is Parker's greatest asset as an actress, but in her biggest films ("L.A. Story," "The First Wives Club"), she's been predictably cast as a bimbo with marshmallow for brains.

In another era, Parker would have been a Hollywood comedy goddess, like Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard, playing characters who were smart, wily, ambitious, sexual beings. But where Hollywood has failed Parker, TV has come to the rescue. In HBO's super-glossy adult comedy "Sex and the City," which has just begun its second season, Parker is at her gawky, sexy, sly best as a 30-ish sex columnist observing the mating rituals of New York singles. Based on Candace Bushnell's droll New York Observer columns, "Sex and the City," like its screwball comedy forerunners of the 1930s and '40s, appreciates the humor in the complicated socioeconomic dance of marriage-seeking. Parker's Carrie and her three best friends work the problem of finding a mate as if they're plotting a complicated bank heist -- which, many unhappily single people in major metropolitan cities will probably tell you, is easier to accomplish than finding a non-psychotic person to date.

OK, I admit it -- at first I was put off by "Sex" for reasons succinctly articulated this season by Carrie's friend, feminist lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon): "How does it happen that four such smart women have nothing to talk about but boyfriends?" But gradually, the show won me over. Producer Darren Star ("Melrose Place") and regular writer Michael Patrick King juice up Bushnell's pseudo-anthropological premise with dazzling guilty-pleasure voyeurism.

"I love a big dick. I love it inside of me. I love looking at it. I love everything about it," exclaims Carrie's 40-ish, well-worn, publicist pal Samantha (Kim Cattrall). But to appreciate the comic force of that speech, you have to realize that the sexually voracious, not-to-be-denied Sam is out of her mind with frustration because the otherwise perfect guy she's dating is, as she somberly puts it, roughly the size of a gherkin. Let's face it, you're not going to hear dialogue like that on "Providence." "Sex" is horny and witty, goofy and wise. Imagine Edith Wharton and Jacqueline Susann meeting for drinks at Moomba and you have some idea of its smart girl allure. "Sex" is literary sociology with a graduate degree in smut, and, boy, is it fun.

"Sex" revolves around the romantic misadventures of Carrie, Miranda, Sam and their refined, relatively naive art-dealer friend, Charlotte (Kristin Davis). The show's structure is pretty straightforward -- narrator Carrie taps away at her Powerbook, composing columns about such puzzlers as, "Are there certain things one should never say in an intimate relationship?" and "Are relationships the religion of the '90s?" These dilemmas are then depicted in story lines involving the quartet and its acquaintances. Throughout the ensuing chaos, the girls still have many opportunities to gather 'round the bar or the coffee shop booth and debate Topic No. 1, the difficulty of finding marriageable men in New York who aren't asses. Watching "Sex" is like eavesdropping on a conversation in the ladies' room, and not a unisex bathroom, either -- "Sex" knows the value of boundaries. Which is why "Sex" may be horny, but it's never crude.

What sets "Sex" apart from the similarly relationship-obsessed "Ally McBeal" is that Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte are true-blue friends -- they're supportive, not envious of one another's career or romantic successes. The second season opener of "Sex" had a denouement that sweetly illustrated the nurturing quality of female friendship at its best. Carrie has broken up with the commitment-phobic man of her dreams, known only as Mr. Big (played by Chris Noth with a degree of rogueish charm that, I believe, is illegal in several states). She runs into Big unexpectedly while she's out on a rebound date, and it throws her off balance. She eventually sends her date home, goes to a pay phone and makes a call: "It's me. I know things are weird between us right now but I really need to talk. Can you meet me at our place?" Carrie goes to the coffee shop and, after an anxious moment, spots -- no, not Mr. Big. Miranda. Despite her earlier high-minded outburst about her friends' conversational preoccupation with men, Miranda has answered Carrie's call, because that's what girlfriends are for.

I would be remiss if I didn't at least acknowledge that "Sex" doesn't exactly portray men in a heroic light. The show is a parade of "toxic bachelors," "serial modelizers" and assorted other small-membered, ball-scratching, bad-breath-spewing, selfish, conceited, unfaithful, untruthful males who fail to measure up as husband material.

However, I know that some guys feel left out, bullied and dissed by girl-talk shows like "Sex and the City." So I must inform those guys that there are two new cable shows, FX's "The X Show" and Comedy Central's "The Man Show," that are allegedly designed to ease the pain of the average maligned, unappreciated, badgered, Dockered, "Titanic"-ed male. The nightly "X Show," which features four hosts, advice segments and interviews with Playboy Playmates and sports stars, is basically a male version of "The View," except without the sage presence of a Barbara Walters as elder statesperson. Hugh Downs, call your agent. As for "The Man Show," fellas, listen to me: Nothing the women on "Sex and the City" say about your gender could possibly be more humiliating than what "The Man Show" says about your gender.

Hosted by Adam "Loveline" Carolla and Jimmy "Win Ben Stein's Money" Kimmel, "The Man Show" (which premieres Wednesday) is a snarky schmuckfest dedicated to (as the hosts declare in the opener) "building a dam to hold back the tidal wave of feminism that is flooding the country. A dam to stop the river of estrogen that's drowning us in political correctness. A dam to urinate off of when we're really drunk!" (Hey, didn't Comedy Central already build that dam and call it "Politically Incorrect"?) This weekly "joyous celebration of chauvinism" promises a testosterone-friendly lineup of things guys supposedly like to watch on TV, which in the first show includes women in bikinis, women jumping on a trampoline, explosions, supermodels and "one of the purest forms of entertainment" -- monkeys, wearing costumes, doing people things.

Coincidentally (or not!), TNT has just launched a weekly sitcom called "The Chimp Channel," starring actual primates doing spoofs of TV shows like "Treewatch" and "NYPD Zoo." I don't know where those guys on "The Man Show" get the idea that watching monkeys is strictly a male thing -- I enjoy a good performing monkey act as much as the next person (Oh, that Marcel from "Friends" was pure gold!), but I am disappointed to report that "The Chimp Channel" just doesn't cut it. The dialogue is unimaginative and sophomoric and the parodies aren't so much funny as they are creepy. Putting a chimp in a blond wig and a "Baywatch" swimsuit with big fake Pamela Anderson boobs sure seems like animal abuse to me. Oh, jeez -- I hope I didn't just give "The Man Show" any ideas.

By Joyce Millman

Joyce Millman is a writer living in the Bay Area.

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Coupling Hbo Jimmy Kimmel Love And Sex New York City Sex Sex And The City Sitcoms