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Sex and the Fifties

Sarah Jessica Parker: Then and Now

Sex and the City

James Devaney/Getty Images

Candy-colored “sisters,” Carrie, Miranda and Samantha, owning the streets.

We are in a golden age of television, a movable, streaming feast of prestige programming. We watch, we fall asleep, we resume watching, we move on. But will any of these cerebral, plot-twisty series have the zeitgeist-seizing gusto to fill the Manolos of Sex and the City?

I couldn’t help but wonder…

Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw careened into our lives in 1998, with her cosmos and cigarettes, fashion-editor fever-dream wardrobe, excruciating puns, Alice Cooper eye makeup and quest for true love in a city stricken with romantic-deficit disorder. The unapologetically superficial show revealed raw truths about sex, love, friendship and, most poignantly, aging.

From Carrie’s existential birthdays (“I’m 35. Thirty-five is not 25.”) to the seminal “Twentysomethings” episode that eerily predicted the rise of the selfie-obsessed millennial, the subject of aging creeps through the candy-colored series. In Season 5 the girls travel to Atlantic City, and Carrie finds herself asking a craps dealer what happens after 38. “You fall off the table,” he replies with a dealer’s shrug.

Now, almost 20 years later, star and executive producer Sarah Jessica Parker returns to HBO with Divorce, for another look at life and love, sex and aging, in a later decade and a less fabulous locale: upstate New York. And like her or not, you’ve got to respect the lady cojones it takes to tackle such a high-profile role. Like the rest of us, she’s aging, and well aware of the scrutiny she was under in her early 30s.

Talia Balsam and Sarah Jessica Parker in, 'Divorce'

Craig Blankenhorn/Courtesy of HBO

A whole other palette with Frances and her cohort, Dallas

In the pilot’s opening scene, Parker’s 50-something Frances is looking in the mirror. The bathroom door is closed. She’s inspecting every contour, as are we. Her performance is equal parts resigned and hopeful. She’s checking her angles. And owning it.

Divorce is as much about sex as its predecessor, but it isn’t a sexy show. The look is design-studio sophisticated; it’s muted, cold, perpetually late February. The dialogue is sharp but never poppy or punny — it’s a slow, moody burn. Things go terribly, or they go wonderfully, or they go OK, but she keeps going.

While Carrie’s love interest Mr. Big was a bit of a cigar-chomping cipher — a rich guy with a bunch of one-liners — Frances has met a formidable match in Thomas Haden Church’s Robert. His performance bristles with indignation and what-the-actual-f--k rage as he discovers she’s been cheating on him with Julian, an academic “Frenchman.”  

"Like her or not, you’ve got to respect the lady-cojones it takes to tackle such a high-profile role."

Frances, an executive recruiter-gallery owner, is not exactly the life of the party, either. In episode two she meets with a hopeful job candidate who small-talks through his interview with, “It’s never too late for a fresh start? Right?”

Her response: “Yes, right … maybe. But doesn’t it make more sense, Ted, to hold on to what you’ve got, because if you lose it, then you might end up with nothing at all — nothing. And then what is there to do but wrestle with your own regrets while you wait around to die?”

It’s probably reductive to link an actor to a character, but there is no logical way to separate Parker from her breakout SATC role. This might be a conscious choice. She’s still wearing $800 heels at breakfast. She still has this season’s Prada coat. She is still, somehow, a size 2. She is still making terrible decisions. She is still struggling to find love.

But there is a solace in her decade-spanning commitment to style. Getting older doesn’t mean giving up. As the saying goes, the older you get, the higher the heel.

When Frances looks in the mirror, decades after Carrie stared out her window on to the cool, dark pavement and blinking streetlights of the fantasyland New York below, you don’t see desperation. Or an embalmed Real Housewife. She’s still got it, however ephemeral “it” is.

If you walk down Perry Street in New York City, you can visit the brownstone where they shot the exteriors for Carrie’s apartment. Every day groups of women, of all ethnicities — and all ages — line up to take their photo in front of the stoop of a fictional character from a show that ran for six years, almost 20 years ago.

They spend a long time, these women. Huddled together or alone, standing in front of the stoop, smiling into their phones. Checking their angles. Owning it.

Heather Wagner is an author and Creative Director living in New York City. She believes watching TV is a legitimate hobby.

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