"HBO swears off 'Sex.'" That's a headline (on an Internet news site) to get the customers' attention. But the punctuation tells the story. It's not sex that HBO, built on sex and violence, is dumping, but "sex," as in "Sex in the City," the award-winning comedy whose time has gone. Next season "Sex" will breathe its last. This tells us a lot about the politics of our times.
The decision was made by the "creative forces" behind it, but that's Hollywood talk for admitting that the sitcom had fallen behind the emotional curve. Four single career women in search of a man, enjoying promiscuous sex while yearning for families they could call their own, was no longer very funny. Fantasy got mugged by reality.
Untangling reality from fantasy is not easy. Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie, a writer who has never been able to hold onto a man of her dreams, mainly because he was usually married to someone else, had a baby with her real-life husband Matthew Broderick. Kim Cattrall, who plays Samantha, the voracious would-be seductress of every man who talks on two feet, in real life co-authored a sex manual with her husband and confesses how for 20 years before she met him sex with single men - in real life - was lousy. The author of the column on which the sitcom was based finally married last year at the age of 43. Her husband is 10 years her junior.
"Sex and the City" capitalizes on politics and scandal, born in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, giving the series the imprimatur of political spin-off. It rode the cultural current flowing from the Oval Office. Six years earlier, Dan Quayle had scolded "Murphy Brown," the fictional news anchorwoman, as suffering from a "poverty of values" when she declined to marry the fictional father of her fictional child.
George Bush the elder, defensive lest the criticism of a popular primetime show be rendered bad politics in an election year, sent his press secretary out to praise Murphy Brown, who didn't actually exist, for not aborting her baby, who did not yet exist even in a world that didn't really exist. Did I say that untangling fantasy and reality is not easy?
In "Sex and the City," the character Miranda, who gets pregnant accidentally, considers an abortion and decides against it, though her age and potential for loneliness, rather than the moral considerations, are her dominant reasons. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center cut into the frivolous themes of "Sex and the City." Washington and New York and politics and culture became linked in a new way, and the two cities became more symbiotic than in the past.
That's why the Republicans were particularly clever to choose New York for their 2004 national convention. It takes the commander-in-chief from the political capital to the cultural capital, underlining the importance of his leadership in all our lives. We may love New York for the fine arts, high finance and haut fashion, but New Yorkers are naïve - and hence defensive - about big-league politics.
When New York Times columnist Frank Rich (a native Washingtonian who should have known better) scorched Washington as inferior to New York, our mayor cut to the chase: "I think he's like an older brother who has to kick his younger sister in the face to feel better about himself."
New York artists and writers pine to see the Sturm und Drang of Washington up close, to cozy up to the pols they pretend to scorn. Norman Mailer, who revived his career by hating Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam war, confessed that he nevertheless coveted an invitation to dinner at LBJ's White House.
George W. turned his presidency around with the homage he paid to the heroic policemen and firefighters of the Twin Towers inferno and to the men and women who cleaned up the destruction. New Yorkers, in turn, paid homage to the president for his leadership in the war on terrorism. When the president took the bullhorn in hand at Ground Zero, the city saw a different man from the one they scorned on Election Day 2000. The president's post-9/11 approval ratings soon leaped off the charts, even in Gotham.
After 9/11, the World Trade Center towers were erased from the backdrop of "Sex and the City." We understood what the character Carrie meant when she told her friends: "If you want to do your duty as New York women, you can come shopping with me right now and throw some much-needed money downtown."
The Republicans and their convention will follow her to New York late next summer to do their patriotic duty, too. For politics, of course, not "sex". (Sex without the quotation marks is none of our business.)