When the “Sex and the City” reboot “And Just Like That …” premiered in December 2021, widespread excitement over the return of Carrie Bradshaw and company quickly soured into weekly rant fodder among loyalists for whom the original series had been nothing short of life-changing.
As someone who’d written a cultural history of “Sex and the City,” I was among them. We’d hoped the show that had revolutionized the portrayal of single, professional, sexually active women would do the same for ambitious, sexually active women over 50. What we got instead was a disorienting mishmash of nostalgic fan service, wokeness and tokenism that seemed to be apologizing for the series’ white privileged roots, and plotlines that made the characters seem like they were well into their 70s rather than their 50s.
Not to mention the premiere’s major event — the death of Carrie’s husband “Mr. Big”— cast a pall over the proceedings that the show never fully recovered from. My sister took to calling the spin-off “Sad and the City,” which was extremely accurate; the sad had almost entirely replaced the sex.
But there’s something about these characters that keeps us coming back for more regardless, and while reviews and online chatter were negative on balance, we were still watching — and still talking about it. In television that’s called “engagement,” and that’s all that matters. So we’ve got ourselves another season on Max, starting Thursday. The question was whether the creative team would double down on the elements so many fans hated, or respond to the criticisms.
The answer is a bit of both, but mostly the latter, to heartening and leavening results. The second season has allowed a clean slate of sorts, with Carrie emerging from the depths of her grief enough to allow for some good, old-fashioned “Sex and the City”-style dating, brunch banter, luxurious fashion plotlines and the return of sex. Lots and lots of middle-aged sex.
When last season left off, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) had finally gotten a prime “Sex and the City” moment, spontaneously kissing her silver-fox podcast producer in the elevator. Her formerly practical-minded friend Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) was following her new nonbinary love interest, Che (Sara Ramirez), across the country to Los Angeles so that Che could shoot a comedy pilot. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) remained in relatively stable domestic bliss. Their original fourth, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) was absent due to a rift among the cast, though her character exchanged frequent texts with Carrie from the U.K., where she was said to now be living.
The reboot also added three women of color who are played ably, but rarely felt like more than forced attempts at diversity: glam real estate agent Seema (Sarita Choudhury), power mom and filmmaker Lisa (Nicole Ari Parker), and professor Nya (Karen Pittman).
The effort is noble, and the challenges are clear — the three main white women from the original have to stay, so what else to do? But there are a lot of people on this show. Too many people. Season 2 keeps them all, and does begin to mesh them together a little bit better, especially once Miranda and Che return to New York from the West Coast. There are mix-and-match meals and new friendships formed, plus a lot of phone calls that try to bridge these gaps. The three newer women also get honest-to-god plotlines: Seema discovers her lover still lives with his ex-wife and begins dating alongside Carrie, Lisa fights to keep her career as high-priority as her husband’s higher-earning one, Nya faces a divorce. Yet they’re still up against our 25-year history with Carrie, Charlotte and Miranda, a formidable challenge.
That said, it’s clear from the start of Season 2 that we’re in for a much frothier experience this time around, even with so many storylines to juggle. The season opens with a sex montage of all of our couples, and Carrie having a sleepover with that gray-haired producer. We learn that our ladies are preparing to attend none other than the annual Met Ball, the fashion world’s Super Bowl.
This all sets a very different mood from Big’s death scene at the start of Season 1. In fact, I kept returning to the same thought throughout the seven episodes provided for review: I wish they had simply started the reboot here, explaining that Carrie is now a widow and Miranda is dating a nonbinary person, thus sparing us Carrie’s grief as well as the torture of Miranda and Steve’s breakup. With those heavy weights out of the way, we’re free to enjoy classically funny “SATC” setups, like Charlotte’s daughter Lily’s angsty songwriting phase (her masterpiece: “The Power of Privilege”), Carrie’s gambit to get out of recording her audiobook (and everything else she doesn’t want to do) by pretending to test positive for COVID, and Charlotte and Lisa’s fervor to get their hands on a “MILF list” circulating at their kids’ school.
While the mood is light, the inclusion of old-school “SATC” sex is significant for a series about women in their late 50s. We’ve got a woman and her nonbinary partner using a strap-on and considering a threesome; we’ve got Charlotte and husband Harry (Evan Handler) dealing with a situation in which he is dubbed “Casper the Friendly Cum.” (Fun behind-the-scenes fact: This is a joke they’ve had around since the first series, but never figured out how to use until now.)
Moments here might be a bit uncomfortable for some. But the beauty of this franchise has always been its ability to push boundaries when it comes to frank talk about sex, and sex in middle age, married or otherwise, is a largely under-discussed frontier. Incidentally, one of the reboot’s most pleasant and believable surprises is the way that a long marriage has made Charlotte the most sex-positive of the bunch, now coming through in how she talks to her kids about sex.
The second season also strikes a better balance in its depiction of age in general. It doesn’t pretend that its characters are the epitome of cool anymore, for sure: “It’s not all right to objectify people anymore. Men have feelings, too,” Carrie’s former podcasting co-host Jackie (Bobby Lee) scolds her as she considers how to duck out of a snowballing commitment. But unlike last season, the characters do not come off as pushing 75 either, getting hip replacements and yelling at their neighbors to keep the noise down. One episode appears to dedicate itself to answering this particular criticism directly when Carrie runs into her former Vogue editor, Enid (Candice Bergen), who invites Carrie to a party for a new publication, Vivant. Enid describes the venture as targeted at “women our age,” much to Carrie’s horror. (Enid is, in fact, 75.)
The old Miranda we all loved for her grounded good sense, smarts and ambition is, alas, still nowhere to be found amid her midlife crisis. But Che does emerge from the break between seasons somewhat humanized, toned down a bit from the show-hijacking, internet-baiting narcissist we met last season. (In a win for everyone, we barely see them do any of their standup comedy.) And we do get a glimpse of their new network sitcom, “Che Pasa,” with Tony Danza, which is fun. It’s still hard to root for these two as a couple, and both of them routinely come off as insufferable in their interactions, continuing to drag Miranda’s sexual awakening down.
“And Just Like That” will likely never recapture the magic of the original, which not only had an urgent cultural message to deliver but also could pack a tight 30-minute episode with plotlines as disparate as Miranda’s mother dying, Samantha dating a wrestler, and Carrie’s computer crash becoming a metaphor for her struggling relationship. It could make us laugh and cry on command. The chemistry among its leads was incendiary. Cattrall is set to return briefly on screen as Samantha near the end of the season, though it’s hard to imagine that, or even some longer return in a future season, restoring the full “Sex and the City” glory.
This version has a lot of messes to clean up, a lot of characters to serve and not enough cohesive vision. But there is something to be said for simply giving us a romp with characters we’ve long loved, showing us the fun, sexy, and occasionally cringey aspects of aging along the way.
“And Just Like That” premieres with the first two episodes Thursday, June 22, on Max.