N.B. Review contains spoilers of And Just Like That… episodes 1-4.
In the opening moments of the first episode of And Just Like That…, streaming now on HBO Max, the absence of an integral part of Sex and the City, a certain “sexy siren in her sixties”, is immediately addressed. “Where’s the fourth Musketeer?” As the theatrical returning SATC character Bitsy Von Muffling (Julie Halston) puts it. “Where’s Samantha?” We of course know that Kim Cattrall wasn’t interested in reprising her iconic role, but rather than attempt to distract viewers from the empty chair at the brunch table, wisely time is devoted not just to explaining why she isn’t there with her ride or dies, but also for the characters who remain, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), and Charlotte (Kristin Davis) to admit they miss her too. Well, actually Charlotte just gets characteristically awkward at the mention of her name, but we later learn they’ve all tried reaching out to Samantha.
As with most rifts between family or close friends there’s a slight haziness around the exact cause of the estrangement, but in any case the women are no longer in contact. Although Samantha’s presence is deeply felt in a beautifully touching gesture in the second episode, which creates a sense of goodwill that leaves the door open for the much-loved character to return in future seasons should Kim ever change her mind.
After all these years, when the three friends are interacting it’s initially hard not to imagine what outrageous, or even warm and tender, interjection Samantha might make or recall the unique energy that her character contributed to the dynamic. Yet while the spin-off series Golden Palace never really worked without its missing Golden Girl Bea Arthur, and more recently the final season of Younger unquestionably struggled to find its spark without Miriam Shor as Diana, as And Just Like That… continues over the first four episodes seen for review, it proves that these characters can survive in a world without Samantha, just as The Mary Tyler Moore Show managed to work in its later seasons without Valerie Harper as Rhoda.
Besides, a lot can happen in ten years, friends do drift apart, and this is after all And Just Like That… not Sex and the City. However, Michael Patrick King—who took over from creator Darren Star as showrunner of the original series, as well as writing and directing the two movies that followed in 2008 and 2010—developed this new chapter in the SATC chronicles, and writes and directs its first two episodes. The result does feel rather like a third movie, with a major continuing storyline, and combined feature length running time. There’s even liberal use of composer Aaron Zigman’s score from the films (plus a nostalgic brief burst of the original SATC theme in the opening episode), along with some gorgeous cinematography by Tim Norman.
As for the plot, after four SATC weddings—Carrie and Big (Chris Noth), Charlotte and Harry (Evan Handler), Miranda and Steve (David Eigenberg), and Anthony (Mario Cantone) and Stanford (Willie Garson)—comes a funeral, one that leaves Carrie bereft, single, and eventually moving back to her old Upper East Side apartment. A location which feels like a character itself, offering us glimpses of familiar outfits in Carrie’s old closet there.
Although it’s sad to see the permanent departure of such a significant character, present from the very first episode of SATC—handled in a restrained, poignant way, with a moving performance from SJP—narratively the loss of Mr Big makes a lot of sense. As SATC 2 showed there wasn’t much left to explore once the couple had finally got their happily ever after. It also leaves Carrie to question who she is now and what she should do with her life after it has taken such a sudden and unexpected turn. Essentially it is this premise that gives the series its title. And as Carrie questions who is she now, so too does the series itself.
Another element that’s established straight away is the contemporary setting; COVID and the city. There are some nice details like Big and Carrie talking about their evening ritual that began during the city lockdown of 2020, of them listening to a different album on vinyl each night while they eat dinner. We even get a glimpse of Big’s vaccine card, and his obligatory Peloton, while we learn that Anthony started up his thriving Hot Fellas baking company after turning to bread making during quarantine thanks to a sourdough starter kit. Although there might be more pandemic references than necessary, along with the jokes about social distancing and how to appropriately greet friends and acquaintances post-lockdown, there’s also an acknowledgment of the terrible loss of these years, as we learn a minor but memorable SATC character played by Broadway legend Nathan Lane, passed away from COVID.
I didn’t spot any of the ubiquitous outdoor dining sheds, and there’s not a mask in sight, so it feels like the show is set a little further down the line in the pandemic, in an imagined place we haven’t reached yet. It is exciting though to see these iconic characters back on the streets of New York, making them look as bustling as possible under the COVID shooting restrictions, like Webster Hall, and Radio City Music Hall, Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, and that distinctive SoHo architecture. It feels fitting that AJLT captures the renewed vibrancy of a city that weathered the storm of the pandemic, only to be dismissed as dead and a ghost-town by some. Speaking of which, the horror show of the administration of the 45th President (who himself made a pre-politics cameo in the second season of SATC) is also briefly referenced, with Miranda telling her new professor Dr. Nya Wallace (Karen Pittman) that she credits her decision to change the direction of her career to being fired up by his shameful Muslim ban.
As the six seasons of SATC went on there was much more of a focus on Carrie as the central character, but if these initial episodes of AJLT are anything to go by there will be a lot more balance between the time devoted to the three leads. It’s particularly satisfying to see Charlotte reclaiming her art expertise as a former gallerist, displaying her passion and impressive art knowledge over dinner with socialite and documentary filmmaker Lisa Todd Wexley (Nicole Ari Parker).
As pointed out by the characters in the late 90s-set final episode of Pose earlier this year, Sex and the City was, like many US television shows of its era, distinctly lacking in diversity, with people of colour generally only having minor speaking roles throughout all six seasons. Jennifer Hudson appeared in the first movie as Carrie’s assistant Louise, while the second movie’s Abu Dhabi set sequences were criticized by some for cultural insensitivity. The creators of And Just Like That... are clearly determined to redress this balance and manage to do so by introducing a raft of BIPOC, gender nonconforming, and disabled supporting characters, something that’s also explored in the storylines, with Miranda beginning her friendship with Nya so determined to be woke that she continually blurts out the wrong thing, and Charlotte is hyper-conscious of the lack of diversity in her friendship circle.
In addition to Karen Pittman and Nicole Ari Parker in regular supporting roles, Sarita Choudhury joins the series as Seema Patel, Carrie’s real estate broker who she talks relationships and dating apps with over cosmos. Sara Ramírez plays Che Diaz, a queer non-binary standup comedian and podcaster, who brings a fresh perspective to the lives of the white hyper-privileged Manhattanites. Hearing their empowering set about coming out and finding oneself sparks something in Miranda to begin questioning her own identity, and the chemistry between her and Diaz is palpable from their first fiery meeting. Ramírez is a natural scene-stealer, bringing charisma to spare, in a rare fully-formed non-binary character in a prominent role, which as they point out in their standup, isn’t a sci-fi creature, or in some other form, but a living, breathing contemporary, layered human. Not afraid to be provocative, they’re the non-binary answer to a thinking person’s shock jock. That this character is at the centre of the new chapter of such a mainstream show, that’s globally adored, is a thrilling moment for non-binary representation, and in Sara Ramírez’s hands the result is exhilarating.
Meanwhile, as the series continues to explore gender identity through a 2021 lens, Charlotte’s daughter Rose (Alexa Swinton) shares with her mother that she doesn’t feel like a girl. Although she’s thrown—literally falling off the bed—by the news, Charlotte is typically determined to do the right thing as a mother, turning to Anthony for advice, who proves to be rather old-fashioned in his views.
Despite much of the opening section of SATC 2 being devoted to Anthony and Stanford’s wedding, presided over by Liza of course, we did not get to see the grooms seal their nuptials with a kiss, so it’s nice to finally get that moment between them here. The touching romance though, comes in the midst of some intense bickering that feels entirely appropriate given the history of antagonism between the pair before they finally fell for one another. With Willie Garson sadly having passed away during production, AJLT has another absence to explain, that of one of popular culture’s most memorable gay bffs. His exit, as written into the script, feels fitting and has a touch of Stanford’s flair, and flightiness from Candace Bushnell’s book, about it. Movingly, the fourth episode ends with a dedication to the actor, who appeared in 27 episodes of the original series, as well as both movies: In memory of our beloved Willie Garson. Garson’s nuanced performance, and his screen partnership with Sarah Jessica Parker, elevated the role, creating a flawed, funny, soulful, and lovable gay character, with a twinkle in his eye and his spirit, a man who could be camp, and frivolous, and bitchy while remaining human, and without being reduced to a side joke. A character, established in the late 90s when there was still very little mainstream LGBTQ+ representation, who will be much missed.
While Samantha might have left Manhattan for London, there is still some sex in New York City, or at least plenty of talk about it. Across the East River in Brooklyn at Miranda and Steve’s, it’s their now seventeen-year-old son Brady (Niall Cunningham) who’s the only sexually active member of the household, regularly having his girlfriend stay the night, causing his mother to question her decision to endorse the sleepovers. Especially after she accidentally steps on one of her son’s used condoms in his bedroom. Mr Big, meanwhile, manhandles himself at his wife’s request, and Anthony bemoans the lack of handjobs caused by pandemic-induced gym closures. Despite having written about sex in her titular newspaper column and subsequent books, surprisingly Carrie proves far more reticent to talk about it on Diaz’s podcast which she is a regular guest on, and is told to “step her pussy up” and join in the conversation if she wants to keep the gig.
With Molly Rogers taking over as costume designer from Pat Field, there’s still a distant lack of sweatpants, sneakers, and athleisure on display, with every character dressed to the nines whatever the occasion or time of day might be. There is distinctly less fetishization of fashion in AJLT, certainly than there was in the final season and the movies, with the costumes reading as actual clothes, rather than a distraction. There are even some fun knowing acknowledgments like Miranda’s incredulity that Carrie has been trekking all over the city on foot in a pair of viraginous heels—no wonder she’s got lower back pain—and a hilarious moment where an older lady gives Carrie’s floor length tutu (a tribute to her signature SATC opening credits outfit) serious side-eye when she encounters her getting a cup of coffee in her old local bodega; while the best putdown Charlotte can muster when she spots Big’s ex Natasha (Bridget Moynahan) when she’s actively avoiding Carrie, is that she has the audacity to be seen in public in flats!
The pace feels leisurely, like it has more than a New York minute or two to spare, but the extended running time flies by fast. The overall tone has settled down somewhere between the edgy, culture-defining days of the original series and the heightened, broader strokes of the movies. As a fan, it’s a thrill to see these characters back on the screen, while as a critic it’s exciting to see a series willing to actively reinvent itself, taking new directions, and expanding its scope. There’s certainly potential here for another long-running series with a plethora of rich and intriguing new characters to explore portrayed by a talented cast, with multiple directors and writers overseeing the rest of the season. After catching up on the decade that these characters have been off our screens, and having reintroduced them to the world of 2021, as the series continues I hope it will not just tap into what’s happening right now, and comment on it, but, as the original series did, move the conversation forward.
By James Kleinmann
The first two episodes of And Just Like That… are streaming now on HBO Max, the following eight episodes will premiere weekly on subsequent Thursdays until February 3rd 2022.