The Uncanny Lives of Middle-Aged Women
Recently, on a week-long vacation with a couple of 2-year-olds who abjectly refused to sleep, and with only limited access to French Netflix, I started watching Designated Survivor, a truly nonsensical television show. The premise is that a terrorist attack during the State of the Union has killed the president, plus almost all of Congress and the Cabinet; the lone survivor left to govern is the milquetoast Housing and Urban Development secretary, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The show is replete with plot, which suited my jittery, exhausted state. So much happens, in fact—armed shooters! bioterrorism threats! insurrection!—that the overall effect is paradoxically soothing. (The antidote to anxiety, it turns out, is the certainty of catastrophe within the next five minutes.)
Shows like Designated Survivor sit on the opposite end of the mindlessness spectrum to And Just Like That, the Sex and the City reboot from Max (formerly HBO Max) that’s now back for a second season. I’ve watched the first seven episodes—each a fugue-state-inducing 45 minutes—and it’s almost awe-inspiring how little actually happens. In the first episode, Carrie learns, via YouTube, how to poach an egg. In the second, Miranda loses her phone on the beach. In the third, Carrie pretends she has COVID to get out of recording her own audiobook. The stories are breathtakingly small, as though the original show has been shrunk down into a vivid maquette. A substantial portion of the fifth episode is dedicated to Charlotte and Harry dressing up as Philip and Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans for Halloween and getting frustrated that no one gets the reference. “It was on FX for seven seasons!” Harry argues (incorrectly). “It won countless Emmys. And a Peabody!” (No one around him cares, which makes it funny that the writers thought we would.)
Is this defiant lack of creativity the logical conclusion to a fictional universe so constrained by its fear of being conventional that middle age—especially as it pertains to the lives of women—is literally unimaginable? Or is it something else? Because here’s the thing: As listless as the show is, as mortifying as the jokes are (“I’m not trying to have currylingus later,” Miranda’s lover says to her as she struggles with her spicy entree), I hurtled through each episode, cringing as I went. And Just Like That is, to be clear, not good. But every now and then it contains flashes of what made Sex and the City so absorbing. The reboot evokes much the same feeling you get when idly scrolling through Instagram: beauty, color, familiar faces, the thrill of a space where infinite possibility feels like it could be lurking just around the corner.
Our current glut of revivals, a New York Times essay recently theorized, faces “a clear creative bind. The reboot that changes nothing will be uncanny and lifeless; the one that thinks itself more clever than its predecessor will turn out cynical and sour.” The first season of And Just Like That was inarguably the latter—an extended penance for the show’s perceived ills that turned its characters into joyless, clumsy Karens long past the point of social relevance. Carrie, formerly the sexual correspondent of her generation, was now the token uptight prude on a podcast called X, Y, and Me. Miranda, the skeptical, pragmatic adult in the room, developed a drinking problem during the pandemic, made racist assumptions about the professor of her human-rights-law class, and then impetuously left her longtime husband, Steve, for a “queer nonbinary Mexican Irish diva” comedian named Che Diaz. Charlotte fretted over the fact that she had only one Black friend. Samantha, when Kim Cattrall refused to sign on for the show, was reduced to a sassy text message or two. As if to atone for Sex and the City’s improbable whiteness over the years, the reboot paired each woman with a new character of color—a move that felt uncomfortably like tokenism but was redeemed by the new slate of actors that appeared: Nicole Ari Parker as Lisa, a documentary filmmaker with a closet to rival Carrie’s; Karen Pittman as Nya, Miranda’s unhappily married law professor; Sarita Choudhury as Seema, a real-estate agent whose yen for fur coats and fast men seemed designed to compensate for Samantha’s marked absence.
In its second season, And Just Like That thankfully stops apologizing for its existence. Unfortunately, this only illuminates the show’s lack of purpose; it is indeed uncanny and lifeless. The first episode opens with all of the characters except Nya strutting theatrically toward their partner in nightwear, as if to say that sex (like low-cut jeans and extreme thinness) is back. It’s a thrilling opening montage, audacious and fun, that sputters out as soon as Carrie and her partner, her podcast producer, Franklyn, start making pillow talk about why he likes watching cooking shows in bed. (“No idea,” Franklyn says.) The dialogue is so bad, so devoid of art or spirit, that it threatens to topple the whole project. When a caller on Carrie’s podcast asks how to get her lover to more of a “relationship place,” Carrie quips, “First of all, ‘Relationship Place’ is a great name for a restaurant.” (What?) When a handsome man approaches Nya at a bar and observes that her book seems absorbing, she replies, “Well, Skip Gates always is, but since I’m on my second glass of Malbec, I’m having a hard time concentrating.”
By the second episode, when Carrie’s major storyline is her struggle to record an ad for a vaginal-wellness product—“I think my vagina has to write its own monologue,” she tells Franklyn—I felt slightly stoned, as though the show’s unsettling emptiness was my fault. Errant details waft around like dandelion burrs in a breeze. Che’s new sitcom, we learn, is called Che Pasa. Charlotte’s youngest child, Rock, is discovered by a modeling agent and cast in a Ralph Lauren ad campaign, a plot point that becomes useless when Rock decides they don’t want to model. Harry loses his ability not to orgasm but to ejaculate, which leads Carrie to regrettably utter the words “Casper the friendly cum.”
Didn’t these women used to have jobs? Wasn’t there a purpose to their nonsexual meanderings? Is this what not needing money anymore does to you? I almost missed the show’s insistent flaunting of its woke bona fides when Anthony blithely announces that he has to hire a new Hotfella for his bread business because “Kevin has Hep C”; when Carrie tells Charlotte that she doesn’t use condoms because she doesn’t have an STD; and when one character goes home with a sexy academic only to be disgusted by their unanticipated poverty—the cat-litter tray in the kitchen, the unlaundered bed. Not all of us bought Brooklyn brownstones 20 years ago or married into private equity, okay? There were so many times when I wanted not to be watching this wraith of a once truly era-defining show. To be more like my colleague who refuses to, on the grounds that “it’s like watching your favorite bar burn down.” And yet this is the curse of our age of reboots: You watch because it’s easy. You watch because the cost of entry is so low. You watch because, despite a surplus of shows out there, it’s consistently hard to find much that’s accessible, artful, and inspiring. And just like that, I capitulated.