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Review: ‘And Just Like That …’ is ‘Sex and the City’ for 2021: a bloated, laugh-free comedy about grief

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 16, 2021

Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis return as Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte in “And Just Like That ... ” on HBO Max.  (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO Max)
Cynthia Nixon, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kristin Davis return as Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte in “And Just Like That ... ” on HBO Max. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO Max)
By Inkoo Kang Washington Post

The hemlines are longer. The fits are looser. The kids are all grown up, and everyone can’t stop marveling at how COVID-19 remade Manhattan – or how Manhattan remade itself after COVID-19. Welcome to the alternate universe of “Sex and the City,” circa now. It comes by a new name, “And Just Like That … ,” and it’s as aggressively and exhaustingly 2021 as the retail-ravaging broken supply chain. This year has been a bummer, and so is the sequel series.

The zippy, intimate, charmingly featherlight landmark HBO series of yore has been replaced by yet another bloated streaming-service grief-com, the latest piece of intellectual property back in zombie form to generate headlines, pique nostalgia and ultimately disappoint us. Despite the winking callbacks to the original show, death and absence overhang the production, with the abrupt demise of a major character serving as the season’s starting point and the notable disappearances of others – including Kim Cattrall’s saucy Samantha – lending a lopsidedness to the character dynamics.

“Sex and the City” began as a series about the romance of urban possibility: The characters could be having an atrocious day, but on the next block might be their next boyfriend, favorite restaurant or treasured pair of designer slingbacks. The final couple of seasons, but especially the post-series movies, felt so off in part because, by giving the characters all they’d ever wanted, the franchise became a cozy but wan domestic soap.

With its floozy-flaneuse presumably living large in London, “And Just Like That … ” leans into “Sex and the City’s” least interesting mode. In previous iterations, its moments of emotional groundedness and deepening characterization had hit as hard as they did because of their contrast to the show’s essential tutu-cavorting buoyancy – a fact that the sequel misses entirely. Detracting even more from the show’s innate sense of fun is its many mea culpas for the criticisms the show has received since its departure from the air nearly 20 years ago. If “Sex and the City” once drove the culture, it’s playing catch-up now.

To be fair, that’s what much of “And Just Like That … ” is about. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) has pivoted toward writing books and co-hosting a sex advice podcast with two comedians (Sara Ramirez and Bobby Lee), for which she’s told she has to do more than play the role of the world’s prudest sex columnist. Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), who found a renewed sense of purpose during the Trump years, quit her corporate law job and is embarking on a master’s program in human rights – and makes a series of racial faux pas in front of her Black professor (Karen Pittman) on her first day.

In the most believable development among the three, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has become the kind of parent who treats motherhood like an Olympic sport, in perfect form and with an unrelenting sense of competition. But she’s thrown off her game when one of her children says they don’t identify as a girl, while a new friendship with fellow mom Lisa (Nicole Ari Parker) makes Charlotte realize how monochromatic her social circle is. Charlotte being Charlotte, she orders her husband, Harry (a sleepwalking Evan Handler), to read an article on Black authors before attending a dinner party at Lisa’s house. (Harry being Harry, he dutifully commits to memory the name “Sadie Smith.”)

If the iconic image of “Sex and the City” is its central quartet striding down a Manhattan sidewalk, this is a series on its back heels: defensive, reactive, terrified to offend. (The season’s tagline may as well be “We’re listening.”) The too-rare off-color jokes come by way of provocative or buffoonish characters (a role largely occupied by the late Willie Garson’s Stanford and Mario Cantone’s Anthony, still together) – a lack that would be fine if the season evinced any other form of wit.

It’s admirable, I suppose, to reposition Carrie and company as white women who’ve recently realized they’ve still gotta do the work to earn the progressive bona fides they’d taken for granted as sexually liberated career women of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But boy, is watching their white feminist fumbles dull. “Sex and the City” has aged poorly, but it’s earned the right. Like all TV shows, but especially ones that capture the zeitgeist, it’s a product of its time, reflecting the myopias of the era and of its creative team.

It became a cultural phenomenon because it was a series that was confident and graceful in its glossy, aspirational, savvy yet heartbreak-ready vision. Perhaps the remaining episodes will pan out differently, but the first four episodes of “And Just Like That … ’s” 10-part season feel less like urgent storytelling than panicked legacy-salvaging. In apologizing for its past wrongs, the show forgets to do what it did best: spin relatable yarns in which humor and camaraderie can help get past the worst New York City can throw at you.

“And Just Like That …” premiered on HBO Max with two episodes; new episodes will stream weekly.

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