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Critic's Notebook

No more 'Sex,' please

If we love a series, we want more, but that doesn't mean we should get it

Sarah Jessica Parker and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a scene from the 2004 series finale of 'Sex and the City.' Sarah Jessica Parker and Mikhail Baryshnikov in a scene from the 2004 series finale of "Sex and the City." (Craig blankenhorn/hbo via the new york times)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / May 25, 2008

"Sex and the City," the movie, opens Friday, and, as a diehard fan of the HBO serial comedy from its 1998 premiere to its 2004 finale, I'm kind of sort of totally displeased. No longer can I feel that bittersweet longing for more of what I can't have, that precious sense of nostalgia for the ladies, their fabulous shoes, and their bad puns.

I guess I'd never much looked at "Sex and the City" as a brand. During the six seasons over which the series unfolded, I experienced it more as a piece of witty, intimate TV storytelling - about friendship, about the nexus of pathology and romance, about pride and female sexuality, about New York City and fashion. I was attached to the four central characters - Carrie, Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte - and invested in their search for that thing not named in the title: love. The writers and producers, in particular the greatly talented Michael Patrick King, were gifted enough to make me care about the progress of these ladies and forget about the show's identity as a lucrative product.

That's the nature of TV viewing at its best: We intellectually and emotionally connect with certain narratives, and commit to watching them evolve from season to season. The characters become a part of our lives in a more integral way than movie characters, and they grow and broaden across the years. They appear in our living rooms, and, now, on our personal computer screens, and we generally don't miss their weekly visits. They inhabit an oddly significant position to us - as friends but not as friends, as objects of study, as reflections of ourselves, as defining icons, as shared topics of conversation.

And there is an unspoken contract between us and the creators of TV's serialized stories. We promise to watch regularly, if the show is good; they promise to give us a full-service narrative ride, with a beginning, a middle, season finales, and, ultimately, when the time is right, an end. Yes, we know that every TV show, like every movie, book, and fortune cookie, is a commercial creation. We pay cable fees and lend our eyes to network ads. Still, the priority ought to be the integrity of the story; that should drive the commoditization. I know, I'm old-fashioned.

"Sex and the City" is a brand, and the forthcoming movie is a reminder that those involved still want to milk that brand. And so despite the fact that the story came to an ending - a much promoted and relatively satisfying ending - on Feb. 22, 2004, the producers are bringing it back to life for a little box-office influx. The series finished up for a number of obvious reasons: the premise was running out of steam, the core themes had been fully addressed, redundancies were emerging, performances were becoming predictable. As with all TV shows at some point, the tale was told. But in the board room, those reasons were conveniently ignored, in order to take the product to another platform.

Of course we want more "Sex and the City." We always want more - of a favorite person, of ice cream and candy, of the Beatles. We're people. We're Americans. More is our mantra. But that doesn't mean we should always get more. Indeed, I believe that the contract we made with the makers of "Sex and the City" stipulates that we agree to want more, if they agree to leave us wanting more. Until now, I savored the unfulfilled desire to watch new episodes of "Sex and the City." I enjoyed knowing that I could always return to my DVD set of the entire series and watch it start to finish.

This isn't a case like, say, "The Brady Bunch," or any of the countless TV shows that have been remade for the big screen. In most of those situations, the product was reinvented, and not merely extended. Certainly TV-to-movie adaptations can be mediocre, obvious attempts to milk a brand, but they're usually separate products made with different sets of actors and writers. To me, "Sex and the City: The Movie" is more akin to an ill-advised 2000 TV movie called "Mary and Rhoda," in which we caught up with the friends from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," found out that Mary was widowed, and learned of other developments that robbed the original series of its mystique, as well as its place in time.

And so Carrie and Co. will return to our lives in another medium, as if their story never truly reached its denouement. The narrative that came to a close will instead amble on, and, like the "X-Files" movie arriving in July, it will devalue the notion of series finales in the process. Increasingly, the meaning of goodbye will lose its power on TV - it will mean kind of sort of goodbye. The contract will no longer be binding.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit boston.com/ae/tv/blog/.

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