Sex And The City: Waiting for Prince Charming

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To understand what Sex and the City says about women, it helps to understand what it says about men. It's simple: men are dogs.

This is not necessarily an insult. Sex (Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T. on HBO, which is owned by TIME's parent company, Time Warner) likens even its finest men to man's best friend. Sex columnist Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) meets her lover Aidan--a shaggy, happy-go-lucky golden retriever of a guy--when his dog cheerfully buries his snout in her crotch. Lawyer Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), cohabiting with scruffy bartender Steve, agrees to buy a pooch with him, and it becomes a metaphor for their unworkable relationship. Husband-hunting Charlotte (Kristin Davis) learns to control her new fiance with a hand on the wrist: Roll over, boy! Then there's Carrie's on-and-off-and-on squeeze Mr. Big (Chris Noth), a sexy, powerful (and married) alpha wolf.

Dogs are adorable--in theory. Take one in, though, and it can shed, stray, and worse. In its first two seasons Sex became a pop-culture icon for its astute bedroom politics, for the saucy Seinfeld banter (laced with corny double entendres) of its glam foursome, but above all for recognizing that a woman can live well without being at either end of a man's leash.

Its exceptional third season, though, has complicated the arch social comedy by experimenting with--gasp!--committed relationships. "What if Prince Charming had never shown up?" Carrie asks. "Would Snow White have slept in that glass coffin forever? Or would she have eventually woken up, spit out the apple, got a job, a health-care package and a baby from her local neighborhood sperm bank?" Maybe. But this year our heroines are considering another option: settling down with Prince Almost-as-Charming. (All but Samantha--the deliciously vulpine Kim Cattrall--who episode after bed-hopping episode takes Manhattan like, well, a man.)

It proves these women's ability to cut deep that they've been called both "evil, emasculating harpies" (USA Today) and male fantasies. Sex is fantasy, but not that kind. The high-powered Sexettes can afford Manolo Blahnik shoes, Le Bernardin dinners and swank Manhattan apartments. Their charmed circumstances would sweeten the solo life for a man or a woman.

But their conflicts are real and honest. Sex avoids p.c. feminism and love-conquers-all romanticism. These over-30 women can read the New York Times wedding section--"the single woman's sports pages"--with both envy and contempt for the 24-year-old brides nabbing investment bankers and ditching their careers. It also avoids pat sitcom solutions. When Miranda and Steve parted, he wasn't wackily written off but instead left as he showed up--a decent guy who proved wrong for her.

Love--or lust--in Sex is no '70s-style war between the sexes. It's a border negotiation over personal space, customs and autonomy. It's an accomplishment that Sex holds out the possibility of saying no to changing your life for a man. It is an equal one that it can also imagine, just maybe, saying yes.

--By James Poniewozik