Sunday, August 18, 2002
New York It had already been a lousy day for "Sex and the City" columnist Carrie Bradshaw when she tried to get on the subway. The entrance was roped off ï¿½ another terrorist alert in an already skittish city had shut it down.
Recognize that scene from the HBO comedy's season-opener last month? No?
That's because it was filmed and discarded, deemed heavy-handed and untrue to what the city is experiencing in the summer of 2002.
"Sex and the City" producers faced a delicate balancing act this season. Not only did they have to craft compelling stories for the show's four women, they had to be true to dramatic changes in the fifth character: the city of New York.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ended a giddy, supercharged era in New York's history ï¿½ a crucial part of the show's identity.
"The first thing I thought about the show was, 'How do we do it? How do you continue?"' executive producer Michael Patrick King said, recalling last fall. "One of the things that people like about the show is that we talk about what goes on in New York, a travelogue of what can happen."
It was an awkward time in the "Sex and the City" filming schedule. A short season of new episodes had already been filmed to air in January, and would contain no references to what happened.
Quite by chance, the mood of those episodes seemed in line with the city's. The final scene of Carrie, fresh from another missed connection with Mr. Big, walking down a city street as a leaf fluttered toward her captured an autumnal feeling.
King convened his writers in December to begin thinking about the new season, knowing part of their job was to anticipate how the city would seem months later.
King decided to concentrate instead on where the characters were going.
"It's always about the city filtered through these girls' eyes," he said. "It was never designed to capture a mass feeling about anything. We never thought about doing a 'where were you then' episode, or trying to trivialize the event at all."
The references left in were subtle ï¿½ a joke about "manthrax," and a passing mention about the need to shop downtown to help struggling shopkeepers.
In an upcoming episode, Carrie balks at having to fly somewhere, saying "I get a little nervous seeing the National Guard go through my makeup case."
"It seemed to hit the right notes," King said. "We and the audience were in the same place. I was surprised at how many critics mentioned the references. They liked the reality. It was just a way of showing that we were not writing in a vacuum."
The season-opening episode, where the women attended a "fleet week" social gathering to check out visiting sailors, elevated New York's importance to the series in unexpected ways.
It was jarring when a Louisiana sailor complained about the city's noise and garbage in a conversation with Carrie. Not that those words hadn't been heard before ï¿½ they're practically a cliche for out-of-towners ï¿½ but it seemed so strange at a time other qualities of the city are being celebrated.
Carrie didn't take him home for the night. A few years earlier she might have, but it's an older Carrie. Slurring something that she loved was also a real turn-off.
"If you have a bad day in New York, you have a bad day," King said. "If you have a bad day in your relationship, you say you want to get out of it. Nobody thinks of leaving the city because of a bad day. We started to realize that we're more understanding of our city than our lovers."
Reality sets in
HBO's advertising campaign for the current season features New York scenes when it never has before.
In prior seasons, star Sarah Jessica Parker and the other women were photographed for ads in a studio. This time, Parker is shown around New York ï¿½ at a hot dog stand, in a cab, eating a slice of pizza or sitting on a park bench.
She looks wistful and pensive in some of the shots, as opposed to happily anticipating a night on the town. While it's primarily because the show's women are getting older and facing the prospect of life alone, it also was done with the city in mind.
"What we tried to do is reflect the appropriate tone," said Eric Kessler, HBO's executive vice president for marketing.
King said it feels like New York is in for some rough times. A year ago, he filmed a scene with a homeless person outside an expensive handbag store, but didn't use it because it didn't feel right. He was startled a few weeks ago to see the same scene in real life.
The good times may be running out for "Sex and the City," too.
King sees himself being involved for one more year after the current season.
"You want to stay at the party while it's still a party," he said.