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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Sophisticated Approaches to Sex in Singular Eras

June 05, 1998|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A measure of television's maturity--not its depravity, as some will insist--is Saturday's arrival of "Sex and the City," succeeding "The Larry Sanders Show" as the next great comedy series from HBO.

The same applies to Sunday's debut of Showtime's "More Tales of the City," a pleasing two-night sequel to a controversial "American Playhouse" set in San Francisco of the 1970s. The upfront gayness of that miniseries outraged many conservatives when it aired on PBS four years ago.

Although both cityscapes are sexually blunt and refreshingly counter the rhythms of conventional TV--a smart way to awaken viewers dozing to June's Muzak of network reruns--they couldn't be more unalike.

"Sex and the City" is a Via Veneto of late-'90s Manhattan singles culture, sweet jazz blowing in the background as a perfectly cast Sarah Jessica Parker plays Carrie Bradshaw, a self-titled "sexual anthropologist" who writes a New York newspaper column about her own mid-30ish crowd of bed-hopping, hedonistic female night crawlers who are up to here with the attitudes of men passing through their lives. Hence, their laser intent Saturday night on "having sex like men," which to them means sleeping with someone and feeling nothing afterward.

The double-length hour premiere opens somewhat laboriously, as Carrie and the rest of her great-looking circle--Kim Cattral as the experienced Samantha, Kristin Davis as the more romantic Charlotte and Cynthia Nixon as the hard-edged corporate lawyer, Miranda--initially coalesce into a whiny, male-bashing monolith. Unlike sex, a little bit of the first half hour goes a long way.

Yet the second 30 minutes--examining a male thing for those "giraffes with big breasts" otherwise known as gorgeously svelte female models--is effortlessly urbane, seductively frivolous and majorly witty. As is the third half-hour, in which Carrie and her friends turn in desperation to himbos in their 20s as an alternative to men in their 30s and 40s, providing another resource for Carrie's observational humor.

Carrie: "Twentysomething guys always know the really important B-people: busboys, bouncers. Plus, they have cute butts."

The aftermath is not as good as the sex, however. Jolted back to reality the morning after sleeping with one of these infantile hardbodies, Carrie heads for his bathroom only to discover an important item is missing.

Her: "I need toilet paper."

Him: "I'm using the last of it to make the coffee."

In other words, "Sex and the City" is as shamelessly superficial as the crowd it memorializes, but so sophisticated in its approach to shallowness that it's also great fun.

Parker's faded schoolgirl essence works especially well in the presence of Chris Noth ("Law & Order") as the older, unattainable "major dreamboat" with whom she keeps colliding. And she walks the walk of grand farce even when taking to the street wrapped decadently in the fur of dead animals.

"Sex and the City" is based on a book by Candace Bushnell. The surprising thing is that the HBO rendering is from Darren Star, who is finally getting in touch with his inner adult after creating the infinitely lesser-brow "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Melrose Place" on Fox.

*

On the other hand, a serene mingling of sexual tastes and proclivities, not sexual cynicism, epitomizes Showtime's "More Tales of the City." It is the latest progeny of fictional stories about pre-AIDS San Francisco that appeared in a newspaper column written by Armistead Maupin. Later, they were translated into a series of novels titled "Tales of the City" that were adapted for TV.

Most critics adored the boldness. Television some day may look back at "Tales of the City," as Ray Loynd wrote in The Times in 1994, as "where broadcast television really grew up, where mainstream viewers finally welcomed diverse sexual behavior--straight, gay, young and old--in TV drama."

Yet one viewer's diversity is another's perversity. In granting Maupin's characters access to the airwaves, PBS zoomed "beyond its mandate and . . . actually leaped aboard the homosexual activism bandwagon," Robert Knight, cultural studies director for the Family Research Council, charges in "Ratings, Morals and Sex on TV," an arid new documentary that Showtime is running immediately after "More Tales of the City."

Knight sounds like he took his own leap and fell on his head. Yet such influential right-wing voices were too numerous and powerful to be resisted by an increasingly conservative public network that still remained substantially on the government dole. As a result, PBS misplaced its backbone and said no when Maupin later came calling with "More Tales of the City." With no federal big daddies to answer to, pay-cable Showtime said yes.

Not that the wallpapering of gays and homosexual smooching in the sequel is anything approaching the insurrection that the original was seen to be by its critics in pre-"Ellen" 1994, even though "I'm asking you to marry me" is still not something you regularly hear one man ask another on TV.

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