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TELEVISION & RADIO

Toasting a series that wears well

At a New York museum, HBO throws a party for 1,000 of 'Sex and the City's' closest friends.

June 21, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Camera-toting tourists and frustrated paparazzi. Excessive numbers of security people, including a Donald Rumsfeld-sorta-look-alike that had some doing a double take. A long line to get in the door, well after the event was supposed to start.

Another successful HBO party.

You could tell that this one, Wednesday night, was for the fashion-minded series "Sex and the City" by the number of female guests in spiky heels, as well as with outfits that screamed, "Trying way too hard."

As "Sex and the City" enters its final season at 9 p.m. Sunday, largely gone are the veiled references to the New York City terror attacks of September 2001 that the show felt compelled to confront at the opening of last season. Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) is falling in love with a new guy; single mother Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) is falling in love with an old flame (and when that doesn't work, her TiVo); Episcopalian Charlotte (Kristin Davis) is considering a faith conversion because she's in love with her Jewish lawyer; and Samantha (Kim Cattrall), well, her oversexed character hasn't evolved much at all, although her on-screen antics are possibly more graphic than ever.

While the series may be winding down, the network managed to bring out a crowd of more than 1,000 to the American Museum of Natural History for the screening of the first two "Sex" episodes and a well-beyond-midnight after-party under the museum's newly restored 94-foot blue whale model. Even though the series is six seasons old, it was the largest party yet for the program, speaking to the show's enduring grasp on the public's imagination and the strength of HBO's marketing machine, or maybe just the love affair with Manolo Blahniks and the other fabulous shoes that the show's characters dote on.

Still, the museum setting was a long way uptown, literally and figuratively, from the first "Sex" party at the trendy Lot 61 nightspot. (Each season, the party has moved a step farther uptown, settling on the museum last season as well.)

The end of its top-rated comedy comes at a significant time in HBO's development, when it can no longer be a total renegade and also has to be concerned with protecting its considerable success. (How successful? Before the screening, HBO Chairman Chris Albrecht gave a lavish tribute to his predecessor, Jeff Bewkes, who is now the chairman of parent AOL Time Warner's entertainment group.)

The network -- which has never played by broadcast rules and has benefited as a result -- seems to be moving into a new phase.

All the push-the-envelope nudity, violence and strong language are still present, as is the freedom the channel gives its series creators to experiment with slower pacing, complex plots and unconventional casting. But its schedule of original series is dominated less by the quirky short-run series and "you'll watch it when it's ready" attitude, and more by a constant rotation of established franchises such as "Sex," "The Sopranos" and "Six Feet Under."

This week, concerned about losing its top drama, "The Sopranos," HBO renewed the program for a sixth season that it had previously said was unlikely to happen. No financial details were released, but the network is already paying a reported $4 million per episode for the upcoming fifth season, or about double what a typical hourlong drama costs on a broadcast network. The new season is scheduled to debut in March 2004, with a fifth season not expected before 2005, proving that the network hasn't entirely abandoned its policy of airing no series before its time.

Just as "Six Feet Under" was finishing up its third season June 1, complicated, critically acclaimed "The Wire," a limited-run 2002 series about the Baltimore Police Department (confronting drug gangs in season one and now also waterfront corruption), came back for a second round. Its season debut, following the "Six Feet Under" finale, drew a respectable 4.4 million viewers for the Sunday-night airing, but by this week, three episodes in, it had tumbled to 2.6 million viewers. That wasn't enough to make the top 25 cable broadcasts for the week.

The show is sure to get a boost with "Sex and the City" providing a new lead-in starting Sunday. And there are still a full 20 episodes of "Sex and the City" left, 12 over the summer and another eight to start in January.

The guest list Wednesday was heavily weighted toward the media -- a full dozen reporters and editors from the Wall Street Journal and at least four from the New York Times. Reflecting the show's over-the-top fashion sense courtesy of Patricia Field, the crowd included a smattering of fashion designers (Michael Kors, Cynthia Rowley), as well as Vogue editor Anna Wintour. As is standard at an HBO party, there were plenty of stars from other HBO series, this time "Oz," "The Wire" and "The Sopranos." A few assorted other celebrities such as Sheryl Crow, Nathan Lane and the model Vendela were spotted.

Dress ran from jeans to a gauzy Indian top that Carrie might wear on a Saturday-afternoon errands run, to a Samantha-worthy tight black dress and baguette purse. If it wasn't quite the cutting-edge fashion crowd that Carrie would normally hang with, it still drew an interesting mix, and a performance in and of itself to inspire envy among other networks.

*

`Sex and the City'

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sundays, with multiple repeats

Production credits: Executive producers, Michael Patrick King, Cindy Chupack, John Melfi; director, King; costume designer, Patricia Field; creator, Darren Star

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17, with advisories for adult content, graphic language and nudity)

Sarah Jessica Parker...Carrie

Bradshaw

Kim Cattrall...Samantha Jones

Kristin Davis...Charlotte York

Cynthia Nixon Miranda Hobbes

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