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'Sex' and someone else's city

September 08, 2003|GERALDINE BAUM

Darren STAR, the creator of "Sex and the City," has often remarked that New York City is the fifth character on the HBO series, showcased and developed as artfully as Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte.

And to those who live here, the New York we know has been occasionally recognizable in the series. The camera captured her in all the cliched poses, in a sweeping view of the skyline or at dusk across the Brooklyn Bridge. But she was best caught off-guard, in hurried snippets or lounging in peripheral vision. Our New York was that driver who was too busy talking on his cellphone to notice Carrie had stepped into his cab. Our New York was the bicycle locked to a street sign in front of one of the girls' apartments or the elegant woman meticulously scooping her dog's poop off the sidewalk. Our New York surfaced routinely when Carrie and Miranda were walking down the street having a passionate conversation while eating ice cream.

Those moments of recognizable reality were in stark contrast to the flesh-and-blood characters. In a city of 7 million, there are few freelance writers like Carrie who toddle to launch parties hither and yon in $485 Manolos. Real freelance writers wear knockoffs, attend parties to eat the free bruschetta for dinner, then grab the giveaway bags for birthday presents. There are also few hard-charging lawyers like Miranda who regularly have time to discuss their problems with their best friends over breakfast at a shiny restaurant. More likely those lawyers are buying $10 tuna sandwiches on their way home from work at midnight at the Korean deli closest to their apartment. You get the idea. To New Yorkers, this is New York through a tiny keyhole.

In other words, as Carrie might ask in her column: Can a character (New York) in a television series be so familiar to loyal viewers for five years running but seem a stranger to the people who know her best?

New York, the character, is certainly not a place where Cynthia Nixon, the actress who plays Miranda, has lived all her life. Nixon, who is 37, grew up on the Upper West Side and was witness to the gentrification that prefigured the boom that led to more gentrification and, ultimately, to the frivolous, gleaming, playground of a city idealized for HBO.

Nixon began acting at age 12, a long-haired hippie type who turned out an impressive career on the stage and in movies. Six years ago, Nixon landed the role as Miranda, the driven corporate lawyer looking for love in Manhattan.

But Nixon does not inhabit a life that has anything to do with the New York in the show. "I don't think this New York is a phantom of our show. It's just not my New York and, frankly, not that of most New Yorkers." She says this because she and her longtime boyfriend now have two children, an almost-7-year-old and an infant. She rides the subways, wears $60 blue-jean shoes and rarely goes to Nobu or Pastis. She still lives on the Upper West Side -- not on chic Central Park West but on rangy Amsterdam Avenue. And she sends her daughter to a public school.

"Miranda's kid isn't going to public school, I can tell you that right now," says Nixon of Brady, her baby on the show. "She gets everything the best for him. She feels money can fix it all." Nixon gets as fiery as her red hair when she talks about how competition and money have changed her New York. "People with money used to sort of stay on Park Avenue. Now they're everywhere," she says, stabbing through a Greek salad at an undistinguished diner a few blocks from her apartment.

The New York in "Sex and the City" consists mostly of white people, rich people, out-of-touch-with-their-families people and sexually liberated people. They're mostly single women and gay men who live in Manhattan and want little to do with the other four boroughs. They are all moving slowly, if at all, toward being grown-ups. Children, except for Miranda's baby, and married people, except for those who tied the knot this season, are tangential.

Filming of the last portion of the final season begins next month in New York, and the local media, which follow the show the way the Romans examined the entrails of birds, are already speculating how each character will end up. Will Carrie go off into the sunset with Big? Will Miranda settle for Steve? Will Charlotte have a child? And will Samantha show some kind of emotional maturity and be redeemed?

Many viewers would like to believe this is reality TV or a docudrama scripted for single women who can't afford the outfits and for marrieds who feel imprisoned by their spouses. But it is a fantasy, of course.

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