Though it ended its television run nearly a decade ago, HBO’s Sex and the City still remains the gold standard in female-driven ensemble sex-coms (just imagine the Hollywood pitches that include the line “It’s like Sex and the City, but in [fill in city here]!”) and, for better or worse, the series is still relevant to television today. Hell, the Sex and the City tour business is still booming in New York City, complete with cupcakes and cosmos. While I wasn’t a first-run fan of SATC and, though I knew plenty of people (mostly women) who thought it represented some sort of canonistic experience for gals of a certain age in a certain type of city, I never felt that way. SATC may have felt like aspirational entertainment to some – even now, living in New York City in a lovely apartment that actually has bedrooms, I still think Carrie’s studio is awesome – but it doesn’t even remotely present a realistic view on life in the big city (especially New York City). Nevertheless, SATC is a constant source of background television viewing for me, along with Friends and Seinfeld, and it continues to play out in syndicated form across a number of different television channels. What I’m saying is, the show is still on a lot, and it’s often on a lot within my viewing range.
I’ve seen every episode of SATC by now – and multiple times – and I have even endured both of the feature films in theaters (the first one was fine, and I still have a visceral reaction to the entire Big-sort-of-leaves-her-at-the-altar sequence, but as most people acknowledge, the second one represented the worst of the series – especially financially speaking). I like SATC a whole lot (even now), but the messaging behind some of its biggest plot points, and the character developments that follow, still occasionally bother me.
One episode, however, sends me into a blind rage, even eleven years later. I hate it enough, and I hate the characters’ actions within it enough, that its admittedly slight thirty-minute runtime (compared to the totality of the series, which clocks in at over fifty hours of programming) makes me seriously reconsider my big like (not even big love) for the entire series.
The episode in question, titled “Ring a Ding Ding,” is the sixteenth episode of the fourth season, and originally aired on January 27, 2002. If you’re familiar with the episode – or even that season – you know that the fourth season was a time of major upheaval for the ladies. To briefly recap: Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) convinces Aidan (John Corbett) to give their relationship another go, and he does, with guns blazing – he moves into her place, buys her apartment when her building becomes a co-op (along with planning to purchase an adjacent apartment so that they can expand), and proposes. Carrie accepts, but ultimately pulls back after freaking out while Aidan is trying to knock down a wall between her old place and the new place. It’s hilariously spot on – Aidan wants to knock down walls, Carrie can’t – and also very sad. Aidan still can’t quite deal with the infidelity that drove them apart before, and Carrie just isn’t interested in tying herself down with Aidan. Meanwhile, Charlotte (Kirstin Davis) and Trey (Kyle MacLachlan) also give their relationship another shot, before also eventually breaking up for good. Elsewhere, Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) engages in some pity sex with the recently one-balled Steve (David Eigenberg), which of course leads to her pregnancy. Samantha (Kim Catrall) started the season with her usual sexual escapades, before trying her own hand at monogamy – first with Maria the lesbian artist and then with Richard the hotelier douchebag.
The episode begins post-engagement smash-up, with Aidan finally moving out and Carrie begging him not to. Aidan, one of the few characters on the show to exercise any judiciousness when it comes to his emotions, still leaves – but he also leaves her a letter. Carrie, convinced it’s a love letter (oh, yes, Carrie, you definitely deserve a love letter in this case), paces herself and finally opens it, only to discover it’s actually a legal document that basically asks her to put up (the money to buy back her apartment) or shove out (get the hell out of what is legally Aidan’s apartment within thirty days). Carrie responds horrifically – by whining to Samantha, Miranda, and Charlotte – without thinking about the fact that of course this would happen, he owns the apartment. She attempts a crack at responsibility – trying to get a bank loan (she has no assets, shockingly enough), aiming for a cheaper lifestyle (she tries to ride the bus exactly once in the episode), calculating her fashion expenditures ($40,000 on shoes alone – as a fellow writer, I can’t help but fall off my couch every time this number is mentioned), and even looking at other apartments (shitholes, all). Carrie’s financial life is a goddamn trainwreck, and she can’t even buck up enough to take the bus instead of a cab. Insanity.
Her next move is even more insane. She goes to Big (Chris Noth). You remember Big, right? The guy Carrie eventually ended up with, but also the guy she cheated on Aidan with, the guy he can’t get over (and who Carrie can’t get over either), the entire reason for the end of their engagement? Yes, that Big. Carrie does, ostensibly, ask for financial advice from Big, but her intentions are clear. She wants money to save herself. He gives her a check.
Thankfully, Carrie doesn’t accept it – well, she accepts it, but eventually rips it up after another tete a tete with the girls. During this same outing – an outing that takes place during the most heartbreaking time in Charlotte’s life, the most upsetting time in Samantha’s life, and the most confusing time in Miranda’s life, basically, just really shitty times in everyone’s lives – Miranda and Samantha both volunteer to help her reach her down payment telethon number (thirty large), while Charlotte sits around whistling (basically). Charlotte is meant to be the bad guy here, the shitty friend who won’t pony up the cash to her moron friend, even though she’s just gone through a terrible divorce and also doesn’t have a paying job.
Which is probably why Carrie eventually freaks out, takes a cab (seven blocks, you idiot) to Charlotte’s place, and freaks the hell out on her. Yes, Carrie, this is Charlotte’s fault. Sure, she’s the bad friend. Absolutely, take it out on her. The best part? Carrie’s tantrum actually works – later in the episode, Charlotte gives Carrie her engagement ring from Trey (a bauble she’s been holding on to for emotional and sentimental value, unhealthy as that may be) so that Carrie can presumably pawn it and get her down payment. It’s framed like an engagement scene. It’s meant to be happy for both girls. A sisters-doing-it-for-themselves thing. It still makes me want to throw my television out the window.
Re-watching the episode last week, I tweeted out two bits about my thoughts on the ep: “The episode of SATC where Carrie takes out her money troubles on literally everyone else continues grate, even years later…She goes to Big for $ to buy back her apt from Aidan, yells at Charlotte for not offering her cash, and whines about riding the bus. Gross.” The response from my followers was immediate and unanimous. They hated Carrie. “She’s the worst person on the show,” one wrote. “I don’t know why anyone put up with her ever, to be honest,” another responded. (There were also comments about her vast shoe collection and its financial ramifications.)
“Ring a Ding Ding” is representative of the worst of Sex and the City, the most horribly misguided and tone-deaf entry into a series that has more than enough misguided and tone-deaf episodes to pick from. It attempts to convince its audience that unsound financial responsibility, emotional manipulation, and a shoe fetish are all good things and not irrevocably damaging to the core friendships that are meant to drive the entire series. Can you imagine being Charlotte in this situation, recently divorced and jobless, made to feel guilty for not ponying up cash to your most unreliable friend? Can you imagine being Miranda, pregnant and alone and willing to give thousands of dollars to her idiot friend? Can you imagine being Samantha, knee-deep in emotional waters you don’t understand, and having to worry about giving cash to your friend who has wasted her financial freedom on shoes that still pinch her feet?
Can you imagine being Carrie?
Sex and the City certainly gets better from here, and the girls do still have emotionally rich experiences with each other, but as far as the gold standard for this genre, there’s plenty to dislike about what the series has to offer, even more than a decade later. Aspirational? Not if you don’t want to be a classless jerk (but with great shoes!).