Sex and the City was truly one of the most beloved shows of its time — the blueprint for plenty of imitators, including some series on HBO that tried to reclaim its glory. But it was also something of a prototype for something that Bravo would launch just years after its 2004 finale: the Real Housewives franchise.
The overlap is obvious once you look at the two, with each Real Housewives series taking the basic tenets of Sex and the City — gals being pals, and sometimes frenemies; shopping together, having meals together, and sharing tales of romance and sex, occasionally to the comically puritanical reaction of those around them — and bestowing them with the moniker known as “reality” rather than “fiction.” Much like the core group of SATC oscillated between committed relationships and frivolous hookups, so do the women of any given Housewives franchise, not particularly prone to staying in marriages and abiding by the “housewife” label.
The franchise that feels most connected to SATC is undoubtedly The Real Housewives of New York City. Both shows take place within the same city, obviously, but more than that, it’s the way that the characters within them navigate that city. Both shows treat Brooklyn as a punchline — Alex McCord’s Brooklyn home is treated as an abomination, and Miranda navigated her own discomfort with moving that was egged on by her friends — and the spots these women traverse in Manhattan (particularly the Upper East Side) all feel identical. It’s a rich white woman’s fantasy, through and through, no matter how accessible either show tried to make the glamor seem.
When the SATC sequel series And Just Like That… premiered with a whimper instead of a bang, it kicked off plenty of discussion of why the series wasn’t working. Despite being a point of conversation, much like the original show was, there was something off about the series (which spilled over into its second season as well). It was as if Michael Patrick King — a series staple who brought Darren Star’s show back to life a decade after closing out the series with a truly abysmal film — was making as much of an “awkward bid at relevance” with the show while desperately attempting to recapture the past magic.
Its original cast of characters were all over the place, with some outright missing (like Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, save one wonderful recent cameo) and others undergoing massive personality shifts (mostly Cynthia Nixon’s Miranda). The new ones, from the much-loathed Che Diaz to the criminally underdeveloped women of color (including Sarita Choudhury’s Seema and Nicole Ari Parker’s Lisa), have not fared much better, often relegated to the background in favor of Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda’s escapades and shoehorned into plots.
With two seasons of this revival down, as I suffered through yet another episode of characters making baffling decisions, with their resolutions coming just minutes after any predicament or argument was introduced, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why doesn’t any of the drama or characterization on this show work when the classic was such a cultural mainstay? It was only when the Season 2 finale credits rolled that it became painfully clear. And just like that, I knew — everything King’s reboot attempts to do has already been done better on RHONY.
Take the way that AJLT rarely allows any of its emotional arcs enough time to breathe, with Seema and Carrie’s relationship being one of the most glaring examples. At one point, Seema’s frustrated with Carrie’s insistence on flaunting her rekindling of romance with Aidan (one of her “true great loves”) while navigating her own insecurities of never having experienced that kind of “great love” herself. Within the same episode, and almost within the same scene, she pivots immediately to not only forgiving Carrie (for a fight she started) but to meeting the aloof man that she herself would claim to be truly in love with (in spite of him having little to no appeal) within an episode or two.
On the flip side, a RHONY argument can last anywhere from a full episode to multiple seasons, with a slate of capable editors and producers often using their wealth of footage to cut back to old (and sometimes unseen) conversations to emphasize their point. The fact that these arguments are often completely off the cuff lends the show an element of surprise that something like AJLT, in spite of all of its absurd outbursts from Miranda and her exes, can’t quite capture. To have them also commenting on those very moments within the same episode through cutaways to confessionals is just the cherry on top.
As an executive producer and director for AJLT, King simply cannot match what Housewives honcho Andy Cohen has carefully curated over the last decade or so. King’s sense of humor and provocation is tired due to a limited perspective on the characters he writes for (as Sara Ramírez’s reference to him as the “cis man in charge” with “ultimate control of dialogue” implies) and his playing into stereotypes of women and queer people that feel like remnants of a bygone era (though thankfully moving beyond the overwhelming racism of something like Sex and the City 2 or any number of classic episodes). He’s also nostalgic to a fault; the series often leans too hard into what was interesting or funny two decades ago instead of trying to tap into what works for today’s audiences.
AJLT has sometimes produced lovely results, including Miranda and Steve’s beautifully mature Coney Island discussion about their lives or Samantha’s out-of-place but nevertheless charming phone call, the latter of which has the same energy as a former Housewife making a brief cameo, if only to show off her impeccable personality and remind the world why the new cast will be nothing without her.
But King simply is not as tapped into the zeitgeist as Cohen is, nor is he interested in tapping into the intersection between reality and fiction like Cohen is. Cohen’s work as producer (and arguably overload) of the Housewives franchise is part of its greatness. He is building around real events, real women, and real personalities, instead of trying to dictate them. He produces great television by letting these women, who ultimately become these characters, exist instead of telling them what to do. Even during a post-season reunion, where all of his cast members have watched themselves and must reflect on their own experiences, he simply sets himself up to bait them into tearing each other apart and making up.
Those natural fights and friendships that arise are far more interesting than AJLT’s inability to understand when characters do and don’t belong together (with Charlotte and Lisa having the sole truly believable friendship in the show’s attempts at blending the new cast with the old). Season 2 doubles down on some of the show's oddest couplings, not recognizing when they have no chemistry as a duo and serving as something of a complete opposite to the natural pairing-ups among the housewives when they fight. That the series continues to shoehorn someone like Che into every character’s life beyond Miranda’s, often trying to make it seem like Che and Carrie have a much deeper relationship than (now former) coworkers who occasionally hang, is baffling.
Worse than that might be each and every one of Anthony’s arcs (and, frankly, his foregrounding as a core member of the group) that involve interacting with the core cast, clearly serving as nothing more than a way for King to feel like a part of the fantasy of the show, down to sleeping with a young, hung stud that he has no chemistry with. Though depicting and engaging with queerness may often be criticized as one of the weakest points of Real Housewives (and there is an essay to be written about how easily queerness in women has been villainized over the years), there’s something to be said about the way it knows exactly how much to feature gay men within the world of rich women. Though it may be considered “problematic,” these gay men are ultimately accessories on the show, not because they aren’t interesting in their own right (some, like Dwight Eubanks and Kevin Lee, often steal the spotlight), but because the women themselves treat them as such, just as Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha did back in the day (and some of the show’s best episodes make this glaringly obvious).
The strange way that characters are often thrown together occasionally results in some delightfully ridiculous moments, as opposed to cringe-worthy ones (lest we forget a recovering Carrie pissing the bed because Miranda is too busy getting fingerbanged by Che in the kitchen). And while audiences have been conditioned to consider unscripted television low brow as opposed to the “quality” of HBO (or Max now), embracing the very absurdity that comes with “reality” is precisely what could make And Just Like That feel fresh again.
It occasionally hits those beats well, like when Drew Barrymore makes a guest appearance as herself marveling at a man’s enormous bulge or Charlotte (as played by series MVP Kristin Davis) finds herself unexpectedly high from an edible, but, more often than not, it simply doesn’t know what to do with these women to make them actually fun to watch. Charlotte and Lisa are verging on the kind of goofiness that make Luann de Lesseps and Sonja Morgan so wonderful to watch as a duo on the new Peacock series Welcome to Crappie Lake. But there lies the difference between Cohen and King; the former knows that this pairing should be highlighted, literally given their own series, while the latter has all but forgotten one of those two characters, leaving Lisa out of the comedy and forcing her into an endless state of post-production with a documentary that no one, including her husband, seems to care about.
So much of what made SATC pop has existed in RHONY for years now, even in its latest iteration with an all-new cast that feels more naturally inclusive than AJLT. Where there was once Charlotte’s playful but prudish behavior and delightfully outsized reactions, there is now Ubah Hassan doing exactly the same. While Samantha once ruled New York’s dating scene with her sexual openness and depth of character, now Brynn Whitfield is finding the time to share her moving personal histories while flirting with everyone. Much like Carrie once paraded around in her apartment, showing off old outfits to her friends, Jenna Lyons is now doing the same while deciding what to give away while Erin Dana Lichy shows off $25,000 earrings she borrowed at a party. Hell, Lyons openly discussing her history with dating men before now dating women (and openly mentioning her current sex life) is precisely the kind of navigation of Miranda’s own queer discovery that we deserved.
The new RHONY cast may be getting to know each other rather than being old friends like Carrie, Charlotte, and Miranda, but that is precisely why The Real Housewives of New York works so well. It isn’t trying to build upon the bones of something that doesn’t have anything new to give, or trying to recapture something long gone, but instead uses so much of what made Sex and the City great, particularly its unique personalities and the (sometimes tender, sometimes absurd) ways they connect, to seduce the viewer into watching a bunch of privileged women navigating life. It may be time for audiences to let go of SATC and its reboot, much like Carrie finally let go of her apartment, if only for the chance to move on and discover something a little more fresh and real.
Juan Barquin is a Miami-based writer, programmer, filmmaker, and co-creator of the queer film series Flaming Classics. They aspire to be Bridget Jones.
TOPICS: And Just Like That, Bravo, HBO, Max, Real Housewives of New York City, Andy Cohen, Cynthia Nixon, Jenna Lyons, Kristin Davis, Michael Patrick King, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sara Ramirez, Ubah Hassan