Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Fifth Character

In the spring of 2005, shortly after I finished my college thesis (which was not, you’ll note, written on Sex and the City) I found enough spare time to immerse myself in S&TC DVD extras. Somewhere in the requisite cast and crew interviews the costume designer argued that New York truly was "the fifth character" in the series.

The implication is that New York framed the show as much as any of the characters. I’ll buy that to a point. But the truth is that New York is a much better character than any of them. It has everything they don’t: nuance, grit, at least one set of size C breasts, and a genuine (if subtle) humility.

If you ask me, the series tragically under-exploited New York (I’m including all five boroughs). For Carrie and the gang, "New York" meant SoHo, the Village, Chelsea, Midtown, and the Uppers. But where was the "Carrie Goes to Brownsville" episode? You don’t think she could’ve had colorful adventures making love at the peak of Fort Tryon Park or getting wasted at the beer garden in Astoria? Tell me Samantha wouldn’t have learned some valuable life lessons from blowing a crack addict in Mott Haven.

On rare occasions when the show deigns to include an outer borough, it is presented as faceless and depressing. Miranda and Steve move to Park Slope without an acknowledgement of the neighborhood’s name. And moving there was presented as some huge compromise for her. Park Slope?! It's Carnegie Hill without the three Hispanic people.

Sorry, but Manhattan snobbery died forty years ago when Manhattan stopped being worth being snobbish about. The city’s intrigue is found on the fringes of the island and in the nooks and crannies of the outer boroughs, where authenticity comes naturally and there’s more to nightlife than $10 mixed drinks and trying to find Kate Hudson playing beer pong.

It has become a cliché to bemoan Manhattan’s abundance of luxury condos and Starbuckses, but that isn’t even really the problem. The problem is that the family-owned coffee shop the Starbucks replaced wasn’t that good to begin with. The ethnic enclaves were always more real and more interesting outside Manhattan. Manhattan had glamour, maybe, but glamour is elusive. Perhaps there have been periods of time in Manhattan’s history when it was genuinely glamorous. This ain’t one of them.

In some ways Sex and the City gets that exactly right. Carrie’s disappointment at the hollowness of club openings and Manhattan’s suffocating insularity comes through from time to time. But mostly we get a fantasy Manhattan, as bubbly and one dimensional as the ladies themselves.

I voted in the Democratic primary yesterday at a cramped, under-funded Brooklyn elementary school. The kids were screaming, and the incompetent poll workers couldn’t find my name in the book even after I pointed to it. But there were free blintzes and coffee available to all. That’s New York as she should be, and it doesn’t take three apple-tinis and a $400 pair of shoes to make her worth the while.


Alanna said...

I agree to a point, Mr. Brooklyn 2006, but we live in Manhattan sandwiched between a brothel and a drug rehab center. And there are lots of Ukrainians everywhere, being really harsh to their children. Not gritty or authentic enough for you??

Anonymous said...

langlieb - i adore the fact that you are addicted to sex and the city.

that is all.

Langlieb said...

Point taken, alanna; though carrie and friends avoided the east village like kate moss avoids cheeseburgers. Also, re: authenticity, I heard catticus killed her first stuart little. mazel tov!

Matt said...

Well put. You can't get Israeli food in D.C.

Jesus Christ, someone should open a Mexican restaurant around here!