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And Just Like That finds the demented comedy in life’s humiliations

The Sex and the City reboot isn’t just about being fabulous. It’s about reckoning with your obsolescence.

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie in And Just Like That. In this episode, Carrie had to watch her friend have sex with her boss. Awkward!
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

I finally unlocked the Sex and the City revival when I abandoned my expectations of it being remotely aspirational. In the original show, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and the now-absent Samantha (Kim Cattrall) were fairy tale avatars of hope, grandeur, and success. Life’s low patches, which mainly were the result of dating and being broken up by terrible men, were nothing compared to living in New York City with fabulous shoes, fantastic outfits, and forever friends.

But there’s a reason And Just Like That isn’t called Sex and the City.

The title change signifies a show that isn’t about the big things that make life glamorous, but rather the way that life hits you — the struggle to exist and remain relevant as culture, friends, love, and life passes by. The only thing that remains constant for the show’s three heroines is an onslaught of indignities. What is And Just Like That if not the humiliation of life persevering?

The old canard is that time heals all wounds, but the reality is it creates a lot of new ones. The grievances never stop, and it’s an inevitability that they will team up with the years to gnaw away at you. Being alive, and especially aging, means facing a new set of embarrassments that money can’t remedy.

The original series seemed to believe that the only way out of this was to be fabulous. Eating at the hottest restaurants, wearing the best shoes, and dating the best men would be the way out of the woods. And Just Like That’s answer is more rational and less optimistic, that life is nothing but the acceptance that being alive is mortally embarrassing. It’s no use being anxious about the next setback because it will always follow. The sooner you accept that, the easier it is to laugh.

And Just Like That is a completely different show from Sex and the City

If there’s an episode that crystallizes the original series’ intrinsic question it’s “They Shoot Single People, Don’t They” from the show’s second season. Carrie has a cover shoot and story scheduled with New York magazine about fabulous (declarative) single women, but it turns out to be a bait and switch. After a night out, she shows up to the set looking haggard and becomes the cover girl to a headline that asks, “Single & Fabulous?”

The stray question mark plunges Carrie and her friends into existential doubt about their lives. Those doubts are extinguished by the end of the episode, but even after everything is wrapped up, the series spends its entirety — through failed relationships, new marriages, a move to Paris, new and better jobs, chic events, even a couple of babies — trying to provide an answer: an assured yes.

That yes also came with a fairy tale ending for each of the women.

Carrie ends up with the man of her dreams and so much money. Samantha ends up with the much younger man of her dreams and so much money. Charlotte ends up with the man of not quite her dreams whom she loves very much, and a child, and so much money. Miranda ends up with the man of not quite her dreams, and a child, and a Brooklyn brownstone, and so much money.

The trials and tribulations of single life were no match for women so fabulous, so fabulous that they got the happy endings they really didn’t need anyway.

Fast-forward to And Just Like That’s fifth episode, “Tragically Hip,” and we have a widowed, bedridden Carrie Bradshaw as she watches her secret-alcoholic friend, Miranda, unleashing erotic howls as she’s rotary-dialed by Carrie’s new boss, podcast host Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez).

This is a far cry from Carrie being with the man of her dreams as she is at the end of the SATC series, moving into an opulent apartment as she does in Sex and the City: The Movie, and maintaining that relationship and apartment despite marriage’s dull pangs, as she does in Sex And The City 2.

The scene finds Miranda embarrassed to admit that she not only asked Che to blow weed smoke into her mouth which escalated into handsy, noisy frottage, but that she feels trapped in her marriage to a rapidly decaying Steve (David Eigenberg) and held hostage by her son Brady (Niall Cunningham) and his girlfriend Luisa (Cree Cicchino). Acting out with Che, she explains, is the only thing that’s made her feel alive. Carrie, still sitting in a bed soaked with her own piss, is angry but flashes a slip of empathy. She too has felt like the world around her has sped up as she’s slowed down.

Up until this point, Carrie has laughed off Charlotte’s worries about Miranda’s drinking problems and laughed at Charlotte with Miranda herself. No doubt some of that is because Carrie is still mourning the loss of Big, who died after a Peloton-induced heart attack. At the same time, Miranda hasn’t expressed her feelings about being stuck to the people in her own life. Now her best friend knows about her cheating on her husband, and she carries that weight along with her feelings of anger, frustration, and confusion.

This is when Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) apologizes for having sex with Che Diaz (Sara Ramirez) and howling while Carrie spilled urine on her bed. Sad!

The episode has led some loyal viewers to announce that they were traumatized by the bleakness of what the show is exploring. But that’s spectacularly the point. The chaos of Carrie’s urine, Miranda’s caterwauling, the bizarreness of Che showing up to her employee’s house with a bottle of tequila — it all works in psychotic synchronicity to create some extremely dark comedy. It can’t get worse for these two, can it? If this is rock bottom, it’s 1) funnier than Che’s podcast and 2) something these women may eventually laugh at.

Charlotte is dealing with her own crisis as the mothers in her class catch on that her child Rose now wants to be known as Rock (Alexa Swinton). Rock has expressed that they might be trans or nonbinary to Charlotte, a revelation that Charlotte seems to be able to grasp. What irks Charlotte, though, isn’t that her child is trans or nonbinary, but the idea that other people might know her child better than she does. Charlotte prides herself on being a good mom and a good person.

Granted, in sketching out these indignities for television, some of the writing of And Just Like That tends to stray into clumsy distillations of real-world issues about race, gender, and tolerance.

But throughout the first five episodes and carrying on to the sixth, which debuts on Thursday, And Just Like That has been a show about these women dealing with their own obsolescence rather than asserting their own fabulosity. Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte are constantly looking over their shoulders while worrying about whether they’re living life correctly. They’re acting as though they lost the manual on how to be 50-year-olds, and don’t seem too intent on writing one themselves.

And I get it, they’re tired. They spent the first 40 or so years of their lives questioning everything that they and other women were taught about love and life. They toiled away for years trying to strike out on their own. At this point, it makes sense if Carrie and Miranda and Charlotte want to be absorbed into some kind of midlife holding pattern. They’re still living and moving, though — Charlotte is navigating the world through her children, Miranda’s bored and drinking and acting out, Carrie’s, well, on a podcast. And Just Like That asserts that you don’t just fade into an old happily ever after; aging means falling out of step with the world around you.

And Just Like That’s argument is that the humiliations don’t stop, they just change. They might even be tougher to avoid when age has worn the optimism down.

I came to the show from a place of expectation and aspiration; now I watch with empathy and even a little pity. But I tune in each week, not hoping that they’ll suddenly become fabulous again but that they learn something and keep moving. Because it seems that life does not get any better, you just get better at laughing at it.