There Is No ‘Sex and the City’ Without Samantha

There are many reasons And Just Like That, the forthcoming HBO Max reboot of Sex and the City, is a terrible idea. There’s the fact that the most recent installment of the franchise, Sex and the City 2, was released more than a decade ago, roughly the same time as the Eyjojakfull volcano, or eons ago in internet years. There’s the fact that Sex and the City 2 was critically reviled due to its bloated two-and-a-half-hour run time, inherent Islamophobia, and clunky screenplay featuring such sterling wordplay as “Lawrence of my labia.” And there’s the fact that, while critically acclaimed and hailed as subversive at the time of its release, Sex and the City itself has aged rather poorly, presenting a fantasia of New York City in which everyone is white, thin, heterosexual, and prone to wearing oddly positioned belts.

But the primary reason the Sex and the City reboot is a bad idea is the glaring absence of one of its four main characters — the one who constituted the heart and soul, and arguably the moral center, of the entire franchise: the sexually voracious publicist Samantha Jones, played by Kim Cattrall.

Cattrall has been publicly warring with the other main players in the Sex and the City cast — in case you just woke up from a coma: Sarah Jessica Parker as navel-gazing writer Carrie Bradshaw; Cynthia Nixon as uptight attorney Miranda Hobbes; and Kristin Davis as WASPy gallerist Charlotte York — for years, accusing them of forming a mean-girl clique that excluded her at every turn. (Naturally, at one point there was a dispute over being invited to a rental property while shooting in the Hamptons.) She repeatedly told interviewers that she would not participate in another installment of the franchise. Whether or not you think her stance is justified depends on numerous factors, like whether you tend to align yourself with the underdog (in this case, Cattrall) or you’re a fan of celebrity-branded $400 shoes (SJP). Regardless, anyone actively rooting for a SATC reboot knew in their hearts that it would be one without Samantha, which last week’s release of the And Just Like That teaser confirmed.

But a Sex and the City reboot without Samantha is no Sex and the City at all. It’s a paltry cash-grab, a facsimile of its former self, a screen grab of a Xerox copy of the very elements that have engendered such a rabidly loyal fan base to this day. Because as even the biggest SATC critics know, at its core Sex and the City is neither about sex nor the city, nor shoes nor Chris Noth’s cleft chin, nor inexplicably wearing belts around your midriff — it’s about the enduring power of female friendship. And the absence of one of the core group of female friends at its heart betrays that very idea.

In a different world, on a different series, and with a different actor, Samantha would have failed to rise above a mere caricature. She is libidinous to a comical degree, with a level of horniness rarely seen outside a MILF porn or tweets about Jon Ossoff. She has a propensity for snappy, Mae West-esque one-liners (“dirty martini, dirty bastard,” she purrs as she splashes a drink on a loutish ex-lover) and a level of confidence that seems borderline chemically induced, a fortysomething version of a homophobe’s conception of a drag queen. Indeed, more than one person has referred to the character as effectively a gay man in drag, though that perspective says a lot more about a person’s views of gay male sexuality than it does about Cattrall’s portrayal.

But despite the cartoonishness of the character, and some of the politically incorrect lapses for which the show has been retroactively flagellated (see: the one time Samantha dated a man of color, referring to his “big black cock”), Samantha also has a bounty of admirable qualities. She is unapologetic about her lifestyle, continuously rebuffing judgmental health care professionals and snooty society wives. In the face of adversity, she is indefatigable, as seen in the final season when, struggling with breast cancer, she delivers a frank, vulgar speech at a cancer benefit, culminating in all the attendees proudly tossing their wigs into the air. Above all else, she is fiercely loyal to her friends, taking their sides even in petty skirmishes. At a baby shower, when Charlotte accuses a pregnant woman of stealing her future baby name, Samantha doesn’t hesitate in calling the pregnant woman a bitch and ushering Charlotte out of the party; when a fragile Carrie tells her she is having an affair with her shitty ex, Samantha is unflappable, coolly telling Carrie that judging her for such a transgression is “not [her] style.” Critics have accused the four women at the heart of Sex and the City of being pathologically shallow and self-involved, but that applies the least to Samantha. In fact, despite being the most hedonistic, vice-indulging member of the quartet, she is arguably the most ethical.

It’s hard to overemphasize just how large a role Cattrall’s performance plays in this. A less deft performer would play Samantha as little more than a man-eating cougar, Mrs. Robinson meets Jessica Rabbit with a dash of RuPaul thrown in for good measure. But while Cattrall’s campy delivery of punny lines like, “You’re dating Mr. Big, I’m dating Mr. Too Big” is not beyond parody (and Christina Aguilera did so to pitch-perfect effect on an old episode of Saturday Night Live), she consistently imbues it with a level of fragility that goes above and beyond the material the writers gave her. There’s no better example of this than when she is betrayed by Richard (James Remar), the loutish hotelier who is the only man to truly scale Samantha’s steely exterior. After she walks in on him giving oral sex to a random woman, she smashes a painting of a heart over her knee. “There. Now your heart’s broken too,” she sobs. In the hands of a lesser actor, the line would be laughable. But Cattrall delivers it with such exquisite sorrow and conviction that it’s hard not to have your heart break along with hers.

Critics are not shy about pointing out Sex and the City‘s multifarious flaws, its attitudes toward race and sexuality among them (remember when Samantha “becomes” a lesbian?), as well as its healthy doses of Catskill comic-level puns. Few have singled out Cattrall’s virtuoso performance, how nimbly she fills out what should have been a wolfish caricature with warmth and vigor — which is even more impressive considering how miserable Cattrall says she was during the duration of the series. (She claims she was subject to the worst treatment of all by Parker; the fact that Parker publicly has been nothing but kind and infuriatingly gracious in response makes Cattrall look terribly petty — and makes me believe she is telling the truth.) People often single out Nixon’s understated, Emmy-winning performance as an example of real “acting” on the series, but nothing will ever make me laugh or make my heart soar more than Samantha triumphantly defending her life choices to Carrie by proclaiming she will blow whoever she wants as long as she can breathe or kneel.

There’s been much discussion over how the SATC reboot will deal with Samantha’s absence. Cattrall has said she would like to see the character recast, perhaps with a woman of color or a nonbinary person, a laudable goal if not one that glosses over the privileged, white femaleness of the character. Meanwhile, Parker has responded to fans’ objections by primly saying: “Samantha isn’t part of this story. But she will always be part of us. No matter where we are or what we do.” This leads me to believe that the writers have probably killed her off, perhaps by the breast cancer that she so valiantly fought in the show’s final season. This strikes me as both a betrayal of the character and of Cattrall herself. All of the main characters on the show are fantasy versions of women, and fantasies by definition do not die, especially one with as much vibrancy as Cattrall gave Samantha. To casually murder the woman she spent nearly two decades embodying — at great personal cost, according to her — seems like nothing short of a slap in the face. But above all else, SATC without a Samantha is an insult to the fans who have spent 20 years falling in love with the world the show has built and the women who live in it — and they should accept nothing less than the complete version of the real thing.