You don’t become the show that helped build HBO by being ordinary. Back in 1998, Sex and the City—along with its soon-to-be network sibling The Sopranos—made original premium cable programming not just a thing, but a prestige thing, a story I tell in my book Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. As the world shifts again, this time to an onslaught of streaming, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha—who became a worldwide sensation by talking dirty, dressing spectacularly, and giving us major friendship envy—can still offer us lessons for standing out in a cacophonous international media landscape:
- Let fresh voices tell their own stories—yes, that means diversity. Sex and the City rightfully got reamed for its whitewashed vision of New York City, but it succeeded on another front: telling women’s stories realistically. It was based on a column-turned-book by journalist Candace Bushnell, and the writing staff on the show was 100-percent female. Though the creator, Darren Star, was male—as was his eventual replacement as showrunner, Michael Patrick King—they hired all women (save for one very early, short-lived hire) and asked them to tell stories from their own dating lives. Female audiences responded, gobbling up the all-too-true sex and dating horror stories and touching moments of romance and friendship. The series felt like one big, brutally honest brunch conversation across America and, eventually, the world—because it was.
- Friendship is the best networking. When bidding wars broke out among TV networks, film studios, and producers desperate for the rights to the book Sex and the City, the victor was Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place creator Star. The reason: Bushnell had profiled him for Vogue, and the two had become close friends afterward, clubbing around New York City together. Though ABC Entertainment President Jamie Tarses pursued Bushnell adamantly, the writer ultimately chose her friend to adapt her book because she trusted him.
- Insist on finding the right people for your team. Actress Kim Cattrall at first turned down the role that would define her career—that of the lascivious Samantha Jones. She had read Bushnell’s book and found its vision of dating depressing. (It is, for the record, much darker than the show became.) So Star cast dark-haired comic actress Lou Thornton instead. But he felt unsettled with the decision, and consulted his partner, Dennis Erdman, a former casting director. Erdman insisted that the role had to go to Cattrall. Erdman knew her and asked her to have lunch with Star. She agreed. Just a few weeks before shooting began, Star met with her, talked her through her fears, assured her she’d have a say in her character’s development, and signed her. It’s impossible now to imagine Sex and the City without her.
- Combine elements that haven’t been combined before. Sex and the City did this in several ways: Costume designer Patricia Field’s groundbreaking vision combined punk-rock thrift with high couture. The scripts combined sex and humor, humor and pathos, romance and cynicism. One memorable episode, for instance, tackles Carrie’s commitment-phobia through a meltdown over a computer malfunction, Samantha’s ridiculously randy affair with a wrestling coach, and the death of Miranda’s mother. They made it look easy, but it’s not.