Anyone who’s looked into web series knows most shows are marketed like traditional television shows are. Pitching a show to Hollywood, you come up with an easily digestible equation: Glee = High School Musical + The Simpsons (or some other “transgressive” show) or Flash Forward = Lost + Heroes (Season 1). You get the idea. If they aren’t hybrids, most shows are pure derivatives (Cashmere Mafia = Sex and the City, basically), or slight variations (Parks & Recreation = The Office + female lead). This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but, as Todd Gitlin argues in Inside Primetime, in an industry with so many unknowns, relying on past success is key. Shows that stand out entirely, like Arrested Development, are rare.
Same with web series. I just did a write up of a show that was Twin Peaks + funnier. Or how The Crew is The Office + Star Trek. I’m surprised at how often Dallas and Dynasty get mentioned as influences by web series creators. As with TV, it doesn’t mean the shows are bad; all culture relies on variations of known stories.
Still, I’m amazed at how important Sex and the City has been to web video. It strikes me that, aside from perhaps The Office, no mainstream show has been as influential to creators.
So what’s the deal and how have producers worked with the canonical series?
First, it’s not entirely obvious why Sex and the City has been influential. For one, Sex and the City is a rather difficult show to reproduce. What made the show standout immediately was its sharp writing, by far the most challenging part of creating anything new, be it a film or a web series. The superficial appeals of the show, which became more prominent as the series progressed and got more popular, are even harder to reproduce: glamorous settings, designer clothes, impeccable styling, gracefully aging women, on-location shooting in New York City. All of these are tough to do on a low-budget.
A show like The Office is a lot easier to riff on. It’s decidedly drab, and its dialogue is far less self-consciously witty: half the humor is in the editing (the silent reaction shot is particularly overused, but something that’s easy to reproduce on a low budget). The handheld aesthetic makes it perfect for people using cheap cameras. Plus, you can write half your script in sit-down interviews, which are a lot easier to film and can be done all at once. Audiences also have much lower expectations for production quality with a documentary aesthetic.
Sex and the City provided a way to look at urban social life and sexual relationships in a interesting way. We now take for granted that four women (or gay men) living in XYZ city can be interesting (as we did in the early 1990s with shows like Living Single and Golden Girls). Sex and the City did that for us again. The SATC model also recalls the kind of escapism that seems so appealing nowadays.
But I actually think the main reason we’ve seen so many Sex and the City spinoffs is that the series was open enough to allow audiences to identify with the characters yet closed enough to want them to do more with it. What I mean is, there are many black women who like Sex and the City, because the characters and situations are relatable, but the series really didn’t include black female characters, nor did it include lesbian characters (for very long, anyway; Samantha was gay for about 3 episodes) or substantially gay male ones (Stanford and Anthony are very much on the side), or hipster-indie ones, etc.
The show’s narrative closure has led many producers to produce their dreams of an “ideal” Sex and the City OR an anti-Sex and the City. So we have a series like Afro City, premiering, I believe, in March, which takes the City girls and gives them big, black hair — but similar careers in fashion and entertainment. Or Buppies, which manages to pull of the glam of SATC, while delicately inserting discussions of race. Kindred makes its black female protoganists more serious, like public servants and corporate executives. The now completed 3 Way conjured a strange foursome: a divorcee, her gay friend, her gay friend’s girlfriend, and her gay friend’s ex-girlfriend. Both Drama Queenz and In the Moment almost specifically reference SATC, whether directly, like when a character blogs:
“A problem Carrie never had to face on Sex and the City: For a straight girl in Manhattan she can skip a few meals and a guy will buy her a cosmo. But for a gay guy in LA, he has to go to the gym eight days week or he won’t get past ‘hello.'”
Or indirectly, through skyline shots of Manhattan accompanied by a monologue before certain episodes, as in Drama Queenz, which focuses on three black gay men (In The Moment has a multi-racial cast).
A new series I’ll be writing about soon, The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else, takes on SATC directly by having its main character, a more butch lesbian, go undercover as a kind of “Sex and the City-type girl” in part to expose the kind of performance of urban, rich femininity, and perhaps “white” femininity, furthered in such “chick lit” media properties.
And I’m just talking about the black and gay web series I’ve featured prominently on my blog. These types of series, I would argue, have been particularly fruitful because people from those identities were variously de-emphasized in the series.
But I could add in Candace Bushnell’s own web series The Broadroom, or many others that either derive directly from SATC (four female friends), add in straight male casts or make the show more “indie:” Brooklyn is for Lovers, Let’s Get Laid, Cheating Girlfriends, In Men We Trust, Singledom, Novel Adventures, lovebites, and on and on.
So here’s to the obvious: Sex and the City has been hugely influential, both in mainstream and niche cultures! The point of this post was just to give even more credit where credit has been dutifully, if sporadically, given. Cheers (clink of Cosmo’s)!