Winnie Holzman’s Lost HBO Show, ‘Sex And The City,’ And An Alternate History Of The Golden Age of Television

My friends Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz have a long and marvelous (and I’m not just saying that because they are my friends) conversation about Alan’s new book, The Revolution Was Televised (about which more later) up at Press Play. And something Alan said helped a lot of my thinking about the era of anti-hero television over the last year or so snap into place. He told Matt:

When Carolyn Strauss told me that HBO’s decision of what to do as their first show after Oz came down to The Sopranos or something by Winnie Holzman, the creator of My So-Called Life, about a female business executive at a toy company, I immediately stopped paying attention to the interview for a good five minutes, because all I was thinking about was an alternate timeline where this Winnie Holzman show was the next big HBO show. I was asking myself, would the other show have spawned imitators? Or would it not have, because “Female business executive at a toy company” is not as inherently cool as “New Jersey wiseguy in therapy”?

It’s striking to me that while both of them talked about this alternate world, neither, at least in the edited version of the interview that appears online, mentioned Sex and the City. There’s no question that The Sopranos, which began airing seven months after the debut of Sex and the City in the summer of 1998, is the more formally ambitious show. But Sex and the City has never really gotten the credit it deserves for its deeply probing discussions of, among the factors my friend Emily Nussbuam at the New Yorker has identified, romanticism and cynicism, second- and third-wave feminism, and libertinism and prudishness, nor for its foundational role in the rise of HBO. Both in terms of acting as a destination show that brought viewers to the network while it elevated the traditional sitcom, and in the income it provided to HBO through syndication, Sex and the City deserves both critical and financial recognition for its role in elevating both the network and cable television in general.

And it, and the possibility of this long-lost Winne Holzman, raise the specter of an alternate universe of prestige television drama that’s dedicated to the rise and deconstruction of female fantasies in the way that shows like Breaking Bad or Mad Men paint glorious specters of masculine badassery that are the primary draw for some viewers, and then reveal the rot in them, a process that’s the primary draw for others. I can dream up a lot of the kinds of shows that we’d have in that bizarro world: in genre, the She-Hulk procedural I bring up so often I know it’s annoying, a functional version of Powers with Katee Sackhoff as Deena Pilgrim, in period shows, something about Helen Gurley Brown and the rise of women’s magazines, or a kicky vision of the seventies and eighties in Washington and New York through the eyes of a woman suspiciously like Nora Ephron, in crime, maybe a story about the DC Madam. I suspect the dynamics of this world would be similar: a period of establishing the competence and coolness of these women, followed by overreach, downfall, and accountability (arcs, by the way, that Sex and the City and Girls‘ most determined critics never give those shows enough credit for following). But the details would be different: we’d have to have audiences that accept private lives as important as power struggles, sex as something to be explored rather than simply had, frivolity as not more condemnable than violence or anger.

I wouldn’t want to have to choose between this fantasy world and the one we’ve got. I don’t want to give up Game of Thrones or The Wire for any of these other things. I just wish they could exist too, that Sex and the City wasn’t written out of history, and that Damages could have worked better on FX and on DirecTV, and that we weren’t still stuck on the idea that male fantasies are the stuff of literature, and female fantasies are treats.