No program on television is better at having it both ways than Sex and the City, which begins its third season this weekend. The show, about four single women in Manhattan (played by Sarah Jessica Parker, Cynthia Nixon, Kim Cattrall, and Kristin Davis), manages to satisfy diametrically opposed viewer fantasies. There are people who look at these smart, salty, hotsy gals and identify like crazy some single urban women feel they're finally represented on TV as something other than desperate ditzes.
On the other hand, there are those who watch, wince, and sigh with relief, thinking, Well, maybe I've got a dull spouse, squalling kids, and drive a soda-sticky minivan, but at least I ain't as desperately unhappy and superficial as these Manolo Blahnik-wearin', Fendi-bag-swingin' chicks barreling into middle age with bandaged hearts and aching arches. In achieving empowering fantasy and lulling comfort-viewing simultaneously, you gotta hand it to creator Darren Star: The man has mastered the difficult trick of crafting mass entertainment from the quivering concerns of a highly specialized demographic.
Granted, it took a while. Sex and the City premiered six years after the innovation of Star's beautiful young psychopaths in an apartment complex, Melrose Place, and three years after the debacle of Star's swampy network soap opera, Central Park West. Sex took the ramblingly risque column of the same name created by Candace Bushnell in The New York Observer and turned it into a TV show whose first season had far too much of Bushnell's pashmina-wrapped self-pity and an excess of what I'll term HBO Syndrome: dirty words used just because they can be used, but without comic or dramatic effect. What the series had going for it was Parker's bright-eyed avidity as the Bushnell surrogate, Parker came across much more sympathetically than the man-hunting, man-dumping persona the writer had created for herself. And it also contained a promising performance by former Law & Order lug Chris Noth as Parker's moneybags love interest, dubbed Mr. Big. Again, this likability was based less on the scripts, which were aimless whenever they weren't pointlessly crude, and more on the heat and coolness the actor regulated like a New York landlord adjusting the radiator temperature in a cramped apartment.
In its second season, however, Sex and the City found its rhythm, its grounding philosophy, its raison d'etre sexuelle. Star, who wrote some of the scripts and serves as executive producer, loosened up the characters he let the extreme aspects of their behavior show, and trusted that he could make them funny and likable. It was a good gamble. Suddenly, lots of people I know were getting wrapped up in the way Parker's Carrie was pursuing, against her better judgment, her heartbreaking, on-again, off-again romance with ''Big.'' Nixon's Miranda had met a charmingly goofy slacker, Steve (David Eigenberg), and she and we could not decide whether he was just a welcome change from the usual upwardly mobile creeps she slept with, or The Man for Her. Davis' Charlotte lost just enough of her gee-whiz innocence to reveal an intriguing hardheadedness, and Cattrall's Samantha just pulled out all the stops and became an outrageous, man-devouring glam goddess destined for lousy one-night stands and, of the four friends, the most likely to end up a blowsy hag, but whatta way to go!
The first two episodes of the third season are strong continuations of last season's revved-up pace and who-cares-if-they-get-the-Manhattan-references-in-the-boonies dialogue. June 4's premiere finds Carrie attracted to a dashing politician played by John Slattery, Samantha has meaningless but ecstatic sex with a fireman against his truck; and, in a sweet subplot, Miranda gets laser eye surgery and has to be led home by that bespectacled seeing eye puppy, Steve. The next episode throws some cold water on Carrie's oh-so-promising new romance that's too good (and too kinky) to be revealed. The possible theme for the season is stated bluntly by Charlotte: ''Women really just want to be rescued.'' Passionate arguments, pro and con, will ensue, and we will watch, fascinated, amused, and appalled.
Postscript: A goofy piece in the May 14 Washington Post Book World asserted that books as various as Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and Laura Zigman's Animal Husbandry had been ''influencing TV shows such as HBO's Sex in [sic] the City.'' As if. Sex and the City existed before these books were published; if anything, Bushnell's writing and/or the show might have influenced them. But then, that's just the sort of underestimation of their worth that Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, and Charlotte have to put up with all the time. B+