At one point in the new, fifth season of Sex and the City, Kim Cattrall's Samantha refers to ''socks and the city'' (Sarah Jessica Parker's columnist Carrie, at a loss for a writing topic, is rummaging through her mind and through her bureau drawers). But Samantha's cute wordplay prompts you to think that these fresh episodes could be called ''Soul and the City.'' The season premiere, titled ''Anchors Away,'' finds Carrie slow-dancing with an on-leave sailor to the strains of Al Green's ''I Can't Get Next to You.'' And the half hour concludes with Otis Redding on the soundtrack, advising our gals -- Cynthia Nixon's new mom Miranda and Kristin Davis' still-separated Charlotte as well as Carrie and the oversexed Samantha -- to ''Try a Little Tenderness.'' These R&B gentle giants rhapsodize the ladies' yearning for strong-but-sensitive soul mates; this is music meant to soothe blistered heels and hearts.
So, yes, it's come to this: The salty-tongued Manhattan quartet, their emotions as spindly as their necks, their ankles, and their stiletto heels, has -- to paraphrase Redding -- grown weary and wary. Once women who ran with the wolves, they now run away from them, because they've come to feel that the hunt can only lead to heartache. (Or embarrassment: One of the fresh-faced young sailors tells a wisecracking Carrie, ''You're funny; you remind me of my mom,'' and Parker's stung look may make you wince for her.) Sound depressing? Not at all. The first two episodes I've seen of season 5 stand among the best the series has produced, since they brazenly address nearly every complaint any viewer or critic has suggested about ''Sex'' after all these years. When Charlotte, her porcelain skin betraying worry lines as well as years of reckless perkiness, refers to Saturday night as ''date night,'' Carrie moans, ''Are we still gonna have to call it 'date night' in our 50s?'' Miranda's baby boy, Brady, may just be getting the hang of hanging on to Mom's nipple for breast-feeding (the subject of a quick, hilarious, fearless scene for Nixon, by the way), but every other character in this series remains unattached. Carrie admits in the second episode, ''I think I'm possibly one bad date away from bitter.''
Fortunately, creator Darren Star, exec producer and show runner Michael Patrick King, and the show's writers and directors never forget that one of ''Sex'''s artistic models is '30s and '40s screwball comedies, and so they maintain a rapid-fire pace, with quick scenes and ceaseless, ribald chatter. As if to allay the fears of the show's fans, there's a scene at the start of the first episode in which the girls gather for a trademark brunch dish session, the new addition being tiny Brady, occupying his own chair, nestled in a baby carrier. When Samantha utters a typically pungent profanity, they suddenly swivel their heads to stare at the infant, as if an obscenity would instantly sully the child. But Miranda lifts the baby carrier by its handle, swings it, and announces cheerily, ''Nothing has to change -- just think of this as a big purse!'' Everyone relaxes, and sighs of contentment can be imagined exhaling from all HBO subscribers. Samantha is soon swearing like (and, later in this particular episode, with) a sailor again.
The series' new subplots look promising. Just as Candace Bushnell's New York Observer pieces were gathered into the best-seller that inspired this show, so now Carrie's columns in the New York Star are being collected in a book. The book's packagers are played by the wicked humorist Amy Sedaris (perhaps best known from Comedy Central's ''Strangers With Candy'') and ''Saturday Night Live'''s Molly Shannon; they make a wittily tense team. And while I've always found David Eigenberg's Steve -- the father of Miranda's baby -- too winceably goody-goody, I'm all for more of Anne Meara, guest-starring as his working-class Catholic mother, hell-bent, as it were, on getting that child baptized.
What does Steve's mother look like, asks Carrie innocently.
''Imagine Steve...in a wig...drunk!'' snaps Miranda, and nobody on TV snaps as satisfyingly as Cynthia Nixon.
For all its Manhattan glossiness, its brand-name-dropping, and its penchant for coining new slang (''manthrax'' is Carrie's term for ''dangerous and toxic'' guys), there's always been something square about ''City.'' Partly, it's Carrie's voice-overs, which strain for puns (''Maybe the past is like an anchor, holding us back,'' she coos in ''Anchors Away''), as well as the overarching idea that a woman needs a man to complete her. But if the show didn't have moments of banal melancholy, or old-fashioned notions of romance, it would come across as heartless -- much like, come to think of it, Bushnell's source material. King and Co. not only improved on the original; they've enriched and deepened it. Now they've also made ''Sex'' safe for breast-milk jokes; I think I hear a ''golden globes'' punchline coming....