Let's hear it for Sarah Jessica Parker and her Sex and the City right-hand man, director-writer Michael Patrick King, for deciding to bring this particular four-way to an end. The wrap-up to the saga of forlorn advice columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Parker, who executive-produces with King and others), Kim Cattrall's excessively sexed Samantha, Cynthia Nixon's hardheaded Miranda, and Kristin Davis' persistently innocent Charlotte is going to be short (eight episodes) and sweet, bittersweet, and, if we're lucky, a little sour. If the show has always been a fantasy-nightmare about the lives of unattached women in Manhattan, it has also evolved into one of television's more vivid and believable portrayals not of romance, but of friendship.
First, romance: I don't know about you, but I am all over the map in my feelings about these women's choices. Never liked John Corbett's shaggy carpenter Aidan for Carrie, and I am strongly in favor of wanting Chris Noth's Mr. Big to play a major role in the series finale (as, I think, are the majority of fans). That's not because Big deserves Carrie; his actions have always tended toward avoidance and selfishness. Instead, I'm rooting for Big because Noth has turned in such a superlative performance -- suave, blunt, and regular-rich-guy funny -- that you never want him to leave the screen when he's on. Then again, I've also been won over by Mikhail Baryshnikov's Russian artist Aleksandr Petrovsky, a man who uses his blithe worldliness to shower Carrie with the attention she's always deserved. This, even though Carrie herself can't seem to handle it; the high point of the season thus far was her romantic swoon outside Lincoln Center and her impeccably timed, screwball-comedy line when she came to: ''I'm an American -- you gotta take it down a notch.''
I've always been struck by the disparity between Sarah Jessica Parker's shrewd public comments about ''Sex and the City'' -- her understanding of how fans relate to it -- and the punning piffle her character speaks or writes at the beginning and end of each episode. (Recent sample: ''When it comes to men, even when we try to keep it light, how do we wind up in the dark?'') If only Carrie were more like Sarah, ''Sex'' would be smarter. But if that were so, Carrie would be hitched to a costar of ''The Producers'' (except with Carrie's luck, she'd marry Nathan Lane) and have a baby. And marriage and parenthood are delicate topics for this show, to be alternately feared, rushed into, or dismissed with withering jokes.
But with ''Sex and the City'' coming down to a photo finish, the ladies are pairing off fast. Charlotte and Evan Handler's Harry are too slapsticky for my taste -- witness their wacky food-poisoning routine on Jan. 11. Miranda and David Eigenberg's Steve? Well, if she's happy with this wimpy-voiced jock, Miranda, being the smartest person in the show, must know something I don't. As for Samantha and Jason Lewis' Smith: I know ''Sex'' is playing off of the celeb older-woman-younger-man trend, but the guy still seems too dumb and immature for her. At least she's not with the truly repellent Richard (James Remar), a man who refers to her as ''Gorgeous'' but makes it sound like ''Whore.'' He was always creepy.
Now, on to the friendship: It was, to put it crassly, a brilliant stroke to give Samantha a health scare. The season's second episode brings out the best in everyone's character, and everyone's acting -- as in the taxicab confession where Samantha tells Carrie her awful news. The way Cattrall mixes Samantha's trademark toughness with a newfound terror was subtle and moving; Parker's sudden, stricken shock -- letting tears well up and then holding them back -- could not have been done with more delicacy. The same is true of the rest of the episode, which balances the wedding of Miranda and Steve with scenes of Samantha delivering her news to the other two pals (a feat of narrative exposition that most shows would need at least an hour to deliver, I should add).
For once, I didn't even mind Carrie's concluding voice-over pun (''For better or for worse, we were all ourselves that day''), and felt confident that ''Sex and the City'' is approaching a final transcendence that'll make all the Manolo Blahniks and nameplate-necklace fashion mongering and silly pop-culture phrase making (the latest: New York City women as ''romance intolerant'') beside the point. These gals are going out in style.