For the few people that have been one of my roommates, they all have one thing in common – wondering why I was so obsessed with The Thorn Birds? Why do I even know about the Thorn Birds is a good start, given it aired when I was not even 2 years old in 1983? I guess you can thank my mom for that and her love of all things TV. And Richard Chamberlain.

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Hey, Boo. (Chamberlain was 49 years old, and FINE.)

How can I describe 10 hours of Thorn Birds to you in a few sentences?  The tagline says it all, “Love. Unattainable. Forbidden. Forever”.  Can you think of anything more glorious for a 14 year old girl (or 37 year old woman) to be obsessed with? There’s a unashamedly handsome priest named Ralph, a beautiful young girl, an Australian plantation and enough secrets to fill the wool shed.  Spanning 60 years, The Thorn Birds tells the story of several generations of Cleary women who seem to all have the same problem – they love men that are too ambitious for their own good.  As the main character Meggie says, “I cried for him all my life, like a child crying for the moon.” I don’t even know what that means or why I would cry for the moon, but my gosh, it sounds romantic.

Richard Chamberlain, Jean Simmons, Barbara Stanwyck, and Rachel Ward in The Thorn Birds (1983)

Father Ralph with The Cleary Women, Fee, Meggie and Mary (from left to right)

Now, add into things that this week in between Thorn Birds viewings I also watched the latest season of Big Mouth, and it all starts to make sense why a 14 year old Marie would love this forbidden story so much.  One of the big themes in Big Mouth is how puberty is so isolating and divides us from the people we care about (friends, both female and male, parents and crazy gym teachers).

Missy, Hormone Monster, Jessi from Big Mouth on Netflix

You know what helps you feel less alone? Seeing someone else suffer.  Enter the Thorn Birds.

Every character suffers in this mini-series. Literally EVERY CHARACTER.  Mary Carson, the matriarch of the family wills herself to die on cue just so she can exact the perfect revenge on her unrequited love, Father Ralph.  Meggie gets laid only like 5 times in the whole 10 hours but has 2 kids she has to raise by herself, plus live with her ornery old mother forever.  The brothers never even get a wife, they just “work and obey”.  One dies in jail, one on the range, one with croup or some other condition that only kills babies in 1912.  Barely anyone gets out alive! Even the most holy character ends up dead, trying to save a stranger’s life, of course.

But I love it.  I still cried watching it this time around, even though I know how it’s going to end.   (Plus I spent another $20 on the digital version through Amazon Prime for the convenience of not having to find my dvd copy (or my VHS).  This thing endures! I now own more copies of Thorn Birds than the White Album.)

The main theme of Thorn Birds is that love is painful.  Sometimes its a sweet pain, but mostly its just plain old torture.  And yet, we continue to press our breast to the thorn trying to achieve that love, even though we know it might kill us.  Yes I swear, this is an actual story from the book.

“There’s a story… a legend, about a bird that sings just once in its life. From the moment it leaves its nest, it searches for a thorn tree… and never rests until it’s found one. And then it sings… more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth. And singing, it impales itself on the longest, sharpest thorn. But, as it dies, it rises above its own agony, to outsing the lark and the nightingale. The thorn bird pays its life for just one song, but the whole world stills to listen, and God in his heaven smiles.”

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So naturally, this is great viewing when you’re going through puberty and hormonal, horny and angry all the time – you know, being a teenager.  I have most of the 10 hours memorized, which is not something I’m proud of, but it might be good in the “special skills” section on my resumé.

I’m also sure this would be filed under “guilty pleasure” in the realm of the TV miniseries, despite being the 2nd most watched mini-series of all time.  Roots, it’s not.  And usually I’m all for a guilty pleasure, because life is tough enough, you go Netflix and Chill with your Jane the Virgin on a Friday night after your kids go to sleep, Glen Coco.  What was different this time about watching Thorn Birds was the juxtaposition of Big Mouth along side it.  I was Jessi from Big Mouth when I was a tween/teen.  Divorced parents, depressed, full of shame and trying to find where I fit in.  And how I coped was by watching stories like Gone With The Wind, Thorn Birds, It’s a Wonderful Life, Dirty Dancing and Titanic.  So many stories about disappointed love and a life not lived.  The more painful, the better.  I mean why can’t Jack live at the end of Titanic, it’s just not fair!!

Re-watching it now while we are in the age of really dissecting what stories we want told, I couldn’t help but wonder, Did indulging in Thorn Birds for over 20 years do more harm than good? How many ideas about love and romance did I just steal from a movie?  Maybe Nora Ephron said it best, “You don’t want to be in love! You want to be in love in a movie!”

And well, yeah, I do.  Reality has home work and laundry and toddlers who have meltdowns over Barbie shoes.  Love in a movie is a great distraction and there’s nothing guilty about that pleasure.

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Image result for sex and the city imagesOne of the best features of watching TV on demand is seeing in the “info screen” the original airdate of the episode.  For me, it is anyway, because I have always loved the conversation about putting art into context.  Even as far back as 15 years ago when I graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in “The History of Theater; The Theater of History.” My friends still make fun on that one.

A few weeks ago, it was a rainy weekend and my kids were otherwise occupied so when I saw SATC (SATC might be the last television show of recent times to inspire a recognizable acronym like GWTW or EPL) on cable in re-runs, I snuggled up for the long haul.  SATC on regular cable is more like LATC or FATC (love / friends) because a lot of the sex has been scrubbed to make it syndication friendly.  As a habit, I noticed the original air-date and I couldn’t help but wonder if Sarah Jessica Parker was right? Would present day NY would be unrecognizable to Carrie Bradshaw?  A few clicks on IMDB also revealed that SATC was about to celebrate 20 years since it’s premiere on June 6, 1998.

Yeesh, that must mean our heroines are well into their 50s now.  Heck, Cynthia Nixon is running for governor!  Times, they are a changin’.

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Remember back in 1998 when Bill Clinton was still president and was dealing with the Monica Lewinsky scandal? When the entire country was in a discussion about what constitutes “sexual relations” and what the meaning of “Is” is? The biggest show (according to Neilsen ratings) on TV was ER (followed by Friends and Frasier).  Online dating hadn’t gone mainstream yet, Mark Zuckerberg was still in grade school, and people still used pay phones to check their machine!  It’s safe to say the world technologically speaking was a very different place.  And that’s where SATC came in.  Finally you could see women talking about what they wanted in the bedroom out in the open.  I guess nowadays if you really thought your boyfriend had “funky spunk” you’d just goggle it and not bother your girlfriends with it and have to deal with the embarrassment.  But 1998 was a year before google became a verb so if you really had questions about sex, maybe you had nowhere to turn.  I know when I was in college in 2001 and a guy told me he only had 1 ball, I had to go to my girlfriends / gay guy friends to verify that having 1 ball was a legitimate thing and not a prank he was playing on me.  It would have never occurred to me then to look it up online.

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HBO who aired SATC originally, was not known as a prestige network winning tons of awards.  Sopranos hadn’t aired yet, so HBO was known mostly for comedy specials, Real Sex, and replays of many PG-13 movies.  The only original show I could think of pre-SATC was “Dream On” and I was too young to watch it.  From the many interviews I’ve read by Sarah Jessica Parker, Michael Patrick King and Matthew Wiener, HBO was a great place to work in the 90’s/early aughts.  They gave you creative freedom, they didn’t give a ton of notes, and they valued the work over the ratings.  SATC in it’s third season became the first cable show to win the “Best Comedy” Emmy and with that put a stake in the ground for HBO to become the award winning network of movie stars slumming it on TV.  Sarah Jessica admits regularly in interviews she made the pilot for SATC and promptly forgot about it.  After the fact she didn’t even want to do the series and tried to get out of it.  Can you imagine another actress captivating the world as Carrie Bradshaw? I can’t.

SATC’s first season aired in the summer of 1998 and quickly caused a stir.  The reviews were mixed, but people were tuning in.  Now looking back over the 6 seasons plus 2 movies, no one looks back at season 1 as their favorite.  There were many growing pains like talking directly to the camera and stories of random peripheral friends never to be seen again.  Heck, they don’t even figure out how to tame Sarah Jessica’s frizz until episode 6 when her romance with Big really gets going.  That, coincidentally, is when the show starts to take shape as we follow the major romantic arc for the series – the uncertain woman meets the man they describe as “Donald Trump, but younger and more handsome” who’s great at withholding and game playing.  Watching their chemistry became the secret sauce of SATC’s success initially, because the other female characters are caricatures for many episodes. Their differing viewpoints are so harsh at the beginning it’s hard to find a character you identify with, shockingly, because the conversation of “I’m a Carrie” or “I’m a Miranda” takes over the media for about 10 years after the show goes off the air. (Obviously, I AM a Miranda).  Miranda takes shape in the middle of season 2 when she finally gets into a relationship with Steve and then has to let him go when he’s a lowly bartender and she’s a high powered lawyer.  Charlotte’s defined by her quest for perfection right up to the point when she marries the wrong man: Trey.  (Yes I recognize that both of these storylines has to do with “meeting your mate”, but for me seeing them in relationship to the men is what ultimately gives them definition beyond the cliché).  For Samantha, I actually think she comes into her own in the first SATC movie when she realizes she says Smith’s name more every day than her own. But Kim Catrall is just so damn sexy, beautiful and funny that she makes Samantha three-dimensional despite there not being that much dimension on the page.

I’ve listened to all the director’s commentary on the dvds of both the SATC series and movies and to hear Michael Patrick King’s insights is fascinating because you hear from him how layered the show was from the writing/directing point of view.  Not all of it comes out on screen though, which begs the questions, “Does it count?”  SATC is a bit ham-fisted at times, cramming down our throats the pithy nicknames for the men “Mr. Pussy”, “Springroll Guy”, “Catholic Guy” and “Manhattan Guy” are among the silliest. Something Kyle Smith and I don’t agree on, despite his rare rave for the show. There’s also the running theme for each episode anchored in the column Carrie is writing that feels forced by 2018 standards, but at the time I don’t remember thinking it’s weird that all of a sudden we’re talking about the stock market in the middle of an SATC episode. Perhaps it’s only feels shoe-horned in when your binge watching it, not watching one episode per week.  Shows are made differently now, and of course the trope of the “four (mostly white) girlfriends” has been executed over and over again with lackluster results since 1998.  The best one being Lena Dunham’s Girls, also on HBO. Cashmere Mafia, move right along.

Meanwhile, as the 20th anniversary of the premiere approached, I started to see more and more articles online about SATC’s legacy.  Here’s the rub, a lot of it is negative. Someone is actually claiming SATC ruined their life because they moved to NYC to live the life of Carrie.  But before SATC, didn’t young women move to NYC to live the life of Annie Hall, or Holly Golightly? Gimme a break.  I watched SATC as a young twenty-something and moved to NYC (well, Brooklyn, but close enough) and I never once bought a pair of Manolos.  The show was never about the fashion, or the men, or the pop culture it influenced.  It was about the pursuit of finding yourself amongst the backdrop of the New York City skyline, and maybe finding “the one” who would love the real you in the process.

Now that’s a show I can still get on board with. The final words of the series are, “Later that day I got to thinking about relationships. There are those that open you up to something new and exotic, those that are old and familiar, those that bring up lots of questions, those that bring you somewhere unexpected, those that bring you far when where you started, and those that bring you back.  But the most exciting, challenging, and significant relationship of all is the one you have with yourself.  And if you find someone to love the you that you love…well that’s just fabulous.”

Maybe in about 15 years, when my daughter is 19 and it’s a rainy weekend, I’ll fire up the HBO Go and show her the tv show that all the fuss was about when I was 19.  Happy Birthday Sex and the City, you’re still fabulous.

The Best Episodes of Sex and the City  (in no particular order).

Season 1 – The Baby Shower

The four girls jumping in the car only to realize, no one got in the driver’s seat is pure New York.  Plus the realization that people do get married and move to the suburbs, even Laney, is important for the series because so much of their identity is wrapped up in NOT doing that, because it doesn’t feel right for them.  We also get the first visions of how scary parents are! Breastfeeding a kid who can chew steak? No, thank you.

Season 2 – The Chicken Dance

Finally Carrie has to take notice of the fact that Big loves her, but maybe not exactly the way she wants.  Yes they’re back together, but he still has boundaries and won’t sign the card for the wedding and has to take work calls while she’s reciting her poem (which is a lovely poem by the way).  This is the foreshadowing that will come to a head in La Douleur Exquise. Guest star Carrie Preston, which is what Carrie Bradshaw’s name becomes once she marries BIG in SATC 2.

Season 2 – La Douleur Exquise

The exquisite pain of Carrie and Big.  Carrie realizes what she means to Big and it’s not pretty.  Women around the world relate to Carrie feeling like she’s giving her all to the relationship and he’s only thinking of her when it’s convenient.  This feeling alone has inspired countless songs, stories and themes in couples therapy.

Season 3 – Easy come, Easy Go

Carrie gets her revenge, sort of.  Big finally admits that he made a mistake by rushing to marry Natasha and utters the words every dumped woman wants to hear, “I made a mistake, I love you.” Miranda and Steve learn to break up with dignity and remain friends.  Meanwhile Samantha struggles to deal with “funky spunk” from her latest bedmate, guest star Bobby Cannevale.  And Charlotte talks Trey into marriage in possibly the least sexy way.

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Season 4 – The Real Me

It’s easy to overlook this episode as one of the episodes without the romanctic arc of Carrie/Big or Carrie/Aidan that dominate this season.  But watching it with fresh eyes I realized that this is the episode of the series that defines the series.  We all get knocked down in life, it’s how you get back up that matters.  It’s there in the opening sequence of the series, and it’s in this episode.  Guest star Alan Cumming as a bitchy designer.

Season 4 – Ghost Town

Steve and Aidan open a bar? Sure why not!  It’s a great excuse to put Carrie and Aidan back in the same room.  He’s moved on and looks fabulous.  She’s haunted by how she hurt him and reconciles her feelings about moving forward.  Plus, Miranda and Steve cement their friendship post breakup.

Season 5 – Plus One is the Loneliest Number

The love letter to the single girl.  Sometimes big moments in your life will happen and you won’t have that special someone to share them with.  It’s ok, NYC can be your date where there’s always late night hot dogs and the men who give them to you for free. Samantha gets an ill advised chemical peel and Anthony screams “PINK!”. What’s not to love?  Meanwhile Miranda stares into Brady’s eyes and really gets it, “she’s a mother now and life has changed forever.”

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Season 6 – The Post it Always Sticks Twice

I remember watching this episode the night it first aired with one of my friends and we cracked up at Smith being a “zygote” and the way Carrie smokes a doobie.  We’ve all been broken up with in ways that feel icky (texts, phone messages and straight out ghosting) but having it written on a post-it was just so perfectly 2004.  It hurts but it’s still kinda old school.  The girls go out to get Carrie’s mind off her latest indignity and Samantha realizes she might just have some real feelings for Smith, Miranda gets into her skinny jeans and gets her sexy back.  Charlotte comes to terms with her second engagement which is undoubtedly less perfect than the first, simply because it is not the first one.

Season 6 – The Domino Effect

The words we’d all longed to hear from Big, “what are we doing?” as he realizes life is fragile after heart surgery.  Carrie is rocked by the tears that flow when she thinks about Big, but also smart enough to know his limitations when he turns on the witholding again.  Miranda takes a personal day to get it on with sexy Dr. Robert Leeds, guest star Blair Underwood and poor Steve catches them in the act.  Steve and Miranda have a Brechtian moment at her front door, when Steve says “Miranda…” The audience just wants these two to get over themselves and find eachother but as in real life, these things take time!

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Season 6 – One

Miranda finally sees that Steve is the one and proclaims her love for him in the laundry room during Brady’s party.  Samantha has to come to terms with aging “down there” and Charlotte finds a way to bounce back after losing her baby.  First appearance of “The Russian” played by Mikhail Baryshnikov shows Carrie there there’s more love to be had, post Big.  Or is there?

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