If the pilot episode didn’t quite resemble the show that Sex and the City would eventually become, the second episode, Models and Mortals, is an almost archetypical example of the show’s early format, using a broad overarching theme to give the episode structure: in this case, what it means to be an “average woman” in a city where supermodels “run wild in the streets.”
Under this narrative umbrella, Miranda dates a modelizer (“a step behind womanizers, who will sleep with just about anything in a skirt”), Carrie runs into Mr. Big with a model on his arm (“I felt like I was wearing patchouli in a room full of Chanel”), and Samantha sleeps with a confirmed modelizer (“Samantha demanded nothing less than the same consideration given every other model in town”).
Juxtaposing the glitz and glamor of model-life against the flaws-and-all realness of “mortal” life, the show makes a surprisingly compelling case in favor of the latter. I say “surprising” only because the show is so deeply associated in the public consciousness with glitz and glam.
This, however, is not at all the world we see in Models and Mortals. These are real New Yorkers. They sit on the floor and eat takeout. They buy cereal at the bodega. They eat too many sweet potato canapes after a fashion show.
The “model” is deployed in this episode as a symbol of acquisition. For the men who date them, they are a trophy to be won (and perhaps to be captured on film). For the models themselves, modeling is framed as a path to a life of excitement and material gain. As supermodel Xandrella coos to the camera in a cutaway “interview” scene, “you can get anything, I’ve been offered trips to Aspen, weekends in Paris, Christmas in St Barts, a Bulgari necklace, a breast job…”
The “mortal,” on the other hand, is portrayed as having both less and more. Lacking in money and flawless good looks, they are possessed of a joy and good humor that comes from being real—from eschewing the fantasies of endless acquisition for the pleasures of the here and now. As it says in Pirkei Avot: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.”
This “rejoicing in one’s lot” is highlighted by a memorable scene between Carrie and Derek, aka “the Bone,” who we are told is “the world’s biggest underwear model and Stanford’s most important client.” Lounging next to Carrie as they share a cigarette, he asks her: “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
Carrie responds: “Well, I think this might be it.”
Watching the show as a teenager and a young adult, I didn’t bat an eye at this response. I assumed that’s how life worked. You got a charming apartment, you had good friends, you figured out how to make a living, and then, well, you enjoyed those things.
At age thirty-three, I can appreciate how revolutionary Carrie’s response really was. Most of the people I know, whether in their twenties or sixties, would never say “this might be it.” Rather, we live as though life is something that will start as soon as… as soon as we have more money, as soon as we have more status, as soon as we get a promotion, as soon as we’re married, as soon as we have kids, as soon as we retire, and so on.
The “mortals” of Models and Mortals offer us a different way of being in the world—one in which life is not about endlessly grasping for more. Uninterested in living life as a grab for prizes, they are equally uninterested in being a prize for someone else to grab.
This, it turns out, is more alluring than the “perfection” that a model could bring to the table. As Mr. Big states to Carrie at the end of the episode, “There are so many goddamn gorgeous women out there in this city… [but] after a while you just wanna be with the one that makes you laugh.”
Unlike so many other shows on TV in the 90s and early 2000s, Sex and the City was never about “trying to have it all.” This was a show about having it all—about having everything that really matters. Little did we know as we watched it on dorm room beds and in our first apartments, that we already did.
Inspired by the sages of old who paired the weekly Torah reading with a selection from the books of the prophets, I will be pairing my SATC commentary with a selection from the later works of the franchise (the two movies and “And Just Like That…”) with the hopes that this act of juxtaposition can help us make meaning:
Pair SATC S01E02 with the Sex and the City movie’s opening scenes. In voiceover, Carrie states: “Year after year, 20-something women come to New York City in search of the two L’s: labels and love.” With this opening line, she sets up the movie as a story of upward mobility and acquisition. Let Models and Mortals be a tonic and a tikkun for this low point.