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“We did everything we could to make it be worth a trip back,” says Michael Patrick King — who is Zooming in from New York, where he has been consumed by his Sex and the City revival, And Just Like That, for the better part of a year. It was he, with buy-in from star Sarah Jessica Parker, who had initiated the follow-up, which rolls out as a 10-episode series on HBO Max on Dec. 9.
King first joined the culture-defining, Emmy-winning comedy at the pilot stage and remained intimately involved until its finale, six seasons later. In the nearly 20 years since, the once “repressed Irish Catholic gay man” from Scranton, Pennsylvania, has remained prolific, creating a second critical darling in HBO’s The Comeback and a network hit in CBS’ long-running Two Broke Girls. King also wrote and directed two Sex and the City films, with a third penned but never shot. (And Just Like That is in no way a TV version of Sex and the City 3, he says, but he confirms there are strands from it.)
With paparazzi back staking out his sets, King, now in his late 60s, opened up about his long, winding road to Hollywood acceptance and why he wanted to return to Carrie Bradshaw’s New York.
You arrived in New York City at 20, and your first job is pulling bags off of Greyhound buses, which feels like the furthest thing from Sex and the City …
The first union I joined was the transit workers union! And I had the incredible experience of having both New Yorks, the New York that was unsuccessful, unrealized, unpolished, un-fancy, un-moneyed, un-celebritied; and then, many, many years later, I had the other New York experience, which was, “Your show is the toast of the city. Come on in. Here’s the party. You’re invited.” But a lot of Sex and the City was about resilience and about evolution, and who you become based on obstacles and how you overcome those, so the idea of having had both rich and poor New York, both the seen and unseen, both the dark and sexual New York and the more conventional, coupled New York gave me a range of experience to pull on.
Looking back, what do you consider your big break?
Murphy Brown was the first time I felt I was in the club. I joined in the fifth season, which was at the peak and the year that Dan Quayle called Murphy a slut or whatever. [The vice president took issue with an unmarried woman bearing a child.] That room was like Yale School of Drama, and I’d always had a little chip on my shoulder about the people who went to the good schools and got that special express road to wherever they were going versus people who went to community colleges or no college or quit college, like me. That was the first time I was chosen, and it’s because [creator] Diane English was so confident in herself, in a relaxed way, that she was like, “Who’s interesting? Who can I get?” But after that, I was developing for network TV, and it always felt like I was offering too much and my worlds were too complicated.
What did that look like?
I’ll give you a perfect example. I did a pilot called Temporarily Yours for Peter Roth [at Warner Bros.,] which was built around Debi Mazar. She was this working-class girl who could win everybody over because she’d done a million jobs, like me. Maybe she’d even worked at the Port Authority, I’m not sure, but what I brought to the pilot was my experience of living in New York. I gave her a small apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. I gave her a Lithuanian grandmother who lived with her and a best friend, Aida Turturro, with two chubby 2-year-olds on her hip and a Latin super who had a crush on her. And I gave her Joanna Gleason and Seth Green as a mother and son; he with a curious sexuality and her with this uptight Upper East Side quality. I was fired after the pilot. New writers were brought in. Almost all the characters went away except for Debi, and they moved her to an apartment that was the size of the Friends’ apartment with a giant view of the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s what I mean. I had made an overstuffed sandwich, and they were looking for a snack.
You fired Ari Emanuel early in your career when he advised you to take a writing gig on the football sitcom Coach. Where did that confidence come from?
Deep inside. Also, I was literally the opposite of sports. If Ari had said to me, “I’m going to put you on Submarine,” I would’ve gone, “Submarine? That’s interesting. Maybe I could write a really interesting submarine show, even though I’ve never been under water.” When I heard Coach, it was like a knee-jerk reaction to Little League, being way out in right field and missing the ball. I knew I wouldn’t do well there. I also wasn’t 25 when I came to Hollywood. I still couldn’t make rent at 38. But at one point, after it was all happening, I was maybe 44, and I’d drive around saying out loud in my car, “I’m a 50-year-old waiter who works at Urth Caffé. I’m a 50-year-old waiter who works at Urth Caffé.” I’d try that on to see if I could live with it. That kind of a thing comes from saying, “I’m not going to just ‘sit my ass on Coach.’ ” That was the phrase Ari had used, by the way, and “sit my ass” isn’t really my energy level. (Laughs.)
You’ve said of Sex and the City and HBO, it afforded you a much longer leash. When would you feel it tug?
Yeah, if network TV is a choke collar, HBO was an enormous leash. And they wanted all of me, so I felt it not in content, ever, but in time. The leash was length. I would hand in scripts, and I would go, “I think it’s 38 minutes,” and Chris [Albrecht] and Carolyn [Strauss at HBO] would look and go, “Yeah, it’s 38 minutes, great.” Then came the evil force, which was something called TiVo, which would cut you off at 30 minutes. So, the TiVo audience wouldn’t see those last five earned moments. It’s amazing to think that the hardest thing to do is get that cooperative, collaborative, loving, supportive relationship with a network that we had with HBO and then to have Voldemort be a mechanical thing that has no feelings at all. Now, I think there’s so much content that you feel the audience can just jump at any point.
So, content is the new villain?
Pace is the new villain. Everyone’s worried that people will get bored and go to the 5,000 other shows. It’s the “Does it drag here? Does it not? Will we keep people?” conversation. When they were testing AJ and the Queen with a bunch of 17-to-20-year-olds, I said to the testing people, “And when will you start letting them bring their phones in? Because what you are doing now is showing a show to heroin addicts without the needles. They’re already agitated because they’re not doing what they’re normally doing, and you’re asking them if it’s too long? It was too long the minute you took their phone away! Also, is it too long if they’re looking at their phone for a 10-second break? You know that part of the scene that you say drags? They’re looking at their phone. It doesn’t drag because they’re happy. So, who’s to decide what drags?” Now a movie’s different. When I did the first [Sex and the City] movie, it was two hours and 20 minutes. The question we asked was, “How long before people have to pee?” I don’t want people leaving the theater because it was 10 minutes past their bladder. Here, you’re at home, people are either watching all 10 in one sitting or the first one in 10 sittings. Why are we still talking about pace?
When did the idea of reviving Sex and the City come to you?
I’ve always had an idea for a story, and it’s best served in a series because of the amount of story that you can tell in 10 episodes. You can really bring in new characters and have their lives actually be in the show rather than just be a side dish. So, the softest pitch of this is somebody saying, “Hey, I saw Carrie Bradshaw on the street the other day.” And someone else saying, “How’d she look?” I mean, that’s the simplest [way to explain it], seeing somebody you haven’t seen on the street, and they’re still them. Because to me, these characters have always been alive, and the city is incredibly alive. But the world has changed so much that I thought, “How interesting if we could see how their lives have evolved, the world has evolved, society has evolved, what we talk about has evolved, what we don’t talk about has evolved. Plus, relationships have evolved and marriages come and go. So much happens from 35 to 55.”
There’s diversity in the writers room that you’ve assembled and in the additions to the cast that didn’t exist in the first go-round. Did that push come from you or from HBO?
It came from a desire to reflect the world where we are now. What are the points of view that you didn’t get a shot at the last time? You have a new opportunity, come back and see what you can do. But it’s always about what these characters are learning from each other. That’s what it always is. So, who can I bring in to mix up, inform, rattle, support all these characters?
With the revival, what did you want to say about these women, who are now in their 50s, and how is it different from what you wanted to say 20 years ago?
I always believed that the success of the first series was because there was a villain, and that villain was a society that said that single people are lepers. “If they’re not married, they’re outside of what we like.” And the outsider in me, the one who was never chosen, the one who was like, “I don’t fit society,” linked in to the idea of defending the rights of people to not be married but also to show that that is beautiful, comic and a choice. So, that was their 30s. Now? The villain is again society. “You’re over 50. It doesn’t matter if you’re married, it’s over. Women of a certain age should act a certain way, and they should be felt sorry for.” Not married was “not worthy” then, and now being 55 is “not worthy.” So, to me, there’s still something to fight in a comic, honest, completely surprising way. Plus, the city’s different, the world’s different and the conversations are different.
When did it become clear to you that the revival was going to feature three women and not all four?
And Just Like That was never four. It never was on the radar as four because Kim Cattrall, for whatever reason, didn’t want to play Samantha anymore while we were doing the [third] movie. I never thought, “Oh, there’s a hole I have to fill.” Samantha doesn’t not exist in their lives. The show was born of these three characters: What’s their life, and who can I bring in to inform it? Listen, I wouldn’t do this again if I wasn’t excited about the idea. And even though people think this is a franchise that they’re familiar with, there’s something new in this version. This isn’t what was; it’s what’s next.
Was everyone immediately on board or did you have to convince certain actors to return?
We had a discussion with everybody because nobody wanted to come back and just do what they did. So, there was an enormous amount of creative discussion before we all agreed to do it. It wasn’t like, “Here’s the script. Yes or no?” Especially with the family members. And I’d hear feedback, everybody had something that they wanted to make sure was new. And of course within it, we lost Willie [Garson], which was a shock, too.
Had you filmed everything that you had intended to film with him?
Oh God, no. We had a whole journey that we weren’t able to do, but what he did is fantastic. But to answer the question, there were incredible, creative, intellectual, emotional conversations with Sarah Jessica, of course, because we started it together, and then with Cynthia [Nixon], Kristin [Davis], Chris [Noth], Evan [Handler], David [Eigenberg], Mario [Cantone], Willie, Julie Halston. Everyone who was in, I had a conversation with. And then the new people, too.
A day didn’t seem to go by without pictures from your set emerging on sites like TMZ or feeds like Deux Moi. How does that paparazzi attention help or hinder your process?
Honestly, if paparazzi are chasing you and there are 50 30-year-old girls waiting to see the actors, that’s not a bad thing. It means in a world where everybody is all over the place and there are 5,000 things to take your attention, somehow this is something that people are focusing on. And if you get anybody to focus on your work before it’s on now, it’s shocking. The annoying thing is the paparazzi with video cameras because they can get key pieces of dialogue. But I finally made my peace with all that because even though you think you know, you don’t know, no matter what you see. People are all like, “Oh, why is she wearing that?” And I’m like, “Well, there’s a reason she’s wearing that.” It’s funny though because the new stars were like, “What the hell is this? I’ve never had to act with 14 other cameras looking at me.”
Finally, do you intend to do more?
Everything I do, I always end. I always leave a finished something. I’ve always thought, like, “What’s season three finale,” just because it’s like a book, that chapter, that chapter, that chapter. So, there’s no crazy cliffhangers here. I’m just telling a story to see what it is. But of course, there’s interest [in doing more]. Everybody loves everything, in theory. (Laughs.)
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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