TAKE A ROOMFUL OF SINGLES, mix in HBO's fizziest comedy, spike liberally with spicy conversation and voilà! The perfect Sex and the City viewing party. Or at least that's the recipe followed by a growing number of loyal fans who throw weekly get-togethers in celebration of the Mother of Must-See Cable TV, which kicks off Season No. 4 this month.
At Chicago's Leg Room bar, thanks to a special arrangement with HBO, patrons were invited to screen last season's episodes on Thursdays—three nights before they aired nationally. "You couldn't even move," says Alina Suarez, a 25-year-old physical therapist who bears enough of a resemblance to actress Kristin Davis to have won third place in the bar's Sex and the City lookalike contest. "They had food, lots of martinis, even Sex and the City candy bars with the show's logo on the wrappers."
In Houston, Edith Sorenson, 39, a freelance writer, had a champagne-laced buffet in her book-filled bungalow to mark last season's cataclysmic wedding episode. "One friend brought a lovely bridal bouquet tied with a silver ribbon. It held the place of honor on top of the TV set for the evening," she says. And in Miami, "we're obsessed," admits Julie Anne Seaga, 32, a divorced decorative painter who holds her own Sunday-night TV dinners with five single friends at her apartment. Taking a cue from the show's quartet of cocktail-swilling stars, Seaga enlivens the festivities with rounds of Sex and the City-style cosmopolitans (traditionally a mix of vodka, triple sec and cranberry and lime juice) and plenty of sushi. "We're dating, we're out there, there's a lot to talk about," explains Seaga. "We get together to watch the show because we have so much in common with it."
It is easy to see why the show attracts 11.1 million viewers each week—a notable achievement on the cable landscape. Single women in the U.S. now number 43 million, or more than 40 percent of adult females—up from about 30 percent in 1960. What's more, a study released last summer found that nearly 60 percent of unmarried women own their own homes. And an increasing number are choosing to raise children solo, either via adoption or artificial insemination.
Like pop-cultural lightning in a designer-fragrance bottle, the Sex girls have captured this cultural phenomenon and immortalized it, landing on the cover of TIME last year with the provocative question "Who Needs a Husband?" Refusing to settle for mediocre men, fed up with subpar sex, today's unmarried women—like those on Sex and the City—are champions of choosiness, still eager to find true love but unwilling to relax their standards.
"The show is not a documentary, but these women exist," says creator Darren Star. "They're different versions of women I have as friends. Though they're looking for fulfilling relationships, marriage isn't the ultimate answer. They're not looking for validation in another person. They're finding it within themselves and through their friendships with each other."
Alternately independent and insecure, the show's four heroines represent a contrasting mix of archetypes. There's Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker
), a sex columnist for a New York City newspaper stuck in a doomed relationship with alpha male Mr. Big (Chris Noth); Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), a cynical, successful lawyer who doesn't really believe she deserves it all; Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), a demure art dealer desperate for the perfect husband; and Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall), an id-driven public relations exec who indulges her every whim without regret.
Beyond its sociological relevance, Sex and the City—the brainchild of writer Candace Bushnell, whose 1990s New York Observer column of the same name inspired the show—owes its enormous popularity to something else entirely: It's fun. Brimming with high-gloss fashion, wink-wink in-jokes and enough frank bedroom talk—and action—to make even Hugh Hefner blush, "it's kind of a personal indulgence for women—like our football," reasons Pamela Niedzwiadek, 24, a payroll clerk from Bethesda, Md., who hasn't missed an episode. Adds Allston Kendall, 28, a senior consultant at Ernst & Young in Atlanta: "Not that I plan to live the same lifestyle, or treat sex so casually, but I do envy the characters' ability to float from relationship to relationship and bed to bed." On the other hand, she notes, "the characters are human. They have jobs, they strive to succeed, and they are loyal friends and want to have serious relationships, but they are not perfect."
Which is exactly what makes them so appealing. Last season, says former Leg Room manager Shawn Krutsinger, the bar's Sex and the City parties were Chicago's hottest ticket: "We had a line going for two blocks," he says. "It was like we were giving out free makeup or something."
Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Trine Tsouderos in Chicago, Gabrielle Cosgriff in Houston, Linda Trischitta in Miami, Jill Westfall in Atlanta and Jen Chaney in Washington, D.C.