NEW YORK -- Oh, baby! The fabulous four of ''Sex and the City'' are back, but the click-click of their stiletto heels is being challenged by the pitter-patter of little feet.
Nowadays, kid stuff is a factor on this HBO adult comedy in more ways than one.
The real-life pregnancy of Sarah Jessica Parker, who stars as sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw, required an early production wrap last spring and held up the season premiere by a month. Returning Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT, the series was able to complete just eight new episodes, rather than the planned 13.
Meanwhile, Carrie's weeks-old godson Brady is introducing such issues as diaper-changing and breast-feeding to a series that heretofore has smiled upon its Manhattan gal pals as they chased romance in fabulous shoes.
The fourth-season finale, which aired in February, found high-powered attorney Miranda (played by Cynthia Nixon) giving birth to an adorable little boy, as well as to heightened doubts about her fitness as a single mom.
Charlotte (Kristin Davis), the openhearted art dealer and Smith graduate, finally closed the book on her failed storybook marriage.
Samantha (Kim Cattrall), the liberated PR exec with an appetite for anyone sporting muscles and Y-chromosomes, had fallen prey to her first-ever monogamous relationship -- only to catch her true love cheating with somebody else.
And Carrie, the self-described ''sexual anthropologist,'' bade a bittersweet farewell to her beloved ex, Big, who moved to California.
Now the fifth-season premiere reconvenes this sisterhood at their favorite brunch hangout, where they feed on one another's latest news -- with certain limitations.
When Samantha vents about her boyfriend's betrayal in her typically raunchy way, Charlotte shushes her and glances at baby Brady, who, parked on a chair in his carrier, seems amused by the chatter.
''It's OK, nothing has to change,'' insists Miranda, struggling to preserve the old candor. ''Just think of this as a big purse.''
''Oh, Miranda,'' says Carrie, ''your purse just threw up.''
Confab over, shopping seems in order. But Miranda neglected to bring a Snugli for toting her son. Forlornly taking her leave, she and Brady catch a cab for home, ''moving slowly away from her old life,'' as Carrie narrates it, ''and quickly into her new one.''
Is ''Sex and the City'' also moving away? The disruption this baby could impose already has raised concerns among the show's fans, who know that a baby born to a series is usually less a blessed event than a cry for help.
But since its premiere in June 1998, ''Sex and the City'' has steadily grown bigger and better, with no trace of creative fatigue. Last year, it won the Emmy for best comedy series (an unprecedented achievement for any cable show).
So where's the desperation?
Nowhere, except within its characters as a natural progression of the show's storytelling. As the new season dawns, these 30-something ladies are socked with age-appropriate anxiety. They suspect that somehow time is passing them by.
Wistfully, Carrie reflects on carefree days ''before the baggage, breakups and babies began to weigh us all down.''
What weighs them down is a crisis of belief.
Despite passionate apologies from her two-timing boyfriend, Samantha has trouble believing he can change. Even Charlotte, determined to believe there's still a Mr. Right in her future, has to seek reassurance from a positive-thinking guru.
Carrie wonders what's the point. ''Maybe it's not even advisable to be an optimist after the age of 30,'' she muses. ''Maybe pessimism is something we have to start applying daily -- like moisturizer.''
Of course, the better plan for all concerned might be upping their intake of reality, and there's nothing like a baby to dispense it. The healthy disruption little Brady represents seems just the right developmental step for Miranda as well as her friends. And a smart creative step for the series.
In any case, Cynthia Nixon (herself expecting a second child by the end of this year) was psyched to play the mom of this tiny new character -- and had no fear of being upstaged by the various babies who would share his role.
''I really like working with babies,'' Nixon said in a recent interview. ''When you just let the baby do its own thing and then react to it, it makes YOU look like such a great actor, and makes the scene look so real. Because it is!''
So, welcome back, ''Sex and the City,'' and welcome, Brady, to it: Ushering in a reality check, you're all set to reign as the show's new Mr. Right.
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org
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