Battle of the “Sex and the City” doppelgangers...
When “Sex and the City” said goodnight to New York for the very last time, a nation went into mourning. As campy and unbelievable as the show was at times, there’s no denying that Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha had forged, with their Manolo Blahnik stilettos, a place in our hearts.
That was back in 2004. It’s now four years later, and the void has been filled. Twice.
If there’s anything to say about television executives, it’s that they’re often not the most imaginative people in the world. That, or they adhere to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of thought more often than they should (as exhibited by the oversaturation of medical dramas and procedural shows we’ve come to know and cancel). When “Cashmere Mafia” and “Lipstick Jungle” were greenlit by ABC and NBC, respectively, both networks had hoped to recapture some of that “Sex and the City” magic that had made the show a pop culture phenomenon and reference point for single women in the big city.
“Cashmere Mafia” is conceptualized by Darren Star, while “Lipstick Jungle” is based on Candace Bushnell’s best-selling novel of the same name. Both had previously worked on “Sex and the City” together, and if you find it odd that they now have competing shows on competing networks, you’re not far off the mark. Star had pitched his show, about four career women in New York, to networks long before Bushnell’s creation, about three career women in New York, was optioned as a television show. This brought some ill feelings, to say the least, not to mention a certain pressure to have a hit show. So who wins – the seasoned producer with “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Melrose Place” under his belt, or the seasoned writer who brought Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha to life?
Let’s start with “Lipstick Jungle,” which premiered a couple of weeks ago. Like most people following the shows’ network premieres, I had picked this one as my early favourite based on sheer casting alone – Brooke Shields (“Suddenly Susan,” ex-sparring partner of Tom Cruise), Kim Raver (“24”), and Lindsay Price (“Beverly Hills, 90210”) were all actresses I could get behind. But after watching the awkward pilot, it became clear that casting alone couldn’t save this show.
As “Lipstick Jungle” opens, we get the obligatory back story in an in-your-face way, which is only less annoying than the lead characters’ names: Wendy Healy (Shields, now an unflattering brunette), Nico Reilly (Raver) and Victory Ford (Price) have all made it onto some important list of the most powerful women in New York. Placement mirrors the billing order of the show – movie executive Wendy is somewhere in the top ten, while magazine editor-in-chief Nico falls respectably mid-range; poor Victory barely makes the cut because she sucks as a fashion designer.
But as much as these characters have dream careers, “Lipstick Jungle” doesn’t let us forget that success comes as a price, especially if you’re a woman. Wendy runs a studio house but can barely keep it together at home as her husband (Paul Blackthorne) has an inferiority complex attack every other episode. Nico is stuck in a sexless marriage and has to contend with a backbiting co-worker angling for her job. And Victory, poor Victory, has been forced to downsize her operations after a disastrous showing at Fashion Week.
In the second episode, Wendy has to contend with an ex-nanny who has just written a tell-all book about her and her poor mothering skills, which is basically a retread of the pilot episode, right down to the pep talk that the girls have at their power lunch (although Victory’s insistence at having an alcoholic drink throughout the episode was pretty cute). Yes, we get it: you’re powerful, driven, and won’t ever let anyone put you down for that. As obvious as this recurring theme will no doubt become, “Lipstick Jungle” often undermines this by showing us a vulnerable side to Wendy, Nico, and Victory that borderlines on clichéd. Wendy can broker deals with Leonardo Di Caprio without breaking a sweat, but she worries about what other people will think about her. Nico starts up an affair with a younger man and reasons that it’s impossible to expect a person to provide you with everything, but clearly still loves and admires her husband. Of all the stories here, Nico’s is perhaps the most interesting, if only because Raver has the confidence and talent to pull it off.
And Victory. Victory is perhaps the most relatable character of the show, but more often than not, ends up looking like a spaz. In the pilot, Victory meets Joe Bennett, played by Andrew McCarthy (yes, the same McCarthy from Weekend At Bernie’s, and no, I’m not sure where they found him either). Joe is a billionaire type who is obviously supposed to be the second coming of Mr. Big. Unfortunately, McCarthy is hardly it. While Mr. Big was smarmily charismatic, commanding, and chock full of old New York charm, Joe is domineering, pompous, creepy, and about four feet tall. After a disastrous business meeting in Japan, Victory places a hysterical call to Joe, who proceeds to fly her back on his private jet. “I don’t need saving,” Victory says, clearly lying, because this happens in the second episode as well. Victory, obsessively intent on tracking down a hat she made in fashion school (a hat so hideous that it’s not clear why Vogue would ever anoint her as the golden child of fashion), has little luck until Joe steps in. Unfortunately, this happens at the end of the episode and Joe has missed the memo that Victory doesn’t need a silly little hat that she designed ten years ago to get her mojo back. Joe is clearly in for a long season.
But despite a weak start, there are some moments where “Lipstick Jungle” shows a glimmer of hope. The camaraderie that the women share is far more natural than that of “Cashmere Mafia” (especially when the women rally to support an inconsolable Victory after negative reviews of her fashion show emerge) and there may be hope yet for the storylines to get more interesting, especially Niko’s. Plus, I hear that Brooke Shields may end up with highlights by the end of the season.
Just because “Cashmere Mafia” may not exactly capture the delightful “Sex and the City” comradeship, that doesn’t mean that the show has no heart – even though it’s hard to find it amidst all the drama and marital angst. With Lucy Liu (Mia Mason), Miranda Otto (Juliet Draper), Bonnie Sommerville (Caitlin Dowd) and Frances O’Connor (Zöe Burden) in the lead, “Cashmere Mafia” focuses more on the interpersonal lives of these women than it does their work place, but lets it be known from the start that everyone is wildly successful, always looks like they’re coming back from an executive meeting, and have offices the size of my apartment.
The pilot of “Cashmere Mafia” connects the heroines far less annoyingly than “Lipstick Jungle” does by having the four meet for a pow-wow power lunch. It’s noticeably obvious that they can meet for impromptu gabfests at white-linen restaurants more often than the average person, and it’s also obvious that they command much authority in Darren Star’s New York, even though I still have no idea what each woman does for a living (but I expect whatever it is that they do to be fabulous, of course).
It’s also obvious that “Cashmere Mafia” mirrors the sex and love angle of “Sex and the City” more than “Lipstick Jungle” does, if only because all four women are constantly looking for one or the other (in between the obligatory Respect at Work, which we get drilled with almost ad nauseum). Mia gets engaged in the pilot, only to lose her engagement when she wins the coveted editor job over her fiancé (I won’t even get into the part where they have to “compete” for the job by seeing who can come up with the biggest advertising client, because that’s just stupid). Caitlin is single but tired of men, so she tries dating women. Zöe is married with children but can’t seem to find a good nanny. And Juliet is married, but the happily part is not so clear.
In the pilot, Juliet gets to deliver the obligatory speech about how being an empowered woman comes with sacrifice, and it’s better written than Nico’s speech in “Lipstick Jungle” because it actually causes you to stop and think, instead of, say, rolling your eyes for the umpteenth time. When confronted by her friends about her husband’s affair, Juliet says, “Look at what a man gives up to be with one of us. We make more money, we rise higher, we take up more space, we are as far from an idea of a wife that he grew up with...don't get me wrong, I hate it. But I hate the alternative more.” She then proceeds to make the situation even weirder by telling her husband that, to get even, she will take on a lover.
Once these conventions have been set up, “Cashmere Mafia” jumps into full swing by the second episode. The women consolidate their Blackberry address books over an expensive lunch to find a suitable lover for Juliet. Mia has to fire her mentor and is branded a raving bitch for doing so. Zöe’s integrity as a wife and a mother is threatened by a socialite mom who looks like she wants to pull a Single White Female on her. And Caitlin, the official spaz of the group, is embarking on her first lesbian relationship but predictably fails.
“Cashmere Mafia” is not a well-written show, but it is far better paced than “Lipstick Jungle,” and only makes you want to roll your eyes about fifty times instead of the fifty-five or so during an episode of “Lipstick Jungle.” Still, there are some things already seem to be getting old, like Caitlin’s sexual confusion that only leads to her balking at the lesbian label, only to go running back to her lesbian lover by the fifty-minute mark. Or Zöe’s hunt for a nanny, which is as exciting as it sounds. And while we’re discussing Zöe, it’s hard to believe that a powerful and professional woman would put up with a lazy assistant and spoiled nanny, much less take lip service from them. But then again, whenever I see Frances O’Connor on the screen, I half expect Haley Joel Osment to pop into frame to ask her to make him a real boy.
Maybe it’s because I’ve come in with lowered expectations, but “Cashmere Mafia” seems far more interesting than “Lipstick Jungle,” and draws more complex characters. That’s not to say that both shows aren’t a fair reprieve from the writer’s strike lull, or that one sucks beyond repair. But it does say that in order to improve, both will have to strip away the shiny pretenses to get to the heart of their characters. ¤ C.Ho.
LIPSTICK JUNGLE: (out of 5)
CASHMERE MAFIA: (out of 5)