There's a strange kind of fashionista truth-trumps-fiction irony to the notion that female-empowerment pop-fableist Candace Bushnell's novel Lipstick Jungle — about the personal/professional struggles of three dazzling, sexy and tops-in-their-field Manhattan women — was beaten to the prime-time-series catwalk by a look-alike knockoff called Cashmere Mafia, created by, of all types, a man. (His name is Kevin Wade.) Plus, it was executive-produced by — gulp — Bushnell chum Darren Star, the guy who originally helped transform her Sex and the City from a local newspaper column into a television phenomenon. There have been no reports of Manolos hurled or cosmos tossed in faces, but suffice it to say that a show-biz friendship that launched a lifestyle has proven too susceptible to the opportunistic realities facing women in the workplace and which bedevil the accomplished heroines on both shows.
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Cashmere cocktail klatch: Lucy Liu and company
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Lipstick queens Brooke Shields, Lindsay Price and Kim Raver
But for you and me, it's a less complicated matter — we just have to decide which show is more fun to watch. (Delving into the provenance game only gets messier once you factor in how Lipstick Jungle is Bushnell rehashing her own estrogen-clique mojo, while Wade can lay claim to mining the subject of career women 20 years ago, in his screenplay for the secretary-makes-good comedy Working Girl.) In any case, starting this week, viewers will be able to compare Bushnell's own executive-produced adaptation of Lipstick Jungle on NBC with the imitative Cashmere Mafia — about a quartet (see, not three) of successful New York women (okay, similar) who all attended the same business school (ah, a back-story twist) — which debuted in early January.
I, for one, am siding with the imitation.
Do I feel bad about it? A little. I was never a Sex and the City fan, but I respected its adherence to a sparkly kind of modern urban farce — trashy and simplistic though it often was — and the way the unending relationship humiliation was, on the flip side, an outlet to showcase the comedy chops of its female stars. The new incarnation of gal unity represented by Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia, however, is intended to reflect a more grown-up battlefield mentality that makes the stakes a little higher than debating over a liquid lunch whether last night's flirt is Mr. Right. Loneliness in love may be only one of any number of problems for the couture-conscious movers and shakers of these shows; the real struggle is in maintaining what they've already achieved and come to treasure, and often daring to aim higher.
But in execution, Cashmere Mafia pounces, while Lipstick Jungle pouts. What I like about the inexorably silly but slickly engaging Cashmere Mafia is that it doesn't wallow. It affects a frisky aura of gamesmanship with its tight-knit friends (played by Lucy Liu, Frances O'Connor, Miranda Otto and Bonnie Somerville) as they send their distress-text signals to each other, meet up, hash out their obstacles — cheaters, competitors, cads and the clock — and plan their counterattacks. It was smart to cast intelligent beauty Liu as magazine publisher Mia, for instance, because she still looks ready to take on the world the way she smoothly dispatched all comers in Kill Bill. Although Mia's big setback so far has been losing her fiance to his wounded ego — they were pitted against each other for the same promotion, which she won — Liu has a glamorous steeliness that smacks away our pity. (She's already moved on to a hot doctor — score!) O'Connor, meanwhile, projects a fiery, brainy charm as her ultrabusy investment banker Zoe fights off a self-involved, out-of-her-league nanny; derails a sexy mom with designs on her husband; and saves a business deal from the casual incompetence of her entitled-acting, cagily ambitious female assistant. After five episodes, Zoe is practically a superhero — the show could almost be called "Cashmere Justice League" — so her brief moment of complaining feels well-earned, a gripe to her spouse that she fears the latest generation of up-and-coming women don't respect the hard-fought gains of her age group. Zoe calls the new crop "Generation ID," for "I Deserve." (Is this Kevin Wade telling us what the big-dreaming secretary from his screenplay for Working Girl is thinking now that she's reached the top and feels the heat?)
Steeped in the ABC house style of catty, brightly lit froth (Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty) and Darren Star's well-honed soapishness, witty Cashmere Mafia gives us no reason to distrust or question the killer instincts of these B-school alpha females: It's energized by the problem-solving acumen of its have-it-all, want-it-all protagonists. But Lipstick Jungle is a strangely dour affair — its shadowy, chilly depiction of New York fits right alongside the NBC house style of Law & Order — and is almost misshapen in its clunky blend of drama and comedy. But most important, it inspires little confidence in the plausibility of its sister tribe, or the entertainment value in seeing them squirm.
The first scene in the pilot shows movie-studio executive Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields), magazine editor-in-chief Nico Reilly (Kim Raver) and fashion designer Victory Ford (Lindsay Price) together in a comfort klatch, with the first two women there-there-ing a bawling third for her disastrously received new collection. Not only do these three appear to have no chemistry, but unveiling one of your mover-and-shaker leads with a thin-skinned crying jag seems to diminish the idea that she's ever made it in such a cutthroat business. (When Andrew McCarthy's billionaire shows up to woo Price, you can't help but think, "Uh oh, savior.") It doesn't help that Price seems so much younger than her co-stars. Raver and Shields instantly seem more like mommy figures than equal-footing buds. When Raver's Nico answers her friend's teary doubt in her own abilities with what amounts to the show's thesis statement — "There are no flukes, there is no luck, there's just talent and hard work, and the ability to bounce back when you're knocked down" — it sounds more like she's schooling a student than reminding a peer of what she should already know. (And yet Raver's sharp-tongued, laser-eyed assertiveness is the most believable thing about the show.)
Of course, the mommy vibe is supposed to fit Shields' character. She's married (although hubby's started to whine about her schedule), has kids and professes to not need to be nasty to succeed in a man's world. But she hardly conveys the take-charge sense of a high-profile Hollywood-via-Gotham wheeler-dealer, either. Informed by a nervous assistant of a major problem with a troubled film in production, Shields responds with a "Dammit!" about as convincingly as if she'd hit the wrong button on a computer. It's as though the creators are afraid to give Wendy a frisson of intemperate bossiness, even scariness. Shields does have a believable aura of brokenness, as her once-carnivorous beauty settles into middle age, but she's never been the best light comedienne, which leaves the more Bushnellian one-liners wanting. (In no way do I believe she has a fridge stocked with "Dove bars and weed.")
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In the second episode, the show stacks the deck against Wendy by pitting her against a vengeful book publisher primed to release a tell-all novel penned by Wendy's ex-nanny. The publisher is played by a perversely combative Lorraine Bracco as if she took the second word in the show's title seriously, looking ready to eat her victims. It's a story arc that sounds like it should be pleasurably trashy and venal, but Shields' victimized characterization instead affects an air of "Unfair!"
I realize Bushnell is aiming for a depiction of lonely-at-the-top pressure for this sex in this city that has a few more shadings than a nail-sharpening quipfest, but there's vulnerability, and then there's crying and whining. In the glitzy, treacherous urban thickets of Lipstick Jungle and Cashmere Mafia, adversity is a given, and — because it's television — so is triumph. Still, I'd rather have the rubout warrior queens of Cashmere on my side.
CASHMERE MAFIA | ABC | Wednesdays, 10 p.m.
LIPSTICK JUNGLE | NBC | Thursdays, 10 p.m.