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February 25, 2008

Mafia wins battle of new soap comedies

[img id="80353" align="alignleft"] “You’re chasing something you made ten years ago.” When fashion designer Victory Ford hears these words on NBC’s new drama Lipstick Jungle, she instantly realizes her mistake. Victory, whose latest creations have been panned by the fashion cognoscenti and the press, thinks she’ll find her mojo by reclaiming a hat she designed at the height of her talent. But with this snippet of wisdom from her friend Nico, Victory recognizes that it’s time to create something new.

If only Candace Bushnell had a friend like Nico to caution her against grasping for past triumphs. Ten years ago, Bushnell’s New York Observer dating columns spawned the wildly popular HBO series Sex and the City. The show followed the lives of Bushnell’s alter ego, Manhattan-based sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (note the clever C.B. initials) and her three thirtysomething best friends. Now Bushnell is writing Lipstick Jungle, a new series about three late thirtysomething­—or well-Botoxed fortysomething—best friends in Manhattan.

Clearly, Bushnell hasn’t strayed far from her formula. The new set of women is just as fashionable, high-powered, and unapologetically narcissistic as Sex’s Carrie Bradshaw and company.

But this time around, the vapid ruminations and sexual exploits feel tired, dull, and even painful. While it’s hard to deny the appeal of Sex and the City as a guilty pleasure, watching Lipstick Jungle feels more like flirting with masochism.

Perhaps the sort of whimpering neuroses that endeared viewers to the younger, single set of characters on Sex are no longer cute when displayed by married moms. Or maybe the consequence-less casual hookups with hot guys in their twenties, which shoot for sexiness and empowerment, instead strike a note of desperation. But even more awful than its tantrum-throwing mommies and unsexy sex is the show’s dialogue, an unrelenting torrent of clichés.

But where Lipstick Jungle fails, ABC’s new Cashmere Mafia delivers, bringing audiences the verve, sass, and ridiculously unwearable outfits that glued us to Sex and the City.

Cashmere Mafia also brings viewers into the bedrooms and favorite bars of a set of fashionable, high-powered, and, yes, shockingly narcissistic New York friends.

The show gained notoriety even before it aired—it’s produced by Darren Star, who worked closely with Bushnell as producer of Sex and the City. The two became such good friends that Bushnell vacationed with Star and wrote episodes of Lipstick Jungle while at his house in the Hamptons. According to friends of Bushnell who were quoted in a New York Times story, Bushnell shared her ideas with Star, only to discover months later that he’d created Cashmere Mafia. But while allegedly stealing Bushnell’s formula, Star somehow avoids getting bogged down by the clichés and staleness that characterize Lipstick Jungle.

If the allegations are true, it is fittingly ironic that Bushnell’s trust in Star allowed him to capitalize on her ideas. One look in the bedroom reveals the cloying earnestness and ridiculous naïveté of the Jungle ladies and the show’s plot linescompared with the sharpness of their Cashmere counterparts.

In a scene in Lipstick Jungle, movie studio exec Wendy reads a manuscript in bed next to her husband. Her former nanny has penned a tell-all memoir about what a bitch and bad mother Wendy is, and she is transfixed by the advance copy. Wendy is particularly shocked by how many details of her life the nanny remembered. “She wasn’t even with us!” she says of a fight between Wendy and her husband that the book describes in gritty detail.

Hearing this, the scruffily handsome husband immediately tenses up. Grabbing the manuscript from his wife, he tells her it’s not worth reading. It seems pretty clear that he’s hiding something. Clear to anyone, that is, except Wendy, who appears completely unruffled by her husband’s sudden change in demeanor.

Later in the episode, the husband admits to having confided in the nanny, who happens to be a hot young blond. But there is no hint that he committed any greater betrayal than complaining that his wife wasn’t around enough. The sex has certainly been sapped out of this part of the city.

Meanwhile, in a similarly decorated bedroom in Cashmere Mafia, real-estate hotshot Juliet lies awake next to her boyishly handsome and less successful husband. Unable to sleep, Juliet asks her husband if he has anything that can help her.

He directs her to his medicine bag, in which she finds not only Xanax but also a matchbox, the label of which sparks Juliet’s realization that her husband has taken his mistress to an island resort. This is the same island resort that, minutes earlier, he’d suggested that he and Juliet should visit to rekindle their love. Juliet says nothing but makes a show of bringing the matchbox to bed and lighting a candle. Husband squirms, Juliet smiles coldly, and the viewer knows that the fun is only beginning.

While Lipstick Jungle’s characters exhibit shocking lapses in self-awareness and too often find themselves fighting back tears (both of which make their success at high-powered jobs rather unbelievable), the ladies of Cashmere Mafia keep busy knocking back cosmos and plotting future exploits.

Lipstick’s Victory claims in one scene that her desire to escape the “dead beige suburbs” of her childhood propelled her fashion-industry ascent. It’s too bad for Victory and viewers alike that she finds herself in a dramatic universe that might best be described as both beige and dead, devoid of vitality or appeal.