Cashmere Mafia vs. Lipstick Jungle

Which show is the worthy successor to Sex and the City?

Brooke Shields, Lindsay Price, and Kim Raver in Lipstick Jungle

Both Cashmere Mafia (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET) and Lipstick Jungle (NBC, Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) promote themselves as heirs of Sex and the City, that ur-text of post-feminist fairy tales. As such, both concern cliques of Manhattan women with enviable job titles and resemble syntheses of gender-war parables, the romps of shoe fetishists, and hourlong BlackBerry ads. Though it’s a challenge to keep straight which is which—all the stubbly, arty, out-earned husbands and Commonwealth-accented media barons tend to blur together—I think I can almost sort them out.

As confected by ABC, the gayest and girliest of the big networks, Cashmere Mafia is the brighter of two, with an Ugly Betty flair for color and a Desperate Housewives air of camp. More minutes get put on the fancy phones here, and the jokes are more plentiful, as are the references to Manhattan restaurants—though it’s unclear to me what women like these are supposed to be doing at Florent when Pastis is right around the corner. The Cashmere gals are comparatively more interested in handbags, and their creators—including Darren Star, the producer who foisted Sex and the City upon our cable boxes—are comparatively less interested in exploring the nature of female relationships.

Leading its foursome of glamour-biz power babes is magazine publisher Mia Mason (Lucy Liu). When, in the pilot, Mia’s boyfriend, Jack, dropped to one knee and proposed marriage, you knew that instant happiness was far from assured largely because the BF, played by Tom Everett Scott, looked cringing and baleful as he gazed up at her—an abused puppy awaiting a smack. Indeed, at the end of that installment, after the show’s Rupert Murdoch figure had pitted Mia and Jack against one another for a promotion and Mia emerged victorious, emasculated Jack withdrew his proposal. Which calls to mind the only semifamous line of dialogue on Big Shots—ABC’s recent and despicable attempt to fashion an XY version of this kind of show—when a character declared that “women are the new men,” which is true, on this kind of show. Further, Jack—a character whose essential shabbiness is emblematic of the life partners on Cashmere and Lipstick—points toward a corollary: Men are the new little girls.

Mia’s cohorts are Juliet Draper (Miranda Otto, playing it like a more lubricious Laura Linney), Zoe Burden (Frances O’Connor, a more strident Mary-Louise Parker), and Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Sommerville, a flintier Kirsten Dunst). Juliet’s husband has been sleeping around, and her teenage daughter looks like a short 25-year-old in a hoodie. Zoe, also a mommy, must battle with incompetent nannies and insurgent underlings, though you would think that her kitchen, which is the color and size of a battleship, might offer some consolations. Caitlin is altogether vague, and her job involves costume trailers, and I’ve lost track of whether she’s kept up with the stirrings of lesbianism that guaranteed some gentle girl-on-girl action in early episodes.

Lipstick Jungle, meanwhile, is shot rather Britishly—cold as shadows, grey as clouds, nearly dour, as if in denial of having been adapted from a novel by Candace Bushnell. Despite the fact that the Lipstick posse mostly assembles in order to commiserate—about husbands who don’t pull their weight, about husbands who don’t put out, about unfavorable fashion-show reviews—they seem to drink the most champagne of the two groups. This at least comports with a bon mot Candace once blessed me with: “Champagne is like beer for girls.”

Lipstick Jungle is also more sloppily intoxicated with the media business. Someone’s always launching a magazine, or running a fashion show, or fuming about their treatment on Page 6. In a couple weeks, Lorraine Bracco offers her best Judith Regan impression as a venal book publisher. When one character brings her new zillionaire boyfriend, a larger Mr. Big (Andrew McCarthy, subtly prickish and surprisingly gravelly), to a friend’s dinner party, everyone else asks why he isn’t more forthcoming in profiles before they’ve gotten to the amuse bouche.

Otherwise, it’s all the same stuff—magazine parties, feckless husbands, tempting male bimbos … but without Cashmere Mafia’s redeeming air of farce. Brooke Shields is in the lead role as Wendy, the movie exec, a hard charger who will sign Leo to play Galileo as soon as she returns from the kid’s grade-school interview. Shields’ years on the set of Suddenly Susan have left her with the timing and skills of a sitcom actress, and this only serves to accentuate the fact that Lipstick Jungle ought to be a sitcom but instead tries to make like a statement. On that level, it fails its first test: The only way you could imagine a woman like Wendy watching shows like these is from the comfort of an executive screening room, running late for a ballet recital.