Friday, January 25, 2008

Bright lights, duplicate city

Maybe the number of ideas out there for fresh, original television series is smaller than we thought, or maybe the number of network executives with fresh, original ideas is dwindling. Whichever situation happens to be the case, there are two new prime-time TV series (one launched earlier this month, one to debut soon) that strongly suggest prime-time TV is more incestuous than we’d ever believed possible.

We’re referring, of course, to the shows “Cashmere Mafia,” which debuted on ABC on Jan. 6, and “Lipstick Jungle,” set to grace the airwaves of NBC on Feb. 7. The plotlines of each or either of these shows, which you can guess from the titles, is basically the same: Career Girls Take On New York City in a Quest to Have It All. Let the madcap misadventures begin. Then get the cancellation notices ready.

“Cashmere Mafia” explores the exploits of four beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate the wild shoals of modern Manhattan. The show stars Lucy Liu (the “Charlie’s Angels” films, “Kill Bill”) as a high-powered publisher; Frances O’Connor (“Windtalkers,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”) as a high-powered manager of mergers and acquisitions at a major New York company; Miranda Otto (the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, “War of the Worlds”) as the high-powered COO of a major hotel chain; and Bonnie Sommerville (“NYPD Blue,” “Friends” and “The O.C.”) as the high-powered VP of a cosmetics company.

These four musketeers cope with marriage (two are married), family issues and professional rivals in this “dramedy” created by Kevin Wade (who wrote the 1988 film “Working Girl,” starring Melanie Griffith) and executive produced by Darren Star (more about whom shortly).

The public reaction to this “Mafia” hasn’t been promising. The pilot aired Jan. 6, with almost 11 million viewers, and each successive episode has slipped in the ratings. It’s down to about half of that initial viewership, a fact that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Maybe something more positive will happen in the “Lipstick Jungle,” which NBC launches next week. “Lipstick Jungle” examines the lives of three beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate the same wild shoals of modern Manhattan. “Jungle” is inhabited by Brooke Shields (veteran of TV, Broadway and four seasons of “Suddenly Susan”) as a high-powered movie studio exec; Kim Raver (“Third Watch,” “24”) as a high-powered fashion magazine editor; and Lindsay Price (“Becker,” “Beverly Hills 90210”) as a high-powered fashion designer.

One of the denizens of the “Jungle” is married; the rest play the field in a New York City teeming with eligibles in this “dramedy” based on the best-selling novel by Candace Bushnell (more about whom shortly).

You can’t make this up. Well, actually you can. They’ve been doing it for years – “they” being Star and Bushnell, the two pivotal talents behind HBO’s breakthrough series “Sex and the City.”

You remember “Sex and the City.” That series, produced by Star and based on an earlier Bushnell novel, ran for six seasons and featured four beautiful, ambitious young women on different career paths, working to effect the right work/life balance as they navigate those doggone crazy shoals of modern Manhattan.

With not-so-high-powered characters we actually cared about and storylines extracted from real life, “Sex and the City” was something of a breakthrough for cable television (cementing "Manolo Blahniks" in the lexicon of popular culture). If “Cashmere” and “Lipstick” survive, we’ll be told that they're breaking new ground in broadcast television. But these three shows all owe a debt of gratitude -- if not royalties -- to a pioneer of this brand of urban adventure.

All three of them sprang from the brow of the author Rona Jaffe, who, as a 25-year-old associate publishing-house editor, wrote and in 1958 published the best-selling novel “The Best of Everything,” a book that delved into the intertwining lives of five young career women who worked for a New York publisher. A book that became an Oscar-nominated film. A book that became the template, intentionally or not, for “Sex” and “Cashmere” and “Lipstick.”

The bright lights of New York City have dazzled countless others for decades, women and men alike. Now in the terrorist-conscious, multiculti 21st century, that singular experience deserves a real makeover. Maybe with different kinds of people, facing other challenges in different walks of life. It’s a shame that, in a TV season already light on genuine dramatic diversions, we get to watch retreads of retreads. For all their best intentions, and despite weeks of hype, “Cashmere Mafia” and “Lipstick Jungle” are likely to be a long way from the best of anything.

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