Two sets of women are in a rumble on 5th Avenue, to determine the show to take the title of Sex and the City replacement. In one corner, Cashmere Mafia on ABC, co-created by Darren Star who co-produced SATC, Beverly Hills 90210, and Melrose Place.
In the other corner, NBC's Lipstick Jungle has the disadvantage of starting a few weeks later (it's only on episode 4) but will now catch up as CM has aired all 7 episodes it made before the writers strike began. Candace Bushnell, who wrote the book of the same name, and executive produces, is of course the author and co-producer of SATC.
The big names in each are Lucy Liu on CM and Brooke Shields on LJ. Of the two, Liu is so far more likeable, but Shields is doing a more interesting job in her role than she did on Suddenly Susan.
What I'm enjoying is how much the shows are focusing on the work worlds of the women. It's not just about their sex lives. However, each show has a story line about one of the women dating a billionaire, which in my mind undermines the whole point of having a show about strong, successful women.
These women want to WIN at everything, and that's great. How their male partners fit in is the lingering question. One character points out: "Men want to console you - they want to say 'Don't worry honey, you'll win next time.'"
Maybe I'm naiive, but Cashmere Mafia at least seems stuck in an earlier era of gender wars. One woman asks "Do you know how hard it is for men to be married to us? We are so far from their ideal wife." Really? Do modern men still expect all of them will make more than their wives? Odds are, they won't. A recent Families and Work Institute Study shows that of working married women, 48% provide half or more of the household income.
In a bizarre open letter to her ex (via an editor's column), Lucy Liu's character, Mia Mason, asks for the Modern Man to accept that women are going to be not just his office mates but his boss, and that "more women" will be entering the workforce.
?? This is a letter from 1978, not 2008!
But overall, there's more humour in Cashmere Mafia. In the last episode, Mia's boyfriend falls asleep on her in bed and she gets rejected as a dog guardian. By the end of the episode, she's dumped the BF and gotten the dog.
Or when one mom quits her job because she got passed over for a promotion, a male co-worker critiques her: "Typical move for a mommy - run back to the playground when things get too rough in the office." In response, she hits him in the head with her son's soccer ball.
Lipstick Jungle contains more over-the-top dramatics like writing "Bitch" on a fur, or spilling red wine on a competitor's desk. It uses harsher, darker colours and settings.
The shows definitely want to nail down what it is to be female in the 21st century. Mia says, "I just want [my relationship] to be easy. I just want to come first." Her friend replies, "Don't we all."
These "Don't we all" moments are dangerous - there is no such thing as What (All) Women Want. And yet, there is something irresistable in defining larger sociological trends. Says one woman: "It's the classic mother war: We make Stay at Homes feel inferior for being throwbacks for living off their spouses. They make us feel guilty for not eliminating everything from our lives but our children."
I was sad that the lesbian story line on CM was killed, especially since it was also an all-too-rare inter-racial relationship. (Interestingly, The L Word is a show that overcomes that taboo all the time. Maybe breaking down one barrier leads to breaking down another?)
There are several unrealistic moments, like a woman kissing another woman whose sexual preference has not yet been established - right on the street. And New York power women who can say yes to dinner the next night.
The strongest theme running through each show, which I think is the secret to these shows, is paying homage to female friendship. The characters may be let down by men, but never by their women friends. The women on these shows give each other advice, help each other in big ways and small, and generally have each other's backs. That these women are able to make time for each other in the middle of family and work obligations is a fantasy for most of us, but an appealing one. The success of shows like Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives suggests that if we don't have this in our Real Lives, it's something many of us crave, and if we can't gather our Real friends around us for weekly gatherings, at least we can gather our tv friends.
The only question is, which clique will prove more popular? CM had much stronger opening numbers (10.7 vs. 7.5 million viewers), but by the third ep, both have settled down to 5-6 million, both third in their respective timeslots. Are they splitting viewers, or are women trying on both groups of friends to see who they like best? Maybe this will tip the scale: Cashmere Mafia gives us four friends for our hour's investment, while Lipstick Jungle gives us only three.