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Lipstick Jungle: Season One

(NBC; US DVD: 27 May 2007)

There’s a scene about halfway through the third episode of Lipstick Jungle when all six of the main characters – three New York power-divas plus significant others – gather together for a meal.  They converge at a dinner table so that magazine magnate Nico Reilly (Kim Raver) and high-powered movie exec Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields) can meet the billionaire boytoy of their BFF, fashion designer Victory Ford (Lindsay Price.)


The air is supposed to be filled with tension. Nico, after all, is in the middle of an affair with a much younger man – who (gasp!) shows up during dinner. Wendy has just been outed as “bad mommy” by her rival. Victory barely made the event she organized because of her boyfriend’s reclusive, Howard Hughes-ian tendencies.


Flies should be begging to be on the wall as these New York powerbrokers break bread. But to be an observer at this party brings nothing but dread. As the camera pulls back from the dinner table, revealing the six-pack tenuously making conversation as they clink glasses, I could barely suppress a yawn.


Not one of these characters is warm or likable, nor funny and acerbic. They’re just there; saddled with a lot of characterization that is a poor substitute for a personality.


Lipstick Jungle was one of three series about hyper-successful, glamorous (but real!) city-dwellers that turned up on network television last season, as execs tried to cash in on Sex and the City’s winning formula.  Objectively speaking, this series, which like Sex and the City is based on a novel by Candace Bushnell, is the winner of the bunch. Unlike Cashmere Mafia (about the lives of four female best friends) and Big Shots (four men), Lipstick Jungle will be back for a second season.


But Lipstick Jungle doesn’t even qualify as the “diet” version to Sex and the City’s original. The series is more like the “New Coke”, and it’s going to take a lot of retooling to change that.  The most effective possible fix is, unfortunately, the one least likely to happen: Please, Lipstick Jungle, get rid of the insufferable Victory Ford!


Victory tells her new beau that most people think she’s “fun and cool and optimistic.” I can only agree with the last adjective – anyone as whiny and ridiculous as Victory would have to be a glass half-full kind of gal to believe the former description is true. As an actress, Price personifies all of the show’s key flaws: flat, lifeless and overly Botoxed.


Wendy Healy is the only main character who doesn’t have a melodramatic, soap opera name, which I assume is the show’s attempt to establish her as the “realest” of the real. Shield’s portrayal isn’t particularly offensive. But somewhere down the line she seems to have gotten an undeserved reputation as a gifted slapstick comedian. I don’t buy harried trip-ups and buffoonery from Wendy any more than I buy them from Desperate Housewives Susan Mayer – but at least that show is supposed to be part farce.


Raver and Nico, however, are the bright spots in a black hole of vacuity. In her best moments at work, Nico is as flinty and cool as her icy blonde exterior would suggest. But Raver adroitly exposes the doubts and insecurity within.


When the show tells me Nico is a successful career woman, I believe it. I also completely buy that her personal life is such a mess and that the two sides exist in a delicate balance. In one episode, another character mentions that Nico grew up the daughter of a blue-collar diner-owner in Queens – do I smell a far more interesting spin-off?


The women struggle to stay above water when apart. But Lipstick Jungle really drowns when they are together.


The series does way too much telling and almost no showing. These women are supposed to be like sisters but the actresses have almost zero chemistry with each other. Their work and personal challenges are presented as the human face behind the “Most Powerful Women in New York” exterior. But the writing is lifeless and the plots are pedestrian.


Bottom line: there is nothing here that the casual television watcher hasn’t seen before (even the music – it’s straight out of Grey’s Anatomy.)


I definitely can’t place the blame on the editing – a handful of equally mediocre deleted scenes are the DVD set’s only bonus feature. Although the actors have their problems, I think most of the onus for this mess lies with the creators behind the scenes.


Sex and the City worked because the series wasn’t afraid to laugh – or cry or cringe – at itself. The show was over the top, but everyone was in on the joke. Too many series, Lipstick Jungle included, are afraid to get down on that level with the audience and too many creators are afraid to dig deep into the lead characters’ flaws. The writers and producers try so hard to present leads who are fun, flirty substitute best friends that they forget that people aren’t really that way all the time.


The allure of television is partially about escapism. But there’s a big difference between creating escapism and being afraid to take chances. It’s hard to write a really engaging plot when all the unsavory but compelling stuff is off-limits.


Lipstick Jungle oozes excess in all areas but those where it’s sorely needed – here’s hoping the series spends the summer growing a heart and a soul.

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