Cashmere Mafia

With the premiere of Cashmere Mafia last week, ABC added another title to its catalogue of “up-market series,” showcasing the absurd antics of the rich and privileged. This particularly cynical ratings seeker purports to chart the lives of four female business school buddies who are now leading executives in New York City, all lacking any pretensions to originality.

Any production team that imagines that a primetime lesbian kiss or a socialite marriage barely hiding cracks the size of the San Andreas fault is worthy of notice, much less a major storyline, needs to get out more. This reworking of Sex and the City, with richer women and more elegant apartments, offers only an anodyne cocktail of adultery, the Mommy wars, and some high-end product placement.

Executive produced by Darren Starr, Cashmere Mafia is both fatalistically conservative and genuinely insensitive. These supposedly intelligent, successful women repeatedly whine, “You can’t have it all,” without ever asking exactly why not. In the first two episodes, none confronts her willing complicity in the traditional corporate structures and power games that perpetuate their misery. When Clive (Daniel Geroll) pits magazine publisher Mia (Lucy Liu) and her new fiancé (“special guest star” Tom Everett Scott) against each other in a race for promotion, both immediately snap into fight-to-the-death mode. Instead of behaving like creative, dynamic adults who profess to love each other, they fight for the boss’ favor like spiteful sorority queens from a ’60s teen drama.

Neither does anyone in this spoilt quartet seem to consider, as she wallows in self-generated misery and vintage champagne, that their “problems” would look ridiculous to the 45 million Americans without health insurance or the 35 million living in poverty. Not to mention that the women actually have time to lunch and brunch with their friends (if not their families), an impossible luxury for most of the American work force, who spend their “free” time at second (or third) jobs.

Such petty concerns form a depressing base for the series’ misogynistic plot turns. The undercurrent of distaste for younger women that fueled some of the 30-something insecurities of Carrie & Co. emerges fully in Cashmere Mafia. Investment banker Zoe (Frances O’Connor) classifies both her assistant and her new nanny as members of Generation I.D. (for “I Deserve”), who don’t understand how hard her generation has had to work for all its power. Both her employees are blond, beautiful, and, of course, inefficient, yet they also exert almost mesmeric power over Zoe, so that she lets her assistant sprawl all over her office and her nanny dictate terms of employment. All this while she’s worried that a stay-at-home mother has a yen for Zoe’s architect husband Eric (Julian Ovenden). Hotel chain chief executive Juliet (Miranda Otto) endures a similarly overwrought plotline, as she’s fighting off her husband’s mistress and charm an ungrateful daughter.

The focus on this intragender backstabbing is at least as dated as the show’s title. When cut-price cashmere is a staple of such prosaic catalogues as Lands’ End and L.L. Bean, would the most successful women in, according to the show’s website, “glamorous New York, where titans of media, finance, advertising and publishing reside,” really welcome such a sobriquet? The show doesn’t seem sure which generation is its subject. The curiously archaic music might tweak the hearts of 50- or 60-somethings (Carole King’s “Natural Woman”), but seems at least 20 years too old to have any significance for these culturally attuned perfectionistas.

Still, such background probably serves the behind-the-times plotting, as when two participants in a high-level business negotiation treat Juliet, the key player on the opposing side, as if she were a coffee-pouring factotum. In an age when googling someone is almost a national pastime, few viewers could possibly manage the suspension of disbelief required to imagine that Fortune 500 negotiators would not know the identity of their counterpart.

Among these vapid variations on domestic crisis and corporate infighting, Cashmere Mafia does score a few positives. The clothes and interiors are fabulous, as if one were endlessly cycling through vintage Vogues. Otto’s magnificent performance has her channeling both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And Liu has at last found a TV canvas baroque enough to showcase her fly-trap steeliness.

And then there’s the series’ one lovely, nearly original idea. Granted, it’s neutralized somewhat by a cocoon of the conventionally heterosexual. But we might imagine, in another context, that makeup executive Caitlin (Bonnie Somerville) offers the show a whole new premise, if only it would take her up on it. “I’ve had a terrible time with men and no real experience with women,” she confides to her new girlfriend, Alicia (Lourdes Benedicto). “So I’m kind of, you know, flying without the instruments here.” I’d advise letting her soar for 13 episodes.

RATING 6 / 10