Lipstick Jungle

What confuses me, Janice, is why you of all people enjoy bashing other professional women.

— Wendy (Brooke Shields), “Nothing Sacred”

Thank goodness for Lorraine Bracco. A survivor if ever there was one, she shows up partway through the second episode of Lipstick Jungle, angry and mean and smart, a hardball book publisher on the order of Judith Regan. Odiously named Janice Lasher, she’s got a few grudges in the works, not least against a successful studio president named Wendy (Brooke Shields), who once, as she recalls it, pulled out of a bidding war over a certain property in Janice’s hands. Literally slapping together a sandwich as she recalls the decision, Wendy announces, “Ever since then, she’s wanted my head on a stick!”

Even before she appears on screen, Janice adds brief energy to the otherwise soggy Lipstick Jungle. When Wendy does pay her a visit, hoping to keep her from selling movie rights to an as yet unpublished MS based on Wendy’s faults as a mom and wife — penned by her ex-nanny — Janice listens politely to Wendy’s story, that she has a “hard” job and so couldn’t help cancelling her three-year-old’s birthday party, and anyway, her kids know she’s a good mom, even if the public will think otherwise. When Wendy’s done sentimentalizing and self-proclaiming, Janice waits an appropriate beat and answers, “You must have me confused with your shrink.”

I can’t emphasize enough the welcome zing of this little joke from Dr. Melfi. As the show’s beautiful leads are clicking about on their designer heels and wrestling with romances, managing their careers and maintaining their well-toned bodies, she’s got a sense of humor. It’s hard not to feel grateful for it.

As its title insinuates, Lipstick Jungle is another series about high-powered women in glossy-yet-cutthroat urban environs. It’s also another series based on a book by Candace Bushnell, which condemns it to (unfavorable) comparisons to that other show, the one on premium cable. Not nearly witty, self-aware, or sarcastic enough to convince anyone this well hasn’t gone dry long ago, the series is in trouble mere seconds after its first frames, when attention turns from the shots of aforementioned shoes in a hurry (which might be taken as another joke, this one Bushnellian) to the women per se, that is, Wendy and magazine editor Nico (Kim Raver) showing support at the new show by their fashion designer third, Victory Ford (Lindsay Price). Ah, the flashbulbs and the catwalk, the camera-ready audience members and the on-cue lyrics (“I feel the earth move under my feet”). Awash with clichés, the show lurches directly into the network shorthand version of glamour, baby.

The storylines spill out quickly: Wendy’s got trouble with her wannabe restaurateur husband Shane (Paul Blackthorne), who resents her success but loves her and the kids, too. Nico’s frustrated by her academic husband’s lack of interest in sex (asked what he’s “into,” she sighs, “Books! Writing them, reading them, and discussing them”). And erstwhile wunderkind Vic is attempting a comeback, following some two years of bad reviews and a reduced staff (from 15 to none). It happens that as she’s worried about her professional self-image, she’s seduced by a bijillionaire named Joe (Andrew McCarthy), who values his time at $5,000 a minute but still finds enough of it to fulfill his newfound girlfriend’s most trivial desires. Just how he comes to love her soooo very much is completely unexplained: after a barely sketched first date, she reveals her neurotic self, tearful over a minor mishap (“I’m way too close to my product!”). Unstoppable, Joe announces himself besotted and soon makes himself so adorable that he seems indispensable — in a conventional Prince-Charming sort of way. You know, just what you want to see in a show about powerful independent women.

While Wendy distracts herself with running Parador Pictures — competing with DreamWorks over “Leo” for their parallel “Galileo projects” — she’s also got to contend with Shane, alternately self-pitying (“You’re going to keep rising and rising and I’m going to be here“) and devoted to her. Nico’s pretty much instantly enraptured by a boy toy, Kirby (Robert Buckley), who kisses her in the ladies room at some mucky-muck party, then turns out to work for Bonfire magazine’s best celebrity photog (played by wonderful Melanie Mayron — and where has she been hiding!?). Even as she’s grappling with the requisite guilt, Nico’s got to face off with her utterly boorish boss, Hector (Julian Sands), who decides he has to ease her out of her job because she’s “of a certain age”: “The last woman I promoted to a top position went off and had a child and lost her drive… Men and women are hard-wired differently.” Um, even if he believes this, doesn’t he know that some prejudices are actually illegal to display in the workplace?

While it’s clear that Nico is tired of being treated so shoddily, it’s also clear that she and her friends will be modeling responses that suggest not only a lack of options, but also a tedious willingness to conform — to expectations, ambitions, and laments. “I find it offensive,” Nico announces, too anthemically at series’ start, “that women always feel that we have to apologize for our success.” Right, and working for the cretinish Hector or bedding a young man who thinks she has an “amazing” body is just the way to overcome such offense.

The series has laid groundwork for minor and mostly predictable complications: Vic’s assistant steals designs en route to a new job with another company, Wendy’s dealing with a brooding gay director who refuses to be fired from the romantic comedy he’s mucking up (precisely by giving his straight male lead a disruptive gay subtext). All that said, the casting director has earned at least two major points: Raver, still looking for the vehicle that will set her free, remains a terrific and game performer, and Bracco is, as ever, delightful, at once nutty, perverse, and too smart for every show she’s in.

RATING 5 / 10