Thursday, January 17, 2008

“Cashmere Mafia” and “10 Items or Less” Are Entertaining But Disposable

[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]

Say what you want about “Grey’s Anatomy.” It has plenty of things to criticize, but when the writers do one of their epic episodes (even if they’re coming too often, thus blunting the effect), when they’re over, you’re drained. You’ve been through the wringer, and you know that you’ve just watched an hour of television. And you will certainly remember what you’ve seen, for better or worse.

I thought of “Grey’s” when watching the much-hyped new show “Cashmere Mafia” (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. Eastern) and the second-season debut of the under-the-radar comedy “10 Items or Less” (TBS, Tuesdays at 11 p.m. Eastern). Both were so light and disposable, it was a good thing I took notes, or it would be hard to tell you too much about them.

“Cashmere Mafia” made its long awaited premiere with a special post-“Desperate Housewives” airing of its pilot earlier in the month, before moving to its regular Wednesday time slot. “Cashmere” is the first of two half-siblings from the “Sex and the City” family to make its debut this winter, with “Lipstick Jungle” hitting the airwaves on February 7 on NBC. The “Lipstick” connection to the brood is direct: like “Sex,” it is based on a book by Candace Bushnell. But “Cashmere” is just as tied to the “Sex” legacy, featuring the same executive producer, Darren Star, and a similar set up, four upscale women wearing designer clothing while haunting various New York locations.

As you sit down to watch “Cashmere,” it is virtually impossible to judge the program on its own merits. Rather, you can’t help but compare it to “Sex and the City.” For “Cashmere,” that turns out not to be a bad thing. At least for me. Although I’ve seen every episode of “Sex,” I didn’t like most of them, and I think they have not held up well over time. I fully understand that the problems and ambitions of the four lead characters captured a cultural moment and spoke loudly and clearly to women across different demographic and economic groups (for some it was a sociological look at elements of their lives, for others it was a fantasy land to dream about). But, in the end, to me, “Sex” featured four very self-involved, unlikable women who, in general, didn’t treat other people (except sometimes each other) very well. Plus, I thought the writing and acting was broad and obvious. Carrie’s columns, as presented in Sarah Jessica Parker’s voiceovers, while straining to be insightful, generally relied heavily on cliches and the obvious.

“Cashmere Mafia” also suffers from many of the same problems as “Sex and the City,” but it’s a better show. “Cashmere” follows four women in their 30s who have been friends since they were in business school together. Mia Mason (Lucy Liu) is a hard-driving magazine ad saleswoman who, in the pilot, wins a sales showdown with her fiance to secure a promotion to publisher, only to have him dump her afterwards for not wanting to be a stay-at-home housewife. Zoe Burden (Frances O'Connor) is an investment banker balancing her busy work schedule with her responsibilities to her husband and two kids. Hotel executive Juliet Draper (Miranda Otto) is also trying to balance career and family, only her husband is stepping out on her with her social rival. Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Somerville), a marketing executive for a cosmetics company, is the self-described “old maid” of the group, who, after seeing another relationship with a man fizzle, starts a liaison with a woman (Alicia, played by Lourdes Benedicto).

Like its forerunner, virtually every man in the “Cashmere” universe is two-dimensional and seriously flawed. From Mia’s caveman fiance, to Juliet’s philandering husband, to Zoe’s boss, who promotes the twentysomething junior executive with whom he’s cheating on his wife, to the freeloading oaf who dumps Caitlin over breakfast, most of the men are portrayed as libidinous, insecure, selfish louts. Which, of course, begs the question of what these successful, beautiful women are doing with these guys. After Juliet admits she’s known for years that her husband has been cheating on her, she explains that while she hates it, she looks the other way because she doesn’t want to be a single mother, and she likes having someone to come home to at night. If Juliet was an unattractive diner waitress, her willingness to settle might have been heartbreaking. But since she is a beautiful, successful and wealthy woman with men throwing themselves at her, her monologue leaves a viewer puzzled. Why doesn’t she just dump the jerk and find a husband who is happy to be with her?

Even the “good” guys in the “Cashmere” world are two-dimensional, vacant and generally overmatched (as they were in “Sex and the City”). The guy Juliet has chosen for a revenge affair flies in from London just to be with her, but never complains even as she repeatedly breaks plans with him, then tells him nothing can happen between them, then invades his hotel room and attacks him, only to stop in the middle, say she cannot cheat on her husband, and leave with barely even an apology. Through it all, he sits there looking clueless and emasculated, as if he should be happy and grateful to be allowed into Juliet’s orbit.

Like “Sex and the City,” the way “Cashmere” stretches reality strains the viewer’s ability to stay focused. Caitlin’s brother may be the least believable Catholic priest ever portrayed on television. He looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, has the sunny disposition of a cruise director, and, most incredibly, says he doesn’t care about what his religion dictates and thinks that Caitlin should go for it with her girl crush. But Caitlin’s brother is a believable Bishop compared to the trumped up, ridiculous ultimatum contest set up by Mia’s boss. He explains that since Mia and her fiance are equally qualified and both top sellers, the biggest seller that week will get the promotion to publisher, while the loser will be fired. If magazines were really run this way, the shelves at newsstands would be empty.

For such broad situations and characters to work, “Cashmere” would need nuanced, smart acting. But outside of two of the four leads, everyone seems to be hamming it up, as if there was a prize for the least believable moment on screen. From Mia’s boss’s bravado to Juliet’s affair-target’s wide-eyed wonder, to Zoe’s demanding nanny and slutty assistant, everyone seems to be performing to the back row of a 1,500-seat theater. Liu and Sommerville follow this lead. When Mia leads an editorial meeting, urging the staff to be edgy, it looked as if Liu had borrowed her tone from Marcia in “The Brady Bunch.” And Sommerville rolls through the episodes like a bowling ball, emoting and gesticulating as if she was afraid of not being noticed otherwise.

On the positive side, Otto brings a kind of quiet strength to Juliet, which is saying something since the character’s treatment of her proposed conquest makes it hard to like her. O’Connor is the best thing about the show, showing real comic timing, while managing to bring energy to Zoe’s exasperation without letting it spill into slapstick. There is a great moment when she simultaneously begs, threatens and bribes her kids to behave so she can continue a teleconference, and she makes a predictable piece of farcical comedy work when she sneaks into her daughter’s dance recital through the wings of the stage. O'Connor also gets to utter the best line I’ve seen on the program yet, telling her husband that twentysomethings have gone “from Generation Y to Generation ID,” explaining to him that “ID” stands for “I deserve.”

And don’t think that the absence of Carrie’s voiceovers means you’re clear of stilted, faux-deep dialogue. When the four members of the “Cashmere Mafia” get together to eat, drink or solve problems, you can’t go too long without one of the women uttering a groaner of a line that is supposed to be insightful but, usually, isn’t. When Juliet asks why she can’t have a fling without it meaning something like her husband did, Zoe tells her, “Because you’re a woman,” as if we’re all supposed to nod our heads in recognition of a revelation that is, in fact, a well-chronicled point.

What elevates “Cashmere” above “Sex and the City” is the main characters themselves. As I said, if you go back and watch an episode of “Sex,” especially from the earlier years, you will be struck by how cruel and selfish Samantha and Miranda really were, how materialistic and petty Charlotte was, and even how distant and selfish Carrie could be. Mia, Zoe, Juliet and Caitlin are a far more likable lot. Juliet’s toying with her intended conquest aside, there is a warmth to these characters that makes the show work a little. When Caitlin tells Alicia that she needs her to stick with her as she freaks out a little, you feel for her and hope that Alicia will, too. When Zoe discovers her boss’s affair and tries to advise the young executive that she’s on a bad road (while also advising her boss as to how they can avoid a lawsuit), you can’t help but think to yourself that she’s handling things in a more mature way than you would have. And while the reactions of Mia and Juliet to their problems with men may not be ideal, you know they got a bad rap and feel for them.

“Cashmere” may be a trifle, but compared to “10 Items or Less,” it packs the impact of “24.” “10 Items” is a very, very silly comedy about the staff of a supermarket, led by dimwitted owner Leslie (John Lehr). The crew includes the dimwitted stock boy, Carl (Bob Clendenin); Carl’s sometimes girlfriend and baby momma, the dimwitted produce vixen, Yolanda (Roberta Valderrama); the dimwitted (see a trend here?) and prissy check-out guy, Richard (Christopher Liam Moore); the dimwitted and quiet customer service representative, Ingrid (Kirsten Gronfield); and the not-so-dimwitted ambitious bagger, Buck (Greg Davis Jr.). They are often visited by their arch nemesis, Amy (Jennifer Elise Cox), the out-of-control and dimwitted (you knew it was coming) former beauty queen, who runs the rival market across the street.

After a five-episode first season airing in November and December of 2006, “10 Items” returned for a second trip down the aisle (supermarket, not wedding) on Tuesday with an episode revolving around an armed robbery of the store. This is no police procedural, though. Everyone’s reaction, from Leslie explaining over and over that they will all be killed if the assailants’ stockings come off of their faces to Ingrid suffering from the fastest onset of Stockholm Syndrome in psychological history, was off the wall. The robbers turn out to be Amy’s employees and, of course, dimwitted; the media comes to cover the whole thing; and Leslie ends up getting shot in the butt by Ingrid.

Oh, and the whole thing has to do with Leslie finding $5,000 in silver dollars in the wall of the office (he inherited the store from his father), which he decides to give away as a grab-all-you-can promotional stunt. Only, it never occurs to him or Carl that the blowers in the machine are made for dollar bills, not coins. It doesn’t help matters that the door keeps getting stuck and trapping people inside (first Amy, later one of the robbers).

“10 Items or Less” tries really hard to be a smart stupid comedy (yes, I wrote that on purpose), and the writers walk a very, very tight line. There are undoubtedly funny moments (Amy freaking out in the money machine and jumping on television when it is revealed that the robbers are her employees, to name two), and some really smart, low-key lines. (Leslie explaining that two small bags do, in fact, hold $5,000 in coins because the coins pack deceptively well, for example). But there is a lot of silliness going on, and, sometimes, it’s just too silly. I guess a lot will depend on your silliness capacity. I’m pretty tolerant of silliness, and “10 Items” was a bit much for me. On the TBS scale of comedy, you can comfortably slot “10 Items or Less” above “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne” and “The Bill Engvall Show” but below “My Boys.”

Like “Cashmere Mafia,” “10 Items or Less” provides a bit of scripted entertainment in a post-strike wasteland of reality shows. Just don’t expect to remember or care about what you’ve just seen once these two trifles are over.