'Lipstick Jungle': NBC's Thick Application of Gloss

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's nearly a certainty that someone will call "Lipstick Jungle," NBC's new drama series about sensual and successful women, a "guilty pleasure," but it's really more of a guilty horror. You feel you're not watching a show so much as flipping through a catalogue of gaudy and pricey luxuries -- glittery junk that nobody needs -- and being expected to drool on cue.

At least things do keep happening, or seeming to happen, in tonight's pilot and next week's second episode.

Fabulous Wendy Healy (Brooke Shields), head honcho at Parador Pictures, cleverly signs Leonardo DiCaprio to star in the company's forthcoming production of "Galileo" (DiCaprio does not -- repeat, not-- appear in the show).

Nico Reilly (Kim Raver), fabulous editor of Bonfire Magazine, has a mad impetuous fling with a male secretary named Toby, who drives her wild when he writes his "555" telephone number on her leg in the back of a limo. She is perhaps not diligent enough about hygiene, because the number is still there the next day. She pulls up a silk robe to flash it at her husband, but he's a coldblooded, hardhearted cad and doesn't even notice.

And finally, there's semi-fabulous Victory Ford (Lindsay Price), brilliant fashion designer, who manages to rise above critical barbs aimed at her latest line of foolish frocks for wealthy women. Says a friend, in a line perhaps meant to serve as a defense of the series: "So a few critics don't like this particular show. So what?" That's the prevailing attitude at NBC these days, where quality is definitely not the most important product. It isn't even vaguely a consideration.

NBC, with a printed promo for some new show planted permanently (except during commercials) in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, these days makes Fox look like the BBC.

The network is taking no chances on "Lipstick," either; the whole world will know it's an imitation of HBO's "Sex and the City" because it's based on a book by Candace Bushnell, the author of, yes, "Sex and the City"! Here, Bushnell's three heroically independent, fearlessly assertive and ragingly glamorous heroines swing and sway through a whirling world of lavish parties, torrid affairs and glasses of champagne that never stay empty for long.

It's a subculture that doesn't really exist -- or if it does, it appeals only to the giddiest of daydreamers; wish-fulfillment fantasies that are strictly banal from top to bottom. Token nods to reality include calling the magazine Bonfire so we know it's supposed to be Vanity Fair ("The Bonfire of the Vanities," get it?) and introducing a devil-may-care billionaire in the Donald Trump mold played with a self-adoring smirk by Andrew McCarthy, the boy who apparently will never grow up.

Ford the fashion queen goes out with him even though his first request for a date is delivered to her by his secretary and, later, he keeps her waiting in the back of a limo (of course) while he chats on his cellphone. As an apology, he fills her house with flowers the next day; soon, they're whisking hither and thither in his private jet. He calls one morning and asks her whether she'd like to have a lunch of stone crabs in Miami that very day. Imagine.

Now and then, the three dear friends meet -- on a rooftop, say, or for lunch at the inevitable trendy eatery, or to take a walk in Toronto (which appears to be playing New York City again). Their get-togethers might include deep thoughts on a woman's plight in the modern world, as when Nico complains, "If you want to start a family, you're 'distracted,' and if you don't, you're unnatural, you hate men, you're hiding testicles under your skirt!" The part after "you hate men" is deleted from the scene in NBC promos for the show.

The three main characters are almost interchangeable, but they're all quite watchable, too, especially Raver as Nico. She has a Meredith Vieira kind of beauty and a sensitivity that even the trashy script (by two women and a man) can't subdue. Raver has a particularly affecting moment when, after cheating on her husband with a hottie who picked her up in a bar, she weeps with self-recrimination.

Unfortunately, that's not the only weeping done in the first two episodes. For a show that pretends to have feminist credentials, there's an awful lot of crying, and not by the men who carry the superwomen's ashtrays. Perhaps the writers figured: "Heck, it worked for Hillary Clinton, it can work for us, too."

Lipstick Jungle (one hour) premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 4.

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