So here we are. Take 4 female friends, New York City, and a helping of workplace politics and other gender issues and we have "Cashmere Mafia," a new ABC series from executive producer Darren Star of "Sex and the City" fame. I doubt they'll be turning "Cashmere Mafia" into a feature film, but the pilot has its charms....
The Cashmere Mafia are four business school friends who have each risen to prominence in New York business and social circles. I wish the pilot had been a little more specific about what each of the women did. Only Mia Mason (Lucy Liu) gets sufficient exposition. She's up for the publisher of a major media conglomerate, but the central story arc of the pilot concerns the fact that she's competing against Jack Cutting (Tom Everett Scott). Jack is aggressive, talented, and (after the opening scene) Mia's fiance. The two are pitted against each other to sell the most ad pages in a week; the winner gets the job and the loser is out on the street. The Mia-Jack storyline sets up a central theme of the show. Mia keeps a client that the two are competing for out so late he cancels a meeting with Jack the next day. When he complains she points out that she wasn't invited when men made the rules, so she's got to fend for herself. Even if Mia and her friends are just as capable and driven, sometimes they've still got to do something extra.
Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Somerville, whose credits include roles on "Friends," "The O.C.," and "NYPD Blue") is the "head of marketing" somewhere, but we're never told more about what this means. I was pleasantly surprised to discover - when Caitlin locks eyes with a cute female business contact named Alicia (Lourdes Benedicto) - that she's a budding lesbian. Caitlin immediately runs to confess her sexual confusion to her brother, who turns out to be an incredibly open-minded Catholic priest. Somerville's reaction after getting a kiss from Alicia is the most touching moment of the episode.
Less well developed is Zoe (Frances O'Connor), who has child care issues and a husband who travels for business. When a nanny they've hired turns out to be a ninny, we get a monologue about how the women entering the work force now have a sense of entitlement while women of the Cashmere Mafia's generation were forced to kick, scratch, and sometimes be grateful for what they could get at work. The final Mafiosa is Juliet (elegant Miranda Otto), whose husband breaks their tacit understanding by sleeping with someone in the ladies' social circle. The pilot ends with Juliet and her friends trying to decide who she should take as a revenge lover.
All four actresses look fabulous and are tremendously appealing. I was particularly happy to see Liu get to show a lighter side and some vulnerability, she hasn't had much chance since making her bones with hard-ass characters on "Ally McBeal" and in "Charlie's Angels." My worry is that each lady will be saddled with one "thing" (career, mommy, gay, sex) that defines them and makes their interactions with each other predictable or cliched. I'm not going to pretend "Cashmere Mafia" isn't mostly light entertainment, but a smart show about women fighting on both the work and home front (including against younger women) has a chance. "Cashmere Mafia" returns Wednesday at 10; since "Life" on NBC has disappeared for the moment I'll be following the fortunes of Mia and the ladies.