The Women of 'Cashmere Mafia' Suit Themselves

Just call them Suits and the City.

Four years after the seminal singles series "Sex and the City" ended its run on HBO, another quartet of blunt, bodacious and bold ladies will stride through Manhattan in killer heels: ABC's "Cashmere Mafia," premiering Sunday (10 ET/PT) and then shifting to its regular slot Wednesday at 10.

This time, the focus shifts from the boudoir to the boardroom.

Mia Mason (Lucy Liu) is a publishing whiz with a shaky personal life, Zoe Burden (Frances O'Connor) is an investment banker with two kids she barely sees, Juliet Draper (Miranda Otto) works as a hotel executive while dealing with major marital issues, and Caitlin Dowd (Bonnie Somerville) is a marketing pro who finds herself attracted to another woman.

"Cashmere" and "Sex" share the same executive producer in Darren Star, as well as costume designer Patricia Field and location. But unlike "Sex," which focused primarily on the relationship exploits of its four stars, "Cashmere" zooms in on the cutthroat corporate side of Manhattan, where a family crumbles when the nanny quits and an executive vies with her fiancé for a promotion.

Liu, the marquee name in the series, describes the show as "an exploration of women in modern society. The idea of how you balance out and juggle what you want, and what is actually reality. How do you live your life and still have time for yourself -- and is there time for yourself?"

"Cashmere" has seven completed episodes, with production of the remainder of the season on hold because of the ongoing writers' strike.

On Feb. 7, the Cashmere clique gets major competition from NBC's "Lipstick Jungle," another series about a heavy-hitting trio of Gotham women starring Brooke Shields, Kim Raver and Lindsay Price. It is based on the book by Candace Bushnell, the author of the "Sex and the City" book.

And in May comes the holy grail of girl power: the long-awaited, just-wrapped "Sex and the City" movie, featuring the original foursome and hitting a cineplex near you after an endlessly chronicled shoot in Manhattan.

Talk to anyone involved in "Lipstick" or "Cashmere," and you hear the refrain: There's plenty of room on the small screen for two network shows about strong women.

"It's such a strange question," Liu says. "People ask, 'What do you think of these shows coming up, and is it your competition?' No! Why does it have to be your competition? Why can't there always be shows about women? No one asks a man if it's difficult to have another show about men."

Timothy Busfield, producer of "Lipstick Jungle, "dismisses any rivalry with "Cashmere." "Our competition is going to be "Without a Trace" (on CBS) and whatever else ABC puts up against us on that night. There can be a couple of shows about women in New York."

Plus, if there's enough room on TV for multiple hospital and police dramas, "we'll be all right," Busfield says. "I don't know what competition is all about. We are appearing somewhere along the same time. And we both have beautiful women."

Yes, but aesthetics don't guarantee a hit. One show doesn't cancel out the other and both could thrive, says Variety TV editor Mike Schneider, as scrubs dramas "Chicago Hope" and "ER" both did when they premiered in 1994. But, he says, the long-term outlook is questionable, because "it's a landscape where few shows survive beyond the first season. And are people exhausted with the whole concept of single women living in the big city?"

Still, "Cashmere" could have an edge over "Lipstick," simply by virtue of being first. "The feeling is, the first to air has the natural benefit," Schneider says. "If people are turned off by that show, it's going to make it that much more difficult for 'Lipstick Jungle' to come on and make much noise. You're playing the odds. ABC has much more success with female-driven dramas lately. They're going to able to promote the show."

Certainly, there's a surge in women-centric programming on television, with an increase in strong roles for women, even as powerful, memorable leading parts decline for actresses in films.

There's Glenn Close on FX drama "Damages," Holly Hunter in TNT's "Saving Grace," Sally Field at the center of ABC family drama "Brothers & Sisters" and Mary-Louise Parker on Showtime's "Weeds," all nominated for Golden Globes; the standout female doctors on ABC's "Grey's Anatomy" and the suffering spouses on "Desperate Housewives," TV's No. 2 and 3 scripted series; and for die-hard fans, the sanitized singles on TBS' cleaned-up reruns of "Sex."

Networks "realize, wow, women can sell television. It's not new," says "Cashmere's" Somerville. "But women sell movie tickets. Women sell ideas. Women are an integral part of the business world. I've always worked on shows with women. There have been more hits recently, and that's why people are paying attention more."

According to Nielsen Media Research, women 18 and older watch nearly an hour more of television daily, on average, than men. And, says Busfield, once women fall in love with a show, they'll keep tuning in. "Women are busy. To make a contract with a TV show, to say that 'with the little bit of time I have in my day, I'll sit and watch a TV show,' when they find that show that they like and can relate to, they'll say they want to come back to it next week."

Executive producer Star certainly hopes that holds true for "Cashmere Mafia," which had its pilot retooled to make the women more likable and more believable as college friends. And if you want to liken "Cashmere" to a beloved show such as "Sex and the City," bring it on.

"It's an apt comparison. It's a show about women in New York," he says. "I certainly hope we get the 'Sex and the City' audience, but it's a different show. It's a drama. 'Sex and the City,' I created that as a comedy about sex from a female point of view. This is more about the lives of women who are working and how they juggle their responsibilities in positions of power. With 'Sex and the City,' we consciously avoided doing stories about work."

Perhaps the best way to think of "Cashmere" is to ponder where "Sex's" columnist Carrie Bradshaw would have ended up had she pursued a writing and editing career at Vogue and steadily strutted her way up the corporate ladder in those Manolos. Then, her wardrobe would likely be hip but more understated, like the women's clothing on "Cashmere."

"The show is glamorous and stylish. If you miss your 'Sex and City' clothing, you'll get your fix with the show," Somerville says.

You see the women navigating tough meetings, firing employees, dealing with cheating spouses and grappling with unruly kids, but you never -- unlike "Sex" -- see them scooping up Christian Louboutins during a spending spree.

"We've never shopped," Liu says. "There's a highlight on fashion, but you never see us going out and buying stuff. We try to focus on the inside of the office, the outside of the office and the family home. We meet up in a place, a restaurant, to vent or powwow. But we never go to the store and buy shoes."

These women get their kicks in other ways.