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THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES : fall television preview

The chemistries of X and Y

Single-sex Ensembles Are Putting Gender Under The Microscope. Best Buddies Forever?

September 16, 2007|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

On their way to work from their suburban homes, middle-management buddies on ABC's "Carpoolers" commiserate over "losing their place" as men.
Over on "Cashmere Mafia" (ABC, again) women -- ambitious "Sex and the City"-style Manhattanites -- understand. After all, says Juliet (Miranda Otto), the chief operating officer of a hotel whose husband is having an affair, consider what men have to "give up" to be with powerful women. "We make more money. We rise higher. We take up more space."
From "Big Shots," a show about powerful chief executive officers trying to maintain their alpha male status, to "Women's Murder Club," a series about girlfriends in police-medical-legal professions who band together to get ahead, the small screen is bursting with same-sex ensemble shows -- many set in New York -- this fall.

Judging by all the gender bonding, it appears the battle of the sexes has reached a new level of confusion requiring regular meetings just to obtain information about the opposite sex.

Interplay between the sexes is a staple of screwball romantic comedies such as "The Philadelphia Story" and "Some Like It Hot." The genre continued after the women's movement with movies such as "When Harry Met Sally" and "What Women Want." On the small screen, men and women tried to figure each other out on "Moonlighting" and are still trying on "Grey's Anatomy."

But only since the rise of "chick lit" and the spectacular success of "Sex and the City" have networks turned to same-sex ensembles in shows that revolve around relationships.

"For the most part, female ensembles have dominated," said "Big Shots" creator/ executive producer Jon Harmon Feldman, citing "Desperate Housewives" and "Sex and the City."

It's no mystery, said Tim Brooks, executive vice president of research for Lifetime, since women make up 55% of prime-time network audiences. "Most shows, not all, on the broadcast and many cable networks go after female audiences," he said.

Two of the new shows clearly want to pick up where "Sex and the City" left off. Darren Star Productions, which produced the HBO hit, is also producing "Cashmere Mafia," about a group of Ivy League college friends juggling work and family in New York. The show stars Otto, Lourdes Benedicto, Lucy Liu, Frances O'Connor and Bonnie Somerville.

Meanwhile, "Sex and the City's" Candace Bushnell is executive producer of NBC's upcoming midseason dramedy "Lipstick Jungle," based on her novel of the same name and starring Brooke Shields, Lindsay Price and Kim Raver. NBC's tag line: "They're not looking for Mr. Big, they are Mr. Big."

Male bonding shows, historically limited to cops and cowboy genres, have joined their female counterparts. Recent men's shows such as "Rescue Me" and "Entourage" don't belong in the same genre, Feldman maintains, since they don't portray how men have evolved in their relationships with women. "Real men in 2007 are trying to balance their professional lives with their personal lives," he said. "You want to be a great father, a good husband. It's a lot more complicated than it was a generation ago. They've evolved to the point where they're dealing with traditional female issues," he said.

In the "Big Shots" pilot, Duncan (Dylan McDermott) baldly states, "Men. We're the new women," as he and his friends lounge poolside in spa robes, discussing their relationships. One buddy can't control his mistress, another's wife is cheating on him and a third is so cowed by his wife he can't tell her that he hasn't found the right pastries for her party. On the plus side, Duncan now appreciates having sex with his ex-wife, but on the minus side, he's hounded by a female reporter investigating a misbegotten encounter with a transvestite hooker.

Despite the move to equality, men and women face different sets of circumstances, said Jeanie Bradley, executive vice president of current programming with Sony Pictures Television, which produces "Cashmere Mafia." The question for both is, "Where do I fit in?" she said. "There's lots of room for shows like these," she said, predicting the development of franchises such as the "CSI" series.

It's possible the shows will also appeal to the gender not dominating the show, she said. Men may watch women's shows and women may watch men's shows just to see how the other gender thinks and what they're saying about them, she said. " 'Sex and the City' was a must-see for me and my husband," she said.

Kevin Wade, an executive producer of "Cashmere Mafia," said the stories on that show "grow out of real-life dilemmas" rather than "overlays or schematics." He said the network's point of view is, "Let's make a fun, entertaining show out of real life."

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