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On TV: Real Women

When the narcissistic vultures on Cashmere Mafia get you down, go see Beth and Val.

TV review, February 21, 2008

If I had to pick my all-time favorite TV show, there’d be a long list of candidates. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Barney Miller, Berlin Alexanderplatz—and that’s just the Bs. But for my least favorite show, the one that makes me despair for the state of TV and for the whole miserable human species, there’s one that rises instantly to the top: Sex and the City. Nothing I’ve ever seen has ever made women look worse. You can ransack the archives of Spike TV, throw in the complete film libraries of Adam Sandler, Dane Cook, and Judd Apatow, and supplement them with the collected works of Henry Miller and Norman Mailer and you won’t find as unrelenting a portrayal of female humorlessness, avarice, petulance, vindictiveness, and off-the-charts narcissism.

One moment sums up the whole series. Good girl Charlotte strikes a deal with an upscale shoe salesman who has a foot fetish: she gets discounts on his hottest wares and he gets to fondle her feet. But in the end she has to bail, much as she hungers for the shoes, because she just finds the sight of him getting off on her feet too icky. In her value system, lusting after trendy objects is normal but lusting after the touch of human skin is grotesque.

The other characters may be boffing everything that moves, but in the end sex isn’t the main thing on their minds either. For ubercompetent corporate drone Miranda it’s being thought of as strong and successful, which is why her no-account slacker baby daddy is such a psychic burden for her. For our heroine Carrie, it’s being famous—recall that after she finally settles in Paris with her impossibly dreamy boyfriend, she has to ditch him and move back to Manhattan because she can’t bear that nobody in France knows who she is. Over the long haul, it becomes clear that even that omnivorous huntress Samantha is using sex as a kind of scorekeeping: ultimately she doesn’t care how the sex is so long as everybody perceives her as transcendently hot. For all these women, sex runs a distant second to status.

The creator of SATC, Darren Star, has a new show airing Wednesdays at 9 on ABC called Cashmere Mafia, whose main, and in fact only, dramatic interest is obvious: does it find a fresh way of making its female characters loathsome? In one running story line he gives it a shot. One of the new quartet of heroines finds out her husband is having an affair and tells him that she’s going to get revenge by sleeping with one of his friends. She coolly auditions a suitable candidate, but in the end she can’t actually go through with it and instead simply tells her husband that they’re even. The show has the gall to present this “Let’s not and pretend we did” cop-out as a triumph of personal empowerment. She finds a way to make her husband’s life a nightmare of guilt and jealousy without having to submit to the grossness of physical contact. Clytemnestra would have been proud of her.

But the rest of the show is a bore: a glamorama soap opera about fabulously successful women in the corporate stratosphere dealing with an unending succession of cell-phone-chirping-at-the-crucial-client-meeting crises that have you nodding off even as your blood runs cold. The women are more upmarket in their Nietzschean will to power than the SATC women were: they plainly couldn’t give a shit about cutting the line at a Manhattan hot spot when they can gloat over getting somebody blackballed by a condo board. But everything still stops for those obligatory scenes where they get together over lunch and dish, lobbing verbal hate bombs at anyone who dares to impede them in any way. Sometimes they even attempt to intellectualize their raging self-pity and sense of entitlement into pithy observations like “You know that whole having-it-all thing? I think it’s a crock.”

A line like that makes you wonder whether Star or anybody else connected with this show has ever heard any actual women talk. This is why, when I’m sufficiently suffocated by Cashmere Mafia, I find myself turning with relief to an online series called Ask Anything With Beth and Val. Much of it is archived at the now-moribund site Dotcomedy, but episodes are also being posted to YouTube. This is a show that consists of nothing but two women talking, and it seems to be about a different biological species than the one on display in Cashmere Mafia.

The premise of Beth and Val is that viewers send in questions, and Beth Dover and Valerie Hurt, two young women on the LA comedy/acting fringe, take a stab at answering them. The questions include “How would you explain sex to a prepubescent boy?” and “Are diamonds a good investment?” The answers are rarely very helpful. Beth and Val have no evident expertise in any field. What they do know how to do is think out loud, and the pleasure of the show is in the enthusiasm with which they fall upon every side topic and peculiar tangent that occurs to them along their way. They might suddenly find themselves wondering why “retro” refers only to the 60s rather than, say, prehistory, and instantly they envision making a fashion statement that suggests “scavenging in the grasslands.” Or they may pause to ponder the tricky ethical issue of whether you should allow yourself to be examined by a gynecologist you happen to be dating. Yes, they conclude, “but not for medical purposes.”

Unlike the power lunchers on Cashmere Mafia, Beth and Val don’t focus on themselves; in fact, after watching a couple dozen episodes I still don’t know the first thing about them. They’re also not mean-spirited: in one episode they make a half-hearted attempt to come off as stoutly xenophobic American patriots, and the best they can muster is a denunciation of “you foreigners with your acupressure and your poetry slams.” Too many episodes fall into standard post-Seinfeld hypertrivial inconsequentiality—such as an analysis of the conceptual “gray area” between muffins and cupcakes. But the dominant quality of the show is its airiness. It’s such a spiral of offhand absurdity that at times it seems as abstract and daffy as a painting by Paul Klee.

Of the two, Beth comes off as somewhat more grounded. Typically she speculates on current events, like whether global warming would really be the apocalypse or might turn out to be an unusually pleasant stretch of summer weather. Elsewhere she suggests that cosmetics be tested not on animals but on “people I don’t like.” Val’s thoughts tend to meander into stranger terrain. In one episode she considers the ideal method of human reproduction and declares that she intends to clone herself over and over again until she arrives at “a paragon of humanity who may or may not have gills.” Another episode deals with the burning question of what animals they could defeat barehanded. Beth concludes sensibly that her victories would most likely be confined to the insect realm. Val offers the surprising self-assessment that she could take down a mountain lion, and she goes on to muse that once she had it by the windpipe they would probably form an emotional bond, and from then on they would “travel around together solving crimes.”

OK, sure, this can get grating at times. It might be intolerable if it went on for as long as an episode of Cashmere Mafia does. But that’s another sterling virtue of the series: its rigorous artistic economy. Each episode lasts, on average, two and a half minutes. Beth and Val actually record much longer answers and then ruthlessly edit themselves down. I’d like to recommend the same approach to Darren Star. Cashmere Mafia might be a lot easier to take if it were two and a half minutes long. But my guess is that you couldn’t make it truly bearable unless you got it down to zero.