This weekend, while most of Hollywood was out in the streets either protesting Prop 8 or putting out wildfires, Ilene Rosenzweig was sending out frantic emails to her friends, urging them to buy cosmetics. She wasn’t moonlighting as an Avon lady—rather, the former New York Times Sunday Styles editor-turned- Lipstick writer was making a last-ditch effort to save her beloved show, NBC’s Lipstick Jungle.
Last Thursday, industry trades reported that NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman intended to fold the hour-long ladydrama after this Friday’s episode due to dismal ratings. Producers sprang into action—and the cast and crew solicited fans to mail tubes of lipstick directly to network headquarters.
“There is power in this show,” Shields told The Daily Beast.
According to Lipstick star Brooke Shields, who spoke to The Daily Beast from the set yesterday, the NBC mailroom now looks like the beauty aisle of a supermarket. “NBC is now flooded with lipstick,” she says. “Women are in uproar over this…they’ve tried to kill us before and we have refused to die. If we were meant to be off the air, we wouldn’t have made it as far as we have. Everything that could possibly go wrong with a show has happened with us.”
From the beginning, Lipstick Jungle has had it rough. When the show, based on the book by Candace Bushnell, was revealed at the 2007 NBC upfronts, it immediately spawned a flurry of blog rage. The show follows the lives of three very successful New York women in their late 30s/early 40s. But on the heels of HBO’s Sex and the City, the idea of another show about high-powered femmes clomping through Manhattan in expensive shoes perhaps felt excessive—and the ratings were weak.
Lipstick managed to just scrape by, winning a second season—with little help from NBC. The show has changed time slots more than a delayed flight out of JFK, confusing viewers and hurting its chances for a stable audience. “But this is how it has been since the start,” says Shields. “They recast us, they reshot the pilot, and we changed showrunners. We had our second season premiere up against a presidential debate, and then, when they moved us to Friday nights at 10 [a typically doomed time slot], our first night at the new time was Halloween. Of course those numbers were down.”
The traditional numbers for the show are admittedly poor—averaging just 5 million viewers an episode this season (and dropping down to 3.3 million the Friday before cancellation). But the producers have more ammunition to work with than just Maybelline: The Nielsen scores do not reflect the number of people who TiVo episodes or watch the show on websites like NBC.com or Hulu—where Lipstick has a cult following. If these numbers were included, Candace Bushnell told The Daily Beast, the network would be crazy to talk cancellation. "These kinds of serial shows tend to be what people TiVo and then watch all in a row on a Saturday morning," she says. "Over 50 percent of our audience is not accounted for in the numbers."
When Bushnell started describing most Lipstick viewers' watching habits to me, I suddenly felt found out. For me, the show is one of those highly entertaining-but-still-guilt-inducing programs that I tune into religiously but never discuss. Perhaps this is because we live in a post- Sex and the City world now—where quoting Carrie in public is a faux pas akin to spilling red wine on a white carpet—and it is not considered stylish to mention any of the following without ironic preconditions: buying $500 shoes, drinking any Skittle-colored cocktail, being a “Miranda,” or liking the SATC movie, even a little bit.
Ultimately, what may save Lipstick Jungle is the sheer fact that it is not actually anything like Sex and the City. While SATC was the ideal show to celebrate sex and money in the late ‘90s boom, Lipstick Jungle is very much a show of the present moment—the women in the show are wealthy, but they are also dealing with sobering problems and major successes. At a time when women are more invested in keeping their jobs and racing ahead professionally than slurping down mojitos and talking about the social implications of chest hair, Lipstick is poised to deliver a more compelling message to its viewers.
As Rosenzweig explains, “There are no other female-driven dramas on television, and if this one goes, it will have been the last. But women are so sick of reality TV and want to have a place where they can turn for escapism and frivolity, but also to confront the real struggles that powerful women face in the workplace and at home.”
Shields agrees: “There are not many other shows that are doing this. Once you get past the wish fulfillment of the outfits, these women are fiercely intelligent and just trying to cope with their ambitions. In the beginning, there was confusion at the top as to whether we were supposed to be SATC or not; the movie had just come out. But we never wanted to be that show. We are what happens after that show ends. Every now and then we have this humor and hijinks, and that is our reward for touching on the big stuff, but most of these women’s lives are fraught with questions and the writers are not afraid to go into that.”
This is what Lipstick Jungle does so well, and so differently from other female-centric dramas that have died before it. “This is the thing about powerful women that a lot of people don’t know,” says Bushnell. “Their lives are as hard or harder than anyone else’s and they need each other to survive. This is what Lipstick Jungle is all about…the thesis of the show, if you will, is that women have to stick together and build each other up because it’s not easy out there.”
If you’d like to join the Save the Jungle campaign, you can send Ben Silverman a lipstick at 100 Universal City Plaza, Universal City, CA, 91608, or tune into the show this Friday at 10 p.m. to boost the ratings.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.