It has been nearly a year since broadcast television included a regular lesbian/bi character — Laura Innes‘ Dr. Kerry Weaver left ER on Jan. 11, 2007 — but thankfully that drought is coming to an end this Sunday, Jan. 6, when Cashmere Mafia premieres on ABC. The dramedy centering on four successful businesswomen in New York includes not one but two lesbian/bi characters: marketing executive Caitlin Dowd, played by Bonnie Somerville (NYPD Blue, Friends), and the woman she falls in love with, Alicia, played by Lourdes Benedicto (The Nine, 24).
Asked for his opinion on why the number of lesbian/bi characters on prime-time network television hovers around the zero mark, Cashmere Mafia creator Kevin Wade said bluntly to AfterEllen.com, "Lazy writing."
He continued with a laugh: "I was not aware of stepping into a void here or anything. It just seemed a natural for the show." Then he added, "I’m glad that we’re doing it, and that we’re out in front with it."
The premise of the show — a drama focusing on the professional and personal lives of a group of highly successful and ambitious women — originated with executive producer Gail Katz (The Perfect Storm), who based it on her experiences with her female friends from Yale Business School.
At a press conference last July, Katz explained: "I think what I ended up realizing is … [women] want, in a way, what men have, which is we want the same opportunities. We have different challenges than they have and maybe different assets, and that is what this show is about. But basically, we just want the same opportunities. So we want to be able to have a personal life, have a home life. We want to be able to go to the gym. We want to be able to achieve whatever our dreams are, whether it’s business or whatever. It seems to be shocking to some people, though."
Katz brought her idea for Cashmere Mafia to Darren Star, best known for his popular HBO series Sex and the City, and Star became an executive producer on the series. But the task of writing the pilot fell to Wade, who also penned the classic workplace comedy Working Girl. Wade said that part of the inspiration for Caitlin’s character — particularly her sexuality — came from a friend of his.
"She’s in the cosmetics marketing communications business, and she’s very smart and very accomplished, and she’s gay," Wade said of his friend. "I said, ‘I’m just going to need to call you a lot because I’ve got to write about four women, and I want to be specific, and I want it to be based in reality.’ And she said, ‘Well, the first reality is you’ve got to make one of them gay.’"
Wade took her advice to heart. "It just felt like a natural place to find a character who is in a sympathetic crisis in her life that could also be funny and poignant and all those things that you look for as a writer," he said. "So there wasn’t any sexual or political agenda to it. There was purely a character agenda to it."
To play that character, the show’s producers cast Bonnie Somerville, who started off as a comedy actor (viewers of Friends may remember her as Ross’ girlfriend, Mona, in Season 8). Though Somerville originally read for Lucy Liu‘s character, publishing executive Mia Mason, and Australian actor Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings) was initially considered for the role of Caitlin, Somerville’s comedic touch proved to fit the role better. Otto was ultimately cast as hotel COO Juliet Draper, and British actor Frances O’Connor (Artificial Intelligence: AI, Mansfield Park) rounds out the group as investment banker Zoe Burden.
"We found that she brought a lightness and a comedienne quality that I found would be much more useful than someone who came off as quite serious," Wade said of Somerville. "Bonnie … brings an energy to it that’s kind of like the messy little sister who hasn’t quite figured everything out, and she’s kind of more endearing for it."
"I like this character," Somerville said simply, in an interview with AfterEllen.com. "I think this character’s definitely the funny one, the comic one. I love physical comedy. I like that they wrote a little of that."