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Just too much to swallow

TELEVISION CRITIC

Watching the first half hour or so of “Maneater,” a thinking woman may find herself grinding her teeth so angrily that, should she be of a certain age and dental history, she may need a new crown or two.

The Lifetime miniseries, the first half of which premieres Saturday and all of which is based on Gigi Levangie Grazer’s book of the same name, follows the gold-digging adventures of Clarissa (Sarah Chalke) and her entourage of similarly acquisitively romantic pals. There’s Gravy (Judy Greer) who’s entering Year 10 of an affair with a married (though generous) man; Polo (Noureen DeWulf) who is a hypochondriac and unapologetically shallow; and Jennifer (Marla Sokoloff), the sweet-faced rich girl who has the hots for her handyman.

It’s not just that the bubble-rific economics make “Maneater” feel incredibly pre-deluge, or that hating rich women has become such a bore. It’s the idea of mantrap-scheming as narrative vehicle that makes a girl feel so blue. Ah, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage.

Clarissa, we are told, by her inevitable voice-over, owns L.A. -- and watching her swing into some local hot spot with a few winks and waves is supposed to prove this. But alas, she’s over 30; the time when she will have to cede her tiara to some winsome young reality star looms. Also, her daddy is about to stop her allowance. So she decides to get married. That she has no groom, or even a steady since the dashing and dastardly Simon (Paul Leyden) ditched her, is not an issue. Armed with only an iPhone and credit cards, she plans her wedding to the unsuspecting Aaron (Philip Winchester), the latest scion turned producer to roll into town.

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Of course, no one is quite who they seem (except maybe Polo and Jennifer) and in between some “Clueless"-type banter and a lot of product placement (the Ivy may be renamed the Vine but Vaseline Aloe Fresh, the show’s “presenter,” is mentioned several times), a tale of lies and deception, of love, betrayal and mind-numbing narcissism unfurls.

In Suzanne Martin’s script, no plotline develops, no character emerges that we haven’t seen before. Clarissa has a zesty, wisdom-dispensing Latina mama (Maria Conchita Alonso) whose tempestuous relationship with Clarissa’s father, serial cheater Teddy (Gregory Harrison), is supposed to explain our little “maneater’s” view of spouse-as-ATM, and a nemesis in the form of witchy publicist Suzee (Garcelle Beauvais-Nilon) with whom she trades sophomoric barbs about sexual desirability and personal virtue.

It’s “The Hills” crossed with “The Starter Wife,” which means it has a perfectly ridiculous plot, some occasional snappy dialogue and a very, very good cast. In fact, “Maneater” is almost unforgivably well-acted. Although she is less than believable as a Paris Hilton-esque sleep-around, Chalke (so great in “Scrubs”) uses her throaty laugh and terrific comic timing to make Clarissa, against all odds, likable. Winchester (last seen, often shirtless, in “Crusoe”) has a certain chiseled warmth that makes true love at least a possibility and Greer is a terrific addition to any cast. She even manages to breathe new life into the “he’ll never leave her” trope that was old by the time “When Harry Met Sally . . . " came out on video.

It is exasperating to see both another attempt to recapture that “Sex and the City” magic (hint: dumbing down the women is not a good direction) and another shot at the oh-so-shallow nature of life in L.A. (for the record, although women like Clarissa certainly exist here, they are the dominant species only in chick lit and on television). There is a good old-fashioned morality tale buried deep within the chichi lunches, McMansions and footwear references, and certainly many will consider “Maneater” a guilty pleasure. Still, it’s hard not to wish the story had as much spark as the performances.

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mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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‘Maneater’

Where: Lifetime

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Rating: Unrated


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