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Desperate Measures

(c) Washington Post

April 3, 2005

By William Booth

Desperate Housewives almost didn't see the light of day. But after years of knockbacks, its creator Marc Cherry couldn't afford to take no for an answer. William Booth goes on the Los Angeles set of Seven's runaway ratings success.

Somewhere on the back lot of Universal Studios, past phony Western Town and pretend New York, beyond the old set of Psycho and the turgid lagoon where they shot McHale's Navy, you arrive at a picture-perfect cul-de-sac of white picket fences and fresh green lawn. Once the setting for the antics of the Cleaver clan on Leave it to Beaver, this little piece of suburbia has been reborn as Wisteria Lane, home to a more modern cast of characters: the Ritalin-gobbling mother; the Stepford wife channeling Martha Stewart; the randy former model and bored hausfrau with a thing for her 17-year-old lawn boy; the ditsy divorcee looking for love with a plumber. Ah, the 'burbs: so real, yet so unreal.

Today the lane is as freshly scrubbed as Disneyland's Main Street an hour before opening, and the neighbourhood is as busy as a yard sale. On the street-cum-set, the camera, make-up, wardrobe and sound crews are working on the 10th episode of Desperate Housewives, the primetime soap opera that has saved ABC in the States and propelled Channel 7's assault on the long-standing dominance of its arch rival Nine in the ratings war in Australia. Just as surely, the slightly subversive comedy-drama (or "dramedy" in Hollywood speak) has jump-started the careers of its cast of talented but desperate actresses, most of whom had reached the age when the casting calls slow.

Saved, too, by the show was its creator, Marc Cherry, who confesses he hadn't been able to get an interview for a writer's job in recent years, much less land any real work. (He wrote his spec script for the show, he says, out of "sheer desperation, if I can use the word".)

How fickle the fates. One day Cherry is in his Studio City condo writing a teleplay that nobody wanted (the four networks initially turned it down). Now he's a certifiable genius driving his new Lexus (licence plate: DSP HSWV) right to his reserved parking spot.

But that's what 22 million viewers and the No. 1 new show on American network television will do for a 42-year-old writer in this town. "I was starting to think I wasn't all that talented," Cherry says. "But these days my self-esteem is much better, thank you for asking."

Following its success, the publicists have been barraged by media wanting an inside look at the show. Consequently, getting onto the set of Desperate Housewives is like negotiating the SALT II Treaty. But finally, here is Marcia Cross playing the irresistible Bree Van De Kamp, in a retro print apron, holding a breakfast tray with a vase of cut roses, folded linen and fine china, awaiting her cue.

"And action!"

Cross enters the set - Bree's living room - to spar with husband Rex (Steven Culp), with whom she has been waging a kind of War of the Roses. Up close, before the camera, Cross is fascinating to watch: She pours tension into Bree, creating with her clenched hands, her Marine-erect posture and the starched flip of her red coif a woman so wound, so repressed, that a viewer is just waiting for her head to explode. (In an earlier episode Rex complained: "I just can't live in this detergent commercial anymore!")

In today's scene, the couple is fighting (we can't say over what exactly; the episode won't air for another month), but it shows the off-centre sensibility that the actors and Cherry have brought to the series. "The advice that Marc Cherry gave us was to play the comedy really seriously and play the drama with a twinkle in your eye," says Culp.

It looks like a daytime soap, except that the colours are too sunshiny. The dialogue sounds ordinary, too, but then Bree suddenly erupts, almost hissing her lines. "Don't confuse my anal retentiveness," she says, pausing for just a beat, "for actual affection".

And you think, is it OK to laugh? Is this Twin Peaks or Days of Our Lives? (And also this: "Ohmigod, my own wife/girlfriend/partner actually said the same thing just the other day.")

After a few takes, Cross sits down, wraps herself in a blanket and relaxes. Her face suddenly seems softer, less like a domestic Medusa; the imaginary snakes slither away. "Mmmm, hot tamales!" she gushes, and digs into a box of candy. "Want one?"

Her character is one of the more over-the-top on Wisteria Lane. "It is so tiring to play Bree," Cross says. "The tension. After a day on the set, I have to literally straighten out the kinks."

As she imagines Bree, "on the outside, she's like a sculpture, and I have to fill in the interior". Yes, she is repressed. "But we all are, only Bree more so. I think she has a huge terror of abandonment."

One of the things that makes Desperate Housewives unique is the fact that the show is propelled by women, by their relationships, their points of view. The women are the suns; the male characters revolve around them like planets. Since prime-time network television in the US is driven by female audience (60 per cent), this seems like an obvious choice. But flip through the TV guide and you'll see that male-led sitcoms, macho reality games and endless "procedurals" (the CSI clones) dominate the airwaves.

"What could be more interesting than the lives of four women?" Cross asks. On TV, she says, "There are always roles for wives, but they're never fleshed out".

She understands that the shorthand description for the Bree character is a Martha Stewart type off her meds. "But you'll see. Her vulnerability seeps out."

Sure, Bree is obsessive-compulsive. "But I think she is in love with her husband and terrified of losing him."

"Women can relate," says Eva Longoria, who plays Gabrielle Solis, the vixeny, materialistic ex-model bored with her empty marriage (hence the tryst with the high-school jock). "These women feel modern. They're divorced, married, kids, no kids. I've heard women say they feel like each character. I've heard men say that, too, about their wives."

As for Gabrielle (Longoria, at 29, is the youngest of the lead actresses; the others are in their 40s), the actress says: "She provides an outlet for frustrations. Gabrielle has no moral boundaries, no kids. She's not a very good wife. I think there are a lot of Gabrielles out there. Unhappy. Having affairs. Or wanting to.

"It works," she adds, "because the show is sad, dark, scary, weird and funny".

It is, of course, important not to take all this too seriously (nobody is out there searching for the deeper meaning of middle-age male sexuality in Everybody Loves Raymond). But the show has sparked a little flame of controversy. The American Family Association has complained about the peekaboo of lingerie and promiscuity and even convinced a couple of advertisers to pull their spots.

Some conservatives say the premise mocks the all-American goodness of Mom and apple pie. (In a scene from an earlier episode, Felicity Huffman's character, the former businesswoman turned overstressed stay-at-home mother Lynette Scavo, finally cracks and temporarily abandons her brats a few blocks from Wisteria Lane. Bad mommy!)

From another quarter, the show has been cited as evidence of a backlash against women.

Creator Cherry takes this in stride. "I was stunned, well, just a little stunned," he says, sitting in his barren office on the Universal lot, a boyish and burly man dressed in sweats and sneakers, taking an hour out of his marathon seven-day-a-week writing schedule.

"There was this scathing reviewer who thought I was writing these 1961 portraits of women. Calling them housewives. How dare I? And the fact that a lot of their personal unhappiness revolved around men in their lives."

Cherry pauses. "I thought, 'Have you met any women?' A lot of the women I know, that's what they're complaining about - either the man in their life or the lack of a man in their life.

"Now, if I'd written a show called Gabrielle, I can understand how I might have gotten into trouble." But with the four characters as archetypes, he argues, "I'm safe".

And he loves the title. "The best I've ever come up with. Desperate. Housewives. Such an interesting juxtaposition of words. Housewife. A '50s ideal of domestic bliss. And desperate. An adjective you don't normally connect with our ideas about the suburbs."

Cherry himself was a bit desperate when he sat down to write the pilot. He'd been a writer for Golden Girls in the early '90s. He was executive-producer on the forgotten Five Mrs Buchanans in 1994. Then he hit a dry patch.

"Honestly, I wrote this script because I wasn't working. I went three staffing seasons without a job interview, let alone a job. I was kinda depressed, because apparently I didn't have the best reputation in town. I knew I was smart, darn it, so I sat down to write the smartest thing I knew how to do."

Darn it. Gosh. Golly. That's the Midwesterner in Cherry coming out (his father was an oil exec, so he lived in Oklahoma, Hong Kong and Iran as a kid).

Cherry, a bachelor, says the inspiration came from his mother. The two were sitting around one day at her place in Orange County when an item appeared on the news about the trial of Andrea Yates, a woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub. Son Marc said something like, "How desperate". Mother Martha Cherry remarked, "I've been there". And thus the idea was born.

"I wanted the four archetypes to represent the four different types of women I experienced in the suburbs," he explains. "To look at my own mother, there are aspects of all four. She had three kids, my father was off getting his master's degree, and she couldn't handle us. It was actually a revelation of how difficult those times were that led me to this idea. My mother was a woman who insisted on everything being pleasant, and wearing pearls, and wanting everything to seem so very nice. We were a very repressed family who didn't express our emotions a lot."

That, clearly, is where Bree comes from.

"But I also had a relationship with my mom, being able to talk to her about almost anything," he counters. "And that's very much in evidence in Teri Hatcher's character (divorcee Susan Mayer) and her relationship with her daughter in the series."

And the vixen Gabrielle? Or the overworked Lynette, who stepped off the corporate ladder to raise the ankle-biters?

"My mom was a woman who gave up her career as a singer to move to the suburbs," says Cherry. "I don't think she was ever bored and had an affair with her gardener, but certainly what Gabrielle goes through in terms of having an exciting life and now living in the 'burbs, yes, I drew some colours from that."

Cherry says Desperate Housewives is a kind of skewed homage to suburban life, and he found inspiration in everything from the later episodes of I Love Lucy (after they move to Connecticut) to the Oscar-winning American Beauty. He also admired Sex and the City but knew he couldn't reproduce that R-rated vibe on prime-time network TV, though he did hold dear the concept of four women sitting around a table dissing about their lives.

"I love the idea of a beautiful neighbourhood that represents the very best of American values, but also as a fun backdrop to some darker, deliciously sneaky things going on in people's lives," he says. "The truth is I see both in the suburbs. I think that is one of the secrets of our success. Unlike other writers" - and here he means the urban intellectual snobs - "who are incredibly cynical about suburban life, I think my love of this world comes through in the project".

But not everyone got it, at least not at first. Cherry peddled his pilot script to the four big broadcast networks and a bunch of cable channels and he was roundly rejected. "They heard 'women, comedy, dark,' and said, 'I don't think so'," he says.

He switched agents (his previous one went to jail for embezzlement) and his new reps suggested he sell the script as a prime-time soap. Cherry reworked some scenes, and voila.

"We started calling it a soap opera, then they started saying it was funny," he says. "What it did, it changed their expectations of how much they were going to laugh. Then the comedy was a pleasant surprise, versus 'You're going to be laughing your head off'."

Perhaps the real reason Desperate Housewives works, though, is that its creator, beaten down and rejected for so long by the system, dared to write something the system probably never would have.

"The joke," Cherry says, "is that one of the reasons the script has such a different tone is that more experienced writers for hour-long dramas wouldn't be so stupid as to write something so expensive to shoot".

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