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'Housewives' in Suspense

(c) USA Today

May 5, 2005

By William Keck

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. — Eva Longoria, "Desperate Housewives"' always fashionable Gabrielle, is marching onto a soccer field in wobbly high heels for a confrontational scene set to air on the hugely successful prime-time soap's season finale May 22.

It's the final day of filming on the Universal Studios back lot, and series creator Marc Cherry has just pulled up in a golf cart for one of his rare on-set appearances. Sprinting up a hillside, the 43-year-old writer deals with malfunctioning lawn sprinklers, then encourages Longoria to exaggerate the fury she's expressing toward Jesse Metcalfe, who plays her hottie gardener — and quite possibly the father of her unborn child.

Faced with this pregnancy of uncertain paternity, a husband headed for the slammer and a lawn-boy lover who earns $50 a mow, Gabrielle is more desperate than ever.

But desperate no more are Cherry and his harem of mostly fortysomething actresses.

"It was a good first year," Cherry says in a gross understatement. Days earlier, he got the keys to his new home — a San Fernando Valley mansion on a street not unlike the show's Wisteria Lane and worth, he says, "a lot more than my condo."

The comedic ABC hit premiered in October to juggernaut ratings and went on to win multiple Golden Globe, People's Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards. Just seven months later, the very relatable "desperate housewife" moniker has become so ingrained in the American lexicon that first lady Laura Bush joked last weekend that she was one.

"It's been a year of overwhelming fun, excitement, unending photo shoots, interviews and publicity appearances," reflects Longoria, sitting on a set of bleachers alongside close pal Metcalfe between takes.

A few days earlier, the "Housewives" quartet — Longoria, Marcia Cross (Bree), Teri Hatcher (Susan) and Felicity Huffman (Lynette) — had wrapped their last scene together, huddled on a hospital sofa.

"It was a heavy scene," says Hatcher, phoning in from New York where she has been judging short films at the Tribeca Film Festival. "There was a very genuine and deeply felt recognition that all four of us together as a team appreciated the ride we'd had this season and were grateful that we'd survived it together."

That's not to say there wasn't time for laughs. All four women picked up prop guns and pointed a wind machine at their hair for an impromptu spoof of "Charlie's Angels". "Of course, we got three steps out and giggled and fell on the floor," Huffman says.

A little later, Huffman and Longoria broke into what Huffman calls their "J. Lo dance," while Hatcher shot the silliness with her hi-def camera. "Then," Longoria says, "we all finally exhaled, let out this huge sigh and said, 'We made it.' "

Well, almost.

Run-up to a cliffhanger

Now comes the daunting challenge of ending the season on a high note while laying the groundwork for Season 2. The next three crucial episodes (ABC, Sundays, 9 p.m. ET/PT), culminating with the cliffhanger, will show the events that led Mary Alice Young to shoot herself in the opening episode, introduce a new housewife with a major mystery of her own, and place the futures of several characters in serious jeopardy.

"The way this all comes together at the end of this season is so fantastic," Cross says, standing in the shade on the soccer field and wearing a sun hat to protect her porcelain skin.

But going into the next season, there is genuine concern over the public continuing to believe that these actresses are as close as their neighborly characters appear on TV. That perception was challenged by "Vanity Fair"'s May cover story, which exposed a catty cast photo shoot, resulting in bruised egos and cold shoulders. Working to put the ugly incident behind them, the leading ladies have been offering each other expressions of goodwill as they say goodbye for their summer hiatus.

Hatcher broke the tension by coming to the set three weeks ago with homemade banana bread and champagne baskets she had made for each of the ladies. Cross spent the previous days shopping for goodbye gifts ("yummy, smelly things like candles") for her co-stars. Longoria has been busy creating a collage poster ("of our amazing year") for each of the women. Brenda Strong (Mary Alice) presented charm bracelets to Hatcher, Cross, Longoria and Huffman. The bracelets contained photos of each of their faces.

And putting to rest tabloid rumors of feuding with Hatcher, Nicollette Sheridan (Edie) is considering asking Hatcher to be maid of honor at her upcoming wedding: "We're tight," Sheridan says.

The "Vanity Fair "article, Cherry asserts, "truly does not reflect how our gals treat each other."

"It can be hurtful to the ensemble," says Longoria, who united with the other women to pay for a thank-you party for their crew. "What really (angered me) about the "Vanity Fair "shoot is that it was an argument between us and "Vanity Fair". Not within us. We are going to have better understanding of our publicity next year."

A little less togetherness

To give the cast a much-needed breather from the show and one another, plans for an extensive European summer promotional tour were scrapped. Now, only Cross and Sheridan will promote the show this June in London, Rome and Monaco; Hatcher and James Denton (Mike) will pop in for the London leg.

Says Cross, "There's a little bit of looking forward to having some time for a life."

Cherry tries not to concern himself with gossip beyond his control. His biggest challenge will be trying to top an addictive first-season story line that has been consistently pulling in a weekly average of 24 million viewers. Even a recap clip show ("Sorting Out the Dirty Laundry") that aired April 24 ranked as the week's top show among viewers ages 18 to 49.

"I want to keep finding new ways to talk about issues that relate to everyday women," Cherry says. "Lynette will have a job next season (returning to her advertising roots), so I want to address how difficult it is to go to work all day and then come home and be expected to also take care of your house."

The show, he says, can keep its connection with viewers only if it retains the "small, real, everyday issues" without becoming all soap opera.

While Cherry is sticking with his original seven-year concept for the show, Hatcher says she'll be surprised if it runs that long.

"I don't feel this is going to go seven years," she says. "Television shows are delicate things, and no matter how big of a hit you have, you never know when it could fall. Look at a show like "Twin Peaks" that was super hot," then canceled in its second season.

But unlike "Peaks," which peaked too soon and drew out its Laura Palmer murder mystery way past viewer interest, "Housewives "is wrapping up the mystery of Mary Alice's suicide. And the May 15 episode will introduce a new housewife, the protective and religious Betty Applewhite, played by familiar big-screen actress Alfre Woodard.

Applewhite's son, Matthew, who has gotten himself into some trouble back in the old neighborhood, will be played by 24-year-old actor/model Mehcad Brooks. The Applewhites will be introduced to Wisteria Lane by real estate agent Edie Britt (Sheridan).

All Cherry will say about the Applewhites is that "they come on the street; they seem like nice people — but they've got a secret. And it's pretty gothic. It's real and human and awful all at the same time."

Edie will stay a fifth wheel

Because of viewers' (read: male viewers') strong reaction to Sheridan, her character next season will be given a never-before-seen ex-husband and a 6-year-old son. But Cherry insists that Edie will continue serving only as a spoiler to complicate the other women's lives.

The opening credits next year will continue to feature only the faces of Hatcher, Cross, Huffman and Longoria.

Recognizing the international name value that Sheridan brings to the show, Hatcher would prefer to make the foursome a quintet. "As the woman who works with Nicollette more than anyone else," she says, "I find it uncomfortable to sometimes include Nicollette and sometimes exclude Nicollette. She's my friend, and I feel awkward for her."

Calling from home, where she's wrestling a candle out of her puppy's mouth while madly packing for a weeklong getaway to an exotic locale to celebrate fiancé Nicklas Soderblom's 40th birthday, Sheridan says she realizes "Edie's an outsider. She's never going to be one of them. But as far as looking at the show as a whole, I see her as one of the five desperate housewives."

While also a champion of Sheridan's work, Cross believes "it's nice for the duration of the show to watch the paths of the four women. I think (the foursome) is the through line."

That is, if all four agree to stay put on Wisteria Lane.

"My goal would be to always have the four women stay with the show until the very end, and follow their journeys much in the way "Sex and the City" or "Golden Girls" did," says Cherry, a former writer for "Golden Girls".

"But I'm also cognizant that at any point, one of these women could say, 'I want to go home and be with my kids,' or 'I want to go off and be a movie star.' "

Legally, Hatcher says that decision is not really up to any of them. "I guarantee you we all signed five- or six-year contracts at the beginning of this thing," she says.

Desperate, disposable men

The future appears far bleaker for the show's male cast; only breakout stud Denton (Mike Delfino) is a likely candidate for series longevity. As the season winds down, nearly all of the desperate husbands are placed in jeopardy, as Rex Van De Kamp (Steven Culp) unwittingly takes sugar pills to treat his serious heart condition, Tom Scavo (Doug Savant) harbors a secret that threatens to destroy his marriage to Lynette, and Paul Young (Mark Moses) faces his comeuppance for the murder of Mrs. Huber.

And putting into question the fate of Gabrielle's current men — lover John (Metcalfe) and husband Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira), who is headed off to prison — Cherry and his writers are conceiving a new suitor for Gabrielle in Season 2.

"It's very tenuous existences for all of us," says Denton, who has bonded with his male co-stars. "Nobody wants to be the guy left behind, but I don't see how we could all be back."

With some of the men probably on their way out, expect the ladies' faces to be featured prominently on an onslaught of "Housewives "merchandise set to hit stores later this year, including the Season 1 DVD in September (packed with deleted scenes, cast commentaries and a computerized tour of Wisteria Lane), a board game, a wall calendar, a coffee-table book and a record featuring songs inspired by the lives of desperate housewives that will be available in time for Christmas shopping. (So far, no plans for a talking Mrs. Huber doll with bludgeoning blender.)

Might all this be too much, much too soon? "It's a lot very fast," Sheridan concedes. And Huffman acknowledges that the show's heavy exposure already has left her feeling "a little sick of us."

"Sure we're concerned about overexposure, but what am I going to do about it?" asks Cherry, who denies reports of a spinoff series (at least for a couple of years). "Next season, there'll be some other hit show, and people's attention will drift over to it."

And that time can't come soon enough for the cast, especially Hatcher, who has had reporters trawl through her trash; Denton, who just put his home on the market after a magazine ran a photo of the house; and Cross, who recently spent a Saturday at her salon in Santa Monica having her hair colored as 20 paparazzi aimed their cameras at her through the window. "It was crazy, unbelievable," Cross says. "Sometimes I can handle it; other times I just get back in my car and go home."

Sounding much like her desperate character Bree Van De Kamp, Cross says she probably will spend much of her summer tucked safely at home, "cleaning my closets and working on my house."

And maybe, she says, "I'll build a gate."

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