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With the Secrets Revealed, 'Housewives' Turns to New Mysteries

(c) The New York Times

September 24, 2005

LOS ANGELES - After a first season in which it attracted an estimated 24 million viewers every week, helped resuscitate ABC and won six Emmy Awards, "Desperate Housewives" resumes its crooked suburban soap opera on Sunday night.

A series that evoked comparisons with both "Peyton Place" and "American Beauty," "Desperate Housewives" concluded last season by solving the whodunit that drove its secrets-of-the-suburbs story lines - it was Mary Alice herself who, accidentally, killed Dierdre, Zach's drug-addicted birth mother, whose body was stored in the chest Paul had buried under the pool.

The creator and executive producer Marc Cherry is quick to respond to the notion that the show's momentum might be spent. "After we found out who shot J. R., 'Dallas' ran for 12 more years," he said in an interview, referring to the hit prime-time soap opera that was broadcast on CBS from 1978 to 1991.

Mr. Cherry sees a distinction between earlier shows like "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Falcon Crest" and his own comedy-drama focusing on a small circle of 40-something women. "They don't really have a term for what our show is," Mr. Cherry said. "It's satire, some earnest drama, different tonalities. I loved 'Falcon Crest.' But those shows are straight ahead: rich people stabbing each other in the back. At its core, our show is about what it means to be a wife and mother. It's about the millions of women leading lives of quiet desperation."

"We've all bumped into Lynette," Mr. Cherry added, referring to the former advertising executive (played by the Emmy winner Felicity Huffman) whose struggle to run a household while supervising four unruly children pushed her into comic drug dependency and a dream of suicide. Lynette will face different challenges this season as she returns to the workforce while her husband takes over the house and children.

Mr. Cherry offered brief glimpses of what lies ahead for the other women of Wisteria Lane. Susan (Teri Hatcher), the divorcée with hand-eye coordination problems, he said, will watch nervously as her ex-husband starts a new romance. Bree (Marcia Cross), the ice queen of perfection who lost her husband to a suspicious heart attack, "will be learning to cope with life as a widow and moving closer to the truth" behind her spouse's demise. Edie (Nicollette Sheridan), the divorced, man-hunting real estate vamp, will also begin a new fling while spending more time with a never-before-seen 6-year-old son. Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), the gold digger who jumped into bed with the teenage gardener and became pregnant, will be busy trying to get Carlos, her cuckolded husband and meal ticket, out of jail.

The mystery this season will be attached to the new character played by Alfre Woodard: Betty Applewhite, a concert pianist who arrived in the middle of the night with her 16-year-old son to rent a house on Wisteria Lane. In casting the highly respected Ms. Woodard, Mr. Cherry said, his intention was not specifically to bring in an African-American actress. "There's nothing strategically black about her character," he said. "Her color is incidental." In fact, two other actresses, both white, were first considered for the role, Mr. Cherry said, but were unable to come to terms with the producers.

"Then someone said, 'Alfre Woodard,' and I said, 'Yes!' just because I've always liked her in everything I've ever seen her in."

Ms. Woodard, a four-time Emmy winner, had a continuing role on "St. Elsewhere" and has appeared in films like "Grand Canyon," "Radio" and "Crooklyn," as well as onstage with the New York Shakespeare Festival. When Mr. Cherry called to offer her the part, he said, she admitted to him that she had never seen the show.

The show's omniscient narration from the grave, recalling a device used in the Oscar-winning 1999 film "American Beauty," will continue to be provided by Mary Alice (Brenda Strong).

He said there might also be an episode in which the focus, for a change, would be on the men of Wisteria Lane rather than the housewives. And he quashed the rumor that Rex (Steven Culp), Bree's dead husband, hadn't really died and might come back in a surprise plot twist. "Some people got that idea because of a shot of him that cut away before he finished writing Bree a note, but I thought it was clear" that he had died, he said.

Mr. Cherry will do less writing this season, after a year in which he consistently worked 12-hour days with only an occasional weekend off. He will supervise a staff of 11 writers, including four women. One of those writers is Julia Sweeney, a former "Saturday Night Live" cast member.

"On the set he hears everybody out," said James Denton, who plays the plumber Mike Delfino. "I've heard some actors have conversations with him I couldn't believe," Mr. Denton said, referring to requests for script changes, "and he'll listen politely and say he'll see what he can do. More often than not, he'll make a change to make an actor comfortable."

Mr. Cherry said he believed that he had brought special insight to his women characters because he is gay. "Women tend to open up to gay men," he said. "I've never written for men. I'm much more at home in the idiom of the female."

Ms. Huffman added, in an interview: "I don't know how a 42-year-old gay guy got into the mind-set of the mother I play on the show - before it really was in the zeitgeist, the true madness that is motherhood. But he did it, which is why I wanted to do the show."

When putting the finishing touches on scripts about life on Wisteria Lane, Mr. Cherry said, he always looked for a reliable marker. "I try to find the wicked," he said. "To me if something's wicked, it's sort of fun. I like it when my women are doing things they shouldn't."

How much more wicked might they be if the show were on HBO or another cable channel? Mr. Cherry said that was not much of a temptation. "I'm essentially a pretty conservative guy," he said. If "Desperate Housewives" were liberated from the network censors, he said, "I think mainly people would be smoking more."

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