Sex and The Suburbs

Here's a dirty little secret about entertainment journalism: the writing and interviewing are easy. The hard part is the photo shoot. And so it was when the ladies of ABC's "Desperate Housewives" gathered for their NEWSWEEK close-up last week. Nicollette Sheridan arrived 45 minutes late. Eva Longoria then insisted she'd stay only for a half hour. Marcia Cross bristled at the thought of wearing her hair in the trademark flip of her character, Bree Van De Kamp. The drama! It was almost as juicy as the show itself, which is saying something considering that "Housewives" is the juiciest show to hit TV in years. To be fair, the shoot took place at 8 p.m. and the women had worked all day--Sheridan and Teri Hatcher started at 5 a.m. At one point, the photographer, Nigel Parry, asked the cast to "vamp it up." Fortunately, these women vamp like most people breathe. Sheridan immediately grabbed Felicity Huffman's right breast. Then, Huffman turned to Cross and said, "I hear people are going into salons to get their hair red like yours." To which Sheridan retorted: "And their [pubic hair] to match."

Those brackets mean Sheridan said something naughty--let's just say she wasn't talking about our president. "Sorry, Nigel," said Huffman. "We're usually worse than this."

Like when they're working from a script. "Desperate Housewives" is everything you've heard--racy, funny, smart and sexy. It is also something of a miracle. Not just because, with almost 25 million viewers every week, it hit the top five faster than any new drama since "ER" in 1994. "Housewives" is what network television isn't supposed to be. It's a soap opera in an era when procedural shows like "CSI" and its clones rule. It's on ABC, a network that hasn't launched a hit show since the fall of the Berlin wall. (That's only a slight exaggeration.) Most amazingly, it's a show about housewives--in their 40s! This being Hollywood, these are naturally the hottest housewives you've ever seen--too hot, perhaps, to judge by last week's hubbub over a promo Sheridan did with NFL star Terrell Owens, where she seduces him in a locker room by dropping her towel. ABC quickly apologized for the "inappropriate" spot, though you wonder how sorry they can be. Last month's controversy--when advertisers pulled their ads because they thought the show was too risque--only made more people desperate to see "Housewives." "Yeah, I have some women wearing some skimpy stuff and a gardener that takes off his shirt, but I also know that I'm well within my rights to do so under the heading of soap opera," says Marc Cherry, the show's creator, who is actually a somewhat conservative, gay Republican. "The stuff that goes on in daytime is far more racy."

If you're coming this late to the party, you'll need an introduction. "Housewives" is set on picture-perfect Wisteria Lane--one of the houses on the set was the home of Ward and June Cleaver--and is populated by a group of far-from-perfect women. Susan (Hatcher) is a divorced children's book author and major klutz--she once locked herself out in the nude, only to be discovered by the hunky neighbor she has a crush on. Lynette (Huffman) gave up her career to become the mother of four and is so overwhelmed she's become addicted to their ADD medicine. Bree (Cross) is the local Martha Stewart, a woman who brings homemade potpourri to the marriage counselor even though it's her perfectionism that's driving her husband away. Gabrielle (Longoria) is nouveau riche, miserable and having an affair with the teenage stud who cuts her lawn. But don't confuse her with Edie (Sheridan): she's just the neighborhood slut.

"Housewives" is a soap opera, but it may also be the funniest non-sitcom ever. Unlike "Dynasty" or "Melrose Place," the humor isn't just campy. Underneath all those wonderful costumes (or lack thereof) and winks at soap conventions is a razor-sharp satire of suburbia. Every neighborhood has its local tramp, the bitter old lady who spies on people and the mother who can't control her kids. In "Housewives," they're all just trampier, nastier or more highly medicated than the ones on your own street. (Hopefully.) We've all been to a dinner party where the host drinks too much and starts spilling family secrets. Here's the "Desperate Housewives" version: Bree's husband gets drunk and announces that they're in couples therapy. The rest of the guests, aware of how shattered perfect Bree will be by this revelation, start divulging their own embarrassing secrets. Susan tells everyone about being locked out in the nude. Lynette reports that she and her husband once got thrown out of Disneyland after having sex on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (the show keeps the double-entendres coming). Finally, Bree can't stand it anymore. Only she's incapable of revealing any of her own flaws, so she borrows one from her husband. "Rex cries after he ejaculates!" she says. Cross, who before the show had studied to be a psychologist and is nothing like her character, blanched when she first read the scene. "Honestly, I was, like, 'I can't say that line'," she says. "I've got to tell them I can't say that line." But she did, and with the kind of glee Bree reserves for a perfect souffle.

As usual with TV shows this smart, "Housewives" almost never got on the air. The pilot script was rejected by CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Showtime and Lifetime. "Lifetime turned down a show called 'Desperate Housewives.' That hurt," says Cherry. One of the problems was that the show defies categorization. Inside its soapy, satirical and utterly flawless skin lies a dark soul. "Housewives" opened with the suicide of one of the women's friends, Mary Alice, who narrates the show from the grave (a la "The Lovely Bones") and watches as they try to figure out what drove her to her death. Cherry based the show on his own mother (still alive, thankfully), an opera singer who gave up her career to raise her three children, sometimes unhappily. "I wanted to write something about the choices we make in life and what happens when that doesn't go well," says Cherry, who named many episodes after songs by Sondheim, the bard of disappointment. "All these women have made some kind of choice in their life and are in various stages of regretting it. That's where the desperation comes from."

Cherry knows plenty about that subject. By the time he sold the "Housewives" script to ABC, he was $30,000 in debt to his mother and had to sell his house. He had worked on several sitcoms including "Golden Girls" (which, if you think about it, is something like "Desperate Housewives: Miami"), but at 40, he couldn't get work. He hadn't even had an interview in two years. "I was washed up. People just weren't excited by my name," Cherry says. "That's one of the reasons I had to write something really smart." Unfortunately, his agent kept calling the show a black comedy. "No one wants to do a black comedy," Cherry says. What's more, he soon discovered she had been embezzling from him, stealing almost $80,000. "That desperation you feel permeating the script is pretty real," he says.

Fortunately, Cherry found an equally desperate partner. ABC hasn't created a real hit comedy or drama this decade, and that's no exaggeration. The last time one of its scripted shows pulled in the kind of numbers flocking to "Housewives" was when Michael J. Fox left "Spin City" in May 2000. But one of the benefits of being in the basement is that you've got nowhere to go but up. "It's no accident that ABC, the network that's been in trouble in recent years, was willing to take a chance on something that fat and happy CBS and NBC weren't," says Tim Brooks, head of research at Lifetime. "The real breakthroughs are often rejected around the dial." Among the shows that were turned down by other networks: "Survivor," "The Sopranos," "CSI," "Cops," "Cagney and Lacey," "Three's Company" and "All in the Family." That's not bad company.

At the rate it's going, "Housewives" could become as big as any of them. The show is currently No. 2 (behind "CSI") in total viewers, after only seven episodes. Even more amazing considering the subject matter, it's also the No. 3 show among men. The fact that at least one housewife finds herself wearing only a bra and panties every week might have something to do with that (though Cherry's delicious writing has attracted a large gay following as well). "I think men watch it because they see their wives," says Longoria. "Somebody actually said to me, 'My wife has been all of those characters at one time. She's a crazy mother and I'm sure she's having an affair'."

Whatever the reasons, the show has become a phenomenon at the water cooler and beyond. Playboy just launched a search for "disrobed housewives." Kahlua liqueur has started an ad campaign specifically targeting the housewife demographic. And of course half of Hollywood wants to get on the show. The latest is a rumor that Heather Locklear, whose NBC show "LAX" is struggling, will join the cast. "She can play my sister," Sheridan said when Cherry told her about the bogus rumor. "My older sister."

They're not too catty, are they? In fact, when the photo-shoot demons haven't repossessed their souls, the actresses are remarkably friendly to each other. Huffman, who is married to actor William H. Macy and has two children, is very much the mother hen. When she realized the NEWSWEEK photographers hadn't eaten before the shoot, she ordered up pizzas for the bunch. (Or maybe she just wanted to be sure they'd shoot her good side.) Cross, a veteran of "Melrose Place," has taken to tutoring Longoria in the pitfalls of overnight success. Between takes of a scene last week, Hatcher and Sheridan were actually hugging each other. Considering that the women's feuds have become weekly fodder for the tabloids, these good neighbors are frankly a little disappointing. "If this were a show about four men, the drama would not even be a topic of conversation," says Longoria, who, as the show's newest and arguably sexiest face, has received the brunt of the gossip. "They said I have a lavish trailer with cashmere seats. There was one story that said I ran into the street in my lingerie, another one that I'm anorexic, and then they said I'm bulimic," she says. "Pick a disease and stick with it!" And don't get the women started on those stories about their alleged plastic surgeries. OK, do. "Does anybody honestly think I'd have my nose done before my boobs? For the record, I've had no surgery except a C-section," says Hatcher, who, like her character, is a single mom.

In spite of their newfound fame, the housewives insist their real lives are hardly glamorous. "I'm exhausted, but it's a great job," says Hatcher, who's wolfing down a lunch of french fries between takes. Her eye is swollen from this morning's shoot, when Sheridan threw some cornstarch in her face as part of a fight scene. This afternoon, her character gets to change a flat tire. Sheridan has the easier job: she only has to lean against the car and deliver bitchy lines like, "I bet you were a cheerleader in high school, weren't you." Normally, Sheridan wouldn't mind spending the day in a black slip dress with matching cottontail wrap and three-inch pumps. But today she's nursing a cold, and she can barely get out her lines between sneezes. Hatcher starts coughing, too. "Are you all right, you poor thing?" Sheridan says. "All the women are making each other sick," a wardrobe assistant whispers later. We assume she means that in the literal sense.

Considering how quickly "Housewives" has become a sensation, you do have to wonder: what took so long? Why haven't the networks put together a decent show about women and their real lives? The audience is there--women make up 56 percent of TV viewers--yet there's really only one network drama, "Gilmore Girls," about women who aren't cops or lawyers. Part of the problem is that women are easy to take for granted. "People pay lip service to stay-at-home moms, but it's not really respected," says Huffman, who, not coincidentally, is the only cast member who's not often recognized on the street. "You say you're a stay-at-home mom and you can see the life force drain out of people. They're already bored with you." The assumption has long been that men won't watch shows about women, while women are happy with a good story regardless of the cast. "You know you're going to get them anyway, so you don't need to specialize content for them," says Stacey Lynn Koerner, director of global research integration for Initiative Media. "The industry has been very surprised."

Naturally, the What Women Want scripts have already started making the rounds in Hollywood. There's one about a female sports agent, another about a female hedge-fund manager--and a truckload of family soaps. "It's the attack of the clones," says Lifetime's Brooks. The folks at ABC couldn't be happier. "If they're bad rip-offs, it will be good news for us," says ABC Entertainment president Stephen McPherson. "Besides, we're going to be doing 'Desperate Housewives: Miami' and 'Desperate Housewives: New York,' hopefully next season." He's kidding--we think.

Anyway, what can compete with the reigning queens of prime time? Will any show be able to top the scene last week where Gabrielle's suspicious mother-in-law snaps a picture of her and her lawn boy toy in the sack, only to be run over in the middle of Wisteria Lane by Bree's drunken son? And it gets only better. Without spilling the beans too much, we can tell you that this week, the show takes a truly dark turn. We find out who sent that threatening note--"I know what you did. It makes me sick. I'm going to tell"--to Mary Alice, and why. Also, a regular character gets strangled to death in his/her own kitchen. And the one woman you'd never expect to become a new mother is contemplating getting pregnant. "We're not negotiating my uterus!" she tells her baby-hungry man. Let's hope she changes her mind. After all, a show this delightful should pass on its genes.