The dirty laundry piles up in suburban tale
New series pokes wicked fun at the hidden lives married people lead, and the actresses chew up their roles with glee.
By JOHN CROOK
Special to The Times
When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sundays
Rating: TV-PG-DLSV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)
ABC's new comedy series "Desperate Housewives," which premieres Sunday, starts off with a bang — a self-inflicted gunshot that snuffs out the life of Mary Alice Young (played by Brenda Strong), a perfectly groomed suburban housewife whose seemingly ideal life turns out to have been a masterfully applied gloss over painful and embarrassing secrets.
Mary Alice's suicide rocks her immaculately manicured neighborhood and stuns her circle of close friends: Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), a divorced single mom hungry for a little romance; Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), formerly a top business executive, now a frazzled wife and mom to four young kids tap-dancing on her last nerve; Bree Van De Camp (Marcia Cross), a Martha Stewart on crack whose obsessive perfection is driving her husband (Steven Culp) over the edge; and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), an ex-model who is cheating on her wealthy husband (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) with John (Jesse Metcalfe), her teenage gardener.
And don't get them started on Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan), the man-eating divorcée who lives just up the street from these women.
From that brief synopsis, which, by the way, barely skims the surface of even the first episode, "Housewives" sounds like an over-the-top soap opera. But as created by Marc Cherry ("The Golden Girls"), this new series dances confidently, if improbably, from one genre to another.
"I call it 'American Beauty' meets 'Six Feet Under' meets 'The Stepford Wives,'" says Huffman, the "Sports Night" alumna whose exhausted mom, Lynette, is likely to become one of the show's real breakout characters.
"We're pretty strict [as a society] about how to be a mother, especially these days," says the actress, who has two preschool children with her husband, actor William H. Macy ("Fargo").
"There's the stay-at-home mom, where it's incredibly fulfilling and it's exactly what you've always wanted to do with your life and you've never wanted to do anything else. And then there's the career mom, which at this point seems to be looked down upon a little.
"But no one talks about the woman who chose to stay home with her kids and is now going crazy, and has lost her sense of self and just doesn't love it all the time, finds it overwhelming at least some of the time. There is nothing harder than raising kids. A corporate job is a cakewalk by comparison, and I love giving a voice to the magnitude and the difficulty of motherhood."
Cross, who reached giddy heights of black comedy as the deranged Kimberly Shaw Mancini on "Melrose Place," says that out-of-control character was a walk on the beach compared to the juggling act she performs as the hyper-perfectionist Bree in "Housewives."
"This is the hardest part I've ever played," she said. "Even within the context of the show, Bree is one of the more heightened characters, and there are days when I walk away thinking, 'Oh, my God, was that too much?' Yet if I relax it down, it's not really her. To be safe is wrong for Bree, so I have to walk that dangerous line.
"I lie in bed tossing and turning, going, 'You're not doing this' or 'You're not doing that' [with the character], because this thing is kind of its own genre. Sometimes it touches the depths of your soul, while other times it's almost blatantly high comedy, still others, black comedy. It's a little more like real life, only very heightened."
Cherry says the seed for this new series took root a few years ago, while he and his mother were watching TV coverage of the trial of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her children in the bathtub.
"I turned to her and I said, 'Can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would hurt her own children?' And my mother took her cigarette out of her mouth and said, 'I've been there.' "
Cherry's mother then recounted the mini-breakdowns she suffered while trying to raise three children alone while her husband was away at college.
"Suddenly it occurred to me, 'Well, gosh, if my mom has these moments, every woman has had a moment where she is close to losing it," Cherry says. "As I talked to her and found out these things, the genesis of this idea was born in that."
"Marc Cherry walks a thin line between reality and heightened reality, sarcasm, a little wickedness," Huffman says. "It's not a voice I have encountered before on TV, and finding it put in service to these incredible female characters is just an amazing experience for all of us."
Hatcher, the former star of "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," plays lonely single mom Susan Mayer, a big step up from her recent string of Radio Shack commercials with Howie Long. She says she and her costars feel like members of a happy ensemble, rather than a group of competitive actresses.
"It's wild to have times when you can't get an audition to save your life, and then you get lucky enough to end up in an incredible piece of material like this with all these incredibly strong, powerful, unique women," Hatcher says. "I couldn't be more grateful.
"And the great thing about it is, there is no 'lead.' Each character is so strongly written and so defined in her character arc and behavior that there's just enough pieces of pie for everybody!"
John Crook writes for Tribune Media Services.