FALL TV PREVIEW
Discontent. Revelation. Betrayal. Life gave Marc Cherry a template for a dark, funny look at the secret lives of suburban wives.
By Maria Elena Fernandez
Times Staff Writer
THE creator of "Desperate Housewives" strolls through the cul-de-sac of his imaginings, those hopeless, adverse days of unemployment, betrayal and near-bankruptcy behind him. In one month, ABC viewers will get to sample Marc Cherry's luscious, ultra-suburban Wisteria Lane, a perfect street in a perfect neighborhood where its inhabitants are everything but.
The forlorn women of Wisteria Lane may live next door to one another and even consider themselves friends, but they have no idea what really goes on behind closed doors, including why their other friend, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), has shot herself in the head. Now, from her unique vantage point — death — Mary Alice delights in sharing all of the neighborhood's secrets, except, of course, her own.
Cherry knows a lot about women who place a premium on appearances. Until three years ago, his own mother, a private and exceptionally mannered woman who gave up fashion designing and illustrating to raise three children, had been harboring her own secrets about motherhood and marriage. "She thought it was classless to talk about your personal problems," Cherry says.
All that was changed by an unexpected conversation between mother and son, and now Cherry is on his way to launching one of the most anticipated shows of the fall season. His desperate housewives are a beautiful, complicated and intriguing lot of thirtysomething women who are paying dearly for their life choices: Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), a children's book illustrator and mother whose husband has left her for his secretary; Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), a mother of three rambunctious boys and newborn daughter, who longs for her high-powered corporate career; Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross), a repressed Martha Stewart-type whose zeal for perfection drives her family away; and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), an ex-model who is so bored with her wealthy, condescending husband that she sleeps with her 17-year-old gardener. Then there's Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan in a recurring role), the sexy, morally loose divorcée who competes with Susan for the attention of the cul-de-sac's most eligible and up-to-no-good bachelor, Mike Delfino (James Denton).
ABC is in need of a hit drama, but whether "Desperate Housewives" will be the one to help the beleaguered fourth-ranked network is still weeks from being answered. Cherry, who wrote for "The Golden Girls" and "The Golden Palace," certainly hopes so, but he tries not to think that far ahead. He stillremembers where he was just two years ago.
"I was getting concerned that I was getting older and I couldn't get an interview anywhere for a staff position," says Cherry, who also produced "The Five Mrs. Buchanans" and "Some of My Best Friends." "The sitcom market was dying, and I had only thought of myself as a sitcom writer. I had a long, honest talk with myself and I had to admit that I didn't have a killer piece that wowed everybody. And I desperately wanted one."
The seed for his offbeat show was planted one year earlier by his favorite housewife — his mother. Martha Cherry kept a tidy house, served meals with linen napkins and napkin rings, and was a renowned "coaster freak" who often reminded her children, "Oh, let's not be unpleasant."
"My son says that my greatest failing is that I so dislike unpleasantness," says Martha Cherry, who lives in Brea with her cat. "If I'm forced to, I can be unpleasant, but I really dislike to do it. I like people with good manners, and I believe in the golden rule."
So Cherry was understandably stunned when he was watching coverage of the high-profile Andrea Yates case with his mother and he turned to her and asked, "Can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would hurt her own children?"
Martha Cherry removed her cigarette from her mouth and replied, "I've been there," speaking of the emotional strains a mother can feel rather than the literal reality of Yates, who was convicted in 2002 of drowning her five children in a bathtub and was sentenced to life in prison.
"You have to understand, my mother has seven stories and I've heard them all 100 times," Cherry says. "She is the kind of person who dwells on the positive. For her to open up when I was 40 and start telling me that there were moments she was depressed and felt like she was bouncing off the walls was shocking to me. I had no idea there was all this drama in my house."
Martha Cherry had confessed to her son that raising her three children, who were a year apart in age, alone on a farm while her husband was away working on a master's degree almost drove her mad.
"I felt overwhelmed," she says. "I've never thought of myself as desperate about anything. I just felt like I had never seen so many children in all of my life, and they were all mine. I was not a baby person. My interests were not in cooking and housekeeping. I did it. But I wasn't into it."
So Cherry focused on the first image that occurred to him, Mary Alice spending her last day on Earth "quietly polishing the routine of my life until it gleamed with perfection" and then shooting herself, only to be discovered by a neighbor who had borrowed her blender. Two months later, the first draft of "Desperate Housewives" had been completed.
"I thought to myself, 'I've done it! Everyone will see it and behold my brilliance,' " Cherry says. "But nobody bought it. People complimented my writing, but all of the networks turned me down. I was so desperate I was willing to put it on in somebody's backyard."
THE worst was yet to come. Cherry did not know that his agent and friend of 13 years, Marcie Wright, had been stealing from him and other clients. From fall 2002 to spring 2003, Cherry wrote another pilot and pursued legal action against Wright, owner of the boutique literary agency the Wright Concept, who court records confirm was convicted in May 2003 of embezzling $270,000. Of that, $79,000 belonged to Cherry.
"I had talked myself into believing that I was spending frivolously because she was my friend and I didn't want to believe it," Cherry says. "Now, I'm having sadder but wiser moments.It was beyond devastating, but in a weird way it was the best thing that ever happened to me."
Wright's conviction forced Cherry to go shopping for an agent. He landed at Paradigm with Debbee Klein and Andy Patman, who quickly surmised why nobody wanted to give life to Cherry's troubled housewives. Even though Cherry had written a one-hour script, Wright had been selling it as a half-hour sitcom. Klein and Patman came up with a new strategy: Team Cherry with experienced soap opera producer Chuck Pratt Jr. and pitch it as a prime-time soap that dabbled in other genres.
"A lot of times in this business people look at what you did before as a writer and they think that's all you're comfortable with," says Pratt, a consulting producer on the show. "Marc's experience was sitcoms, but that doesn't mean those skills aren't adaptable and that his instinct for storytelling can't be applied to other genres. Without changing it too much, we worked on adding dark flair and open-ended story arcs while protecting the comedy all the way through. I resisted adding melodrama as much as Marc resisted the straight-on-sitcom style."
On Sept. 15, Steve McPherson, then head of Touchstone Television, bought "Desperate Housewives." Four days later, under court order, Wright paid Cherry full restitution. "It was a good week," Cherry says. (Wright is scheduled to be released from jail two weeks before the show premieres.)
Then it got better. McPherson moved from studio exec to prime-time programming chief at ABC and by the time the show landed on the schedule it had one of TV's most coveted time slots, 9 p.m. Sundays.
"It sets itself apart in so many ways," says McPherson. "It's a really fun guilty pleasure and, I think, a real voice about what's going on in America and the modern woman. It's a heightened reality, but everybody can relate to it because everybody has a little dirty laundry. It's meant to be about us all and not about us all."
Indeed, "Desperate Housewives" is an unusual prime-time mix of dark comedy, mystery and soap opera elements that "hopefully will never be a traditional anything," as Cherry likes to say.
In fact, if the show succeeds it will be because of its candid if comic portrayal of contemporary women and the challenges of raising children. In the pilot, Lynette struggles with her four young children while her husband is away on a business trip, but, like most women, she never admits that out loud.
"We are set up in society to have this holy air about motherhood that does not allow us to ever dislike it," says Huffman, who has children ages 2 and 3. "Being a mother is harder work than running a Fortune 500 company and you don't love it every single moment. Why is it that there's room for not liking your spouse sometimes or having fights and disagreements with friends, but when it comes to our kids we are only supposed to feel one way?"
Lynette and her girlfriends may be bubbling inside with discontent, insecurities and obsessions, but outside on Wisteria Lane, everything is in pristine order. With its Craftsman houses, faux wisteria-adorned jogging path, wrought-iron lawn furniture and "Eagle State" license plates, the idealized suburbia of Wisteria Lane already has become a Universal Studios tram tour stop.
"Isn't that sweet?" says Cherry, opening the door to Gabrielle's home. "The first field trip I went on was when I was in the third grade and we came to Universal and we rode on the tram and got to see the 'McMillan and Wife' house. The idea that I've done something that's already part of this tour is so great."
SECRETS AND BAD CHOICES
ON this toasty summer afternoon, Cherry is enjoying what Huffman refers to as the "golden bubble" — the exciting period when the cast and crew can revel in their work and the show's critical buzz without worrying about viewers and those pesky Nielsen ratings. These are no ordinary dog days; in fact, they are long production days that often go late into the night. But Hatcher still finds time to bake chocolate chip cookies, pecan cake and cobbler for the writing staff that is pounding away story lines for the lovelorn and sweet single mother she plays.
Cherry too can kick back (though just for two hours; there are nine more scripts to go and "never enough time for writing") to show off the way he has transformed one of Hollywood's most famous back-lot streets, Colonial Drive at Universal Studios — home of "Leave It to Beaver" and "Providence," not to mention several films — into a kooky, upscale cul-de-sac that keeps out traffic as effectively as it holds in its secrets.
"At its core, this show examines the choices we make in life and what happens when what you've chosen still does not make you happy," says Cherry, who graduated from Cal State Fullerton with an acting degree. "The women are desperate, but the show's not just about their desperation. They are their own island of serenity and tranquillity. If they can just admit their troubles to each other, it will bring them a sense of peace and balance. But they're not the 'Sex and the City' girls who told each other every intimate detail. They'll continue to hide things and make bad choices, which is where the fun comes in."
Because television dramas with four leading female roles are hard to come by, especially for women over 30, Cherry's telephone began ringing in January as soon as ABC began casting the pilot.
Agents all over Hollywood wanted their A-list actresses to play out-of-luck Susan, who accidentally sets her competition's house on fire; exasperated Lynette, who has to jump into a pool during a wake to drag out her three young sons; firecracker Gabrielle, who mows her lawn in an evening gown to keep her husband from firing the gardener who is her lover; and passive-aggressive Bree, who nearly kills her husband by putting onions in his salad (he's allergic), minutes after he announces he "can't live in this detergent commercial anymore."
"I was scared of Bree because she's a hard character," says Cross, who decided to audition even though she was wrapping up a year on "Everwood" and intended to take time off. "She's so covered up. You have to show her defenses and neurosis but then also show those feelings brewing up inside and capturing that glimpse of her soul. It's like constantly walking a tightrope. But there was nothing like this script out there, so I had to do it."
Eva Longoria, who had been offered parts in several other fall shows, was drawn to her character, in part, because Gabrielle and her husband, Carlos, are Wisteria Lane's nouveau-riche couple.
"There are wealthy upper-class Latinos in this nation, so why not show it and reflect it on TV?" says the Mexican American actress. "Not only are they the wealthiest couple on the block, but they have a white gardener. That was a big joke in and of itself."
Jokes abound on "Desperate Housewives," but what gripped Hatcher enough to come out of her six-year maternity leave from acting during which she limited her career to a few guests spots, were the truths beneath the funny lines.
"Not only are there not enough great roles for women, but here's a show that has equally strong, unique and powerful female characters," Hatcher says. "Marc has such a skewed, unpredictable, dark and funny way of communicating feelings and relationship disorders. He gets women and he gets relationships and he gets what being a human being is all about."
So how is it that Cherry, a fortysomething white man, has made a career out of telling stories about women of diverse ages, class and ethnic backgrounds?
"I'm a guy who's got a mom and two sisters and many friends who are girls … and you know I'm gay, so that helps too," Cherry says, and laughs. In essence, Cherry is doing what most writers do: He's writing what he knows.
"Isn't that amazing?" says his mother, who loves her son's new show. "As mothers, we do our thing and hope for the best, never thinking anything we did was remarkable. When I watched the pilot, I thought about the mundane things that can cause an impression on a child, things I didn't think about then."
But as "Desperate Housewives" proves, what is ordinary to one woman can become an entertaining romp for her son. If Lynette's attempt to discipline her rowdy sons by making them believe she has Santa Claus' cell phone number seems over the top, compare it to the time Martha Cherry drove away without her 4-year-old son to teach him a lesson about good behavior.
"I didn't say I was all good, did I?" Martha Cherry says mischievously.
No, and neither are her son's other favorite housewives.
"Desperate Housewives" will air at 9 p.m. Sundays on ABC, premiering Oct. 3.