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Sizzling suburbia - 'Desperate Housewives' a unique find
LOS ANGELES -- Welcome to Wisteria Lane, Mr. Cherry's neighborhood.
Here, in seemingly placid suburbia, homemakers tend their husbands, children and flower beds -- while barely suppressing fear and frustration that threaten to blow the place sky high.
That's how Marc Cherry, creator of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," paints his fictional corner of the world. It's a comically dark view but one, he insists, that's a big step removed from satire.
"Satire sounds like you're making fun of something. And the truth is I'm not making fun of the suburbs. I love the suburbs," Cherry said. "I love the values of the suburbs, loved my family, our neighbors.
"It's just that stuff happens. I don't romanticize that life at all."
Growing up in Southern California and Oklahoma Cherry, 42, saw a fair amount of stuff.
"I remember the husbands leaving with their suitcases and my parents saying, 'You're not allowed to ask them what's going on.' I remember the custody battles. The full range of human experience was there."
In "Desperate Housewives," the houses are more perfect and the housewives more perfectly beautiful (and deeply troubled?) than in a typical neighborhood. The series debuts 9 p.m. Sunday.
ABC is hoping it improves the network's ratings, which are in a prolonged slump. It was willing to take a chance on "Desperate Housewives" when other networks passed (good writing but "not gritty enough," HBO told Cherry).
There's no risk when it comes to the ensemble cast, all with solid credentials in prime-time angst.
Teri Hatcher ("Lois & Clark") is Susan, a single mom looking for love, maybe in the wrong places. Felicity Huffman ("Sports Night") plays Lynette, a high-powered businesswoman turned highly frazzled mom. Marcia Cross ("Melrose Place") is Bree, a pent-up perfectionist. Eva Longoria's ("L.A. Dragnet") Gabrielle may be reconsidering the price she paid for a suburban haven.
Hovering nearby is the spirit of Mary Alice (Brenda Strong, "Starship Troopers"), whose suicide stunned Wisteria Lane. She's now a one-woman Greek chorus, watching as her former pals try to keep their balance.
In a TV season crowded with reality programs and endless variations on a criminal theme (the "Law & Order" and "CSI" franchises), "Desperate Housewives" stands out.
Even its title is bold. Cherry recalled one ad industry executive's comment that, although the show had merit, ABC faced a challenge attracting viewers because of the offbeat name.
"Good heavens," said an exasperated Cherry. "If people are enjoying the heck out of it, they'll watch it. It's that marketing thing of putting the cart ahead of the horse."
For Cherry, the priority was making a smart show that could erase the memory of mediocre sitcoms he'd worked on. He'd started at the top, as a young writer on the hit sitcom "The Golden Girls" (1985 to 1992) but then added flops like "The Crew," a "Friends" clone, to his resume.
He wanted to return to the example of "Golden Girls," in which creator Susan Harris explored the lives of older women, and created a show that had something to say and that hadn't been done "a million and one times."
Inspiration hit during a visit with his 67-year-old mother, Martha. Watching a news report on Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children, Cherry expressed bewilderment at such despair.
"My mom took her cigarette out of her mouth and said, 'I've been there,"' he said. She recounted the almost overwhelming burden of being alone with three youngsters while her husband pursued a master's degree. Cherry's mom successfully coped because of family help.
He was struck by the idea that a "perfectly sane, rational woman could have the life she wanted, being a wife and mother ... and still have moments of insanity."
Cherry figures that what was true for his mom is true again, with a twist, in the post-feminist 21st century: Women can decide for family over work but must accept responsibility for the outcome.
"Now it's 'I've chosen it, I'm in control. Oh, I can't blame anyone for my own unhappiness, what do I do?"' said Cherry, channeling his characters.
There is no promise of happy endings in "Desperate Housewives," but expect laughs along with the suffering. "The comedy comes out from the fact that our gals tend to make bad choices," Cherry said.
The writer-producer figures that, so far, his own choices are being validated. "Desperate Housewives," heavily promoted by ABC, has drawn plentiful buzz and solid reviews.
"It's nice, ain't no denying that. Having done shows where they weren't talking about them, or when they were talking about them they weren't saying nice things, it's definitely nice."
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