Gorgeous swimming pools abound on Lifetime’s sleek new drama “Devious Maids,” centered on the complicated relationships between wealthy Beverly Hills families and their hired help. Because it’s a show from Marc Cherry (the sharp, calculating creator of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives”), the pools seem to serve a symbolic purpose: The aquamarine water glitters tantalizingly in the sunlight, showing off the privilege of the entitled homeowners while reminding their employees of what they can’t have.
And, because it’s a show from Marc Cherry, within a few minutes, someone winds up stabbed, dead and floating in one of those pools.
With that, we begin “Devious Maids,” which has so many echoes of “Housewives” — visually, tonally, thematically — that it seems like a companion show. (It nearly was — the pilot was originally developed for ABC, and Eva Longoria is an executive producer.) The series focuses on five women, involves a complicated web of characters and hooks viewers immediately with a murder mystery.
Like its predecessor, the show is also obsessed with exploring the fraudulent ways that people live their lives, trying to appear perfect while everything is actually falling apart. The difference with “Maids,” however, is the underlying class warfare in every scene, which ups the ante on the typical Lifetime drama.
“You don’t have an accent,” blurts out Taylor Stappord (Brianna Brown), a trophy wife interviewing a potential maid (Ana Ortiz). “I’ve never met a maid who didn’t have an accent. . . . You sound like you went to college,” she says, accusatorially.
Ortiz’s character gives a pained pause. “Thank you,” she responds.
Still, does the campiness outweigh the social commentary? Of course — it’s still a prime-time soap, adapted from a Spanish telenovela. Among the titular characters, Ortiz stars as mysterious Marisol, who conveniently applied for the job just after the mysterious murder took place; no-nonsense Zoila (Judy Reyes) and her teen daughter (Edy Ganem) are virtual babysitters for their pill-popping employer (played by an amusingly batty Susan Lucci); aspiring singer Carmen (Roselyn Sanchez) only accepted the gig so she could slip her pop star boss her demo CD; and kindhearted Rosie (Dania Ramirez) is trying to earn money to bring her young son from Mexico to the States.
If your head is already spinning, the episodes don’t slow down, continuously jumping from house to house. The darkly comic tone sets in early, with horrific secrets lurking in beautifully furnished mansions set amid bright colors beneath the perpetually shining Southern California sun.
“I think what you people do is heroic,” crazy evil rich lady Evelyn Powell (Rebecca Wisocky) tells her maid, Flora (Paula Garcés). “You wash clothes you can’t afford. You polish silver you will never dine with . . . and you still dream of a better life.”
“That said,” Evelyn adds curtly, “if you don’t stop [having sex with] my husband, I’m going to have you deported.”
A few moments later, a sobbing Flora is murdered by a gloved killer, kicking off the season-long mystery of who did it and why — and the meaning behind a puzzling note that Flora left behind. Later, Evelyn pouts when the cleaning agency hesitates to assign another maid to her house. “I’d understand if I’d had a few maids slaughtered,” she sulks. “But I only lost the one. It’s not fair.”
Some of the many, many story lines work better than others — such as when Zoila’s daughter falls hard for the boss’s college-age, often shirtless son, and Zoila’s forced to teach her a harsh lesson about what happens when the classes clash. It’s also satisfying to see emotionally abused Rosie get revenge on her nasty employer, a malicious actress who can’t bear to spend a minute with her own baby. Unfortunately, every scene with self-centered Carmen, trying to get her famous boss to help her become a star, drags on far too long.
A frequent complaint with “Housewives” was that many of the best moments came when the five lead women were all together; as the show went on, those scenes became few and far between. Here, the main actresses have solid chemistry as well, though they also meet too infrequently — only short lunch breaks to swap war stories and share gossip about their nutty employers.
The series has already stirred controversy as some are worried that a show starring Latina actresses as maids will enforce stereotypes. Executive producer Longoria has responded that most of the community is proud that a series is employing Latina actresses as the leads and even though they are portraying maids, their stories are still very much worth telling. (Lifetime will offer the show in English and Spanish the day after it airs, via its Web site and video on demand options.)
In the first two episodes, the show has enough momentum to offer some promise, even if Cherry’s vehicles tend to start strong and go off the rails quickly. But given the ability of his previous “Housewives” to dig deeper than many dramas, it feels right to give this series the benefit of the doubt.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.