Post-feminists turned out more than 21 million strong to witness the unveiling of ABC's darkly comic drama, "Desperate Housewives," Sunday night, according to early stats. That's the biggest audience for a new one-hour series rollout on ABC in nine years and the most watched series premiere on any TV network in two years.

The first episode of "Desperate Housewives" scored nearly 3 million more viewers than the premiere of this fall's highly hyped "Friends" spinoff, "Joey," and 1 million more viewers than the launch of the latest show spit out of the "CSI" machine, "CSI: NY."

"Housewives" also clocked nearly 3 million more viewers than ABC's previous season-best, the launch of the drama "Lost," from J.J. Abrams. J.J.'s the same guy who created "Alias," which used to have the "Desperate Housewives' " Sunday 9 p.m. slot but never ever managed to score as many viewers -- not even when "Alias" aired right after ABC's Super Bowl broadcast.

CBS tried its best to kill "Desperate Housewives" by scheduling in that time period "Suburban Madness," a TV movie about the Texas dentist found guilty of killing her cheating husband by running over him repeatedly with her Mercedes.

But "Housewives" mowed down "Suburban Madness" with a lead of about 10 million viewers in their shared hour.

When the final Sunday stats arrive today, "Housewives" is expected to be the most watched program of last week, and it will have catapulted ABC into first place for the week among the 18-to-49-year-olds the network targets.

ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson said that the network was "pleasantly surprised" by the number, and the gender, of people attracted to the series. "Desperate Housewives" stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria and Nicolette Sheridan as housewives who live on perfectly pruned Wisteria Lane and can't figure out why they're not profoundly happy, much less why another member of their coffee klatch, played by Brenda Strong, would blow her brains out after a typical day spent "quietly polishing" her routine "until it gleamed with perfection."

"The audience was just surprisingly broad," McPherson told The TV Column.

"Female demos were incredibly strong, but we knew they would be strong; but it performed across men and women demos."

Indeed, it appears that young men desperately wanted to see "Desperate Housewives." Among men 18 to 34 years old, it beat by 14 percent the combined performance of time slot rivals "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" on NBC and Fox's telecast of the Jackie Chan action flick "Rush Hour 2." It was the No. 1 program Sunday night in that demographic.

ABC had promoted "Desperate Housewives" heavily; most critics gave it a thumbs up, though some blew it off as a dispiriting, politically incorrect bit of '50s- throwback anti-feminism.

Series creator Marc Cherry says he wrote the pilot after his mom revealed to him that she could relate to Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children. Cherry reported in July at the summer TV press tour that his 67-year-old mom, while watching a TV news report on Yates, took her cigarette out of her mouth and, much to his surprise, told him, "I've been there."

"If I had just written a show about housewives, I would understand their attitude. But I put 'desperate' [into the title] to try to indicate, however subtly . . . I'm going to have some fun with the imagery, to take it to some interesting places. Most critics got the joke. Some people see the word 'housewives' and it pushes a button in them and they seem to lose all reason."

This is a great start for a spec script that, Cherry said, got passed on by CBS, NBC, Fox, HBO, Showtime and Lifetime before Touchstone TV picked it up and developed it for ABC.

Cherry, a sitcom writer who once worked on "The Golden Girls" (he also penned the short-lived sitcom "Some of My Best Friends" starring Jason Bateman as a gay Greenwich Village writer whose roommate was played by Danny Nucci), reports that HBO found it too tame, CBS too dark, and NBC got it too late last spring, deciding instead to pick up another series for its final development order. A Fox comedy suit turned it down, saying it wasn't the kind of show Fox does, Cherry said. (Later, he said, when it was in development for ABC, a Fox drama suit asked him why he hadn't brought it to them, saying it was exactly the kind of project they were looking for.) Showtime simply wasn't interested and, Cherry said, "I don't know why Lifetime passed."

From left, Brenda Strong (partially hidden), Eva Longoria, Marcia Cross, Teri Hatcher and Felicity Huffman.