In the back lot at Universal Studios, past phony Western Town and pretend New York, beyond the old set of "Psycho" and the turgid lagoon where they shot "McHale's Navy," a visitor arrives at a picture-perfect cul-de-sac of white picket fence and fresh green lawn. It all looks so familiar. Why, there's the Beaver's old house.
But even a fake neighborhood can change.
Ward and June Cleaver have moved away, and now Wisteria Lane is home to a more modern cast of characters: the Ritalin-gobbling minivan mom; the Stepford wife channeling Martha Stewart; the randy former runway model and bored hausfrau with a thing for her 17-year-old lawn boy; the ditsy divorcee looking for love with . . . a plumber.
Ah, the burbs: so real, so unreal.
Today the lane is as freshly scrubbed as Disney's Main Street an hour before opening, and the neighborhood is as busy as a yard sale. On the street/set, the camera, makeup, wardrobe and sound crews are working on the 10th episode of "Desperate Housewives," the Sunday night soap opera that has saved ABC from its mortal slumber -- just as surely as the slightly subversive dramedy has jump-started the careers of its cast of talented but desperate actresses, most of whom had reached that age in Hollywood when the casting calls slow.
Saved, too, by the show was its creator, Marc Cherry, who confessed he couldn't get an interview for a writer's job in recent years, much less real work. (His spec script, he says, "was born of sheer desperation, if I can use the word.") How fickle the fates. One day Cherry is in his Studio City condo writing a teleplay nobody wanted (the four networks initially turned it down). Now he's a certifiable genius driving his new Lexus (license plate: DSP HSWV) right to his reserved parking spot.
But that's what 22 million viewers and the No. 1 new show on network television will do for a 42-year-old writer in this town. "I was starting to think I wasn't all that talented," Cherry says. "But these days my self-esteem is much better, thank you for asking."
The show is not only a smash with viewers, it is also (mostly) the critical darling of the fall season. "A triumph," writes David Bianculli of the New York Daily News. "Whips up saucy moments with the flair of a world-class chef," says Hal Boedeker of the Orlando Sentinel. From The Washington Post's Tom Shales: "In its visual style, witty language, borderline surrealism and overall mad attitude," the show "stands on a mountaintop all its own, the best new drama of the season and perhaps the best new comedy, too."
Such praise can go to a gal's head. The show's publicists have been barraged by media wanting an inside look at ABC's secret weapon. Getting onto the set of "Desperate Housewives" was like negotiating the SALT II Treaty. But finally, here is Marcia Cross playing the irresistible Bree Van De Kamp, in a retro print apron, holding a breakfast tray with a vase of cut roses, folded linen and fine china, awaiting her cue.
"And action!" Cross enters the set, Bree's living room, to parry with husband Rex (Steven Culp), with whom she has been waging a kind of "War of the Roses." Up close, before the camera, Cross is fascinating to watch: She pours tension into Bree, creating with her clenched hands, her Marine-erect posture and the starched flip of her red coif a woman so wound, so repressed, that a viewer is just waiting for her head to explode. (In an earlier episode Rex complains, "I just can't live in this detergent commercial anymore!")
In today's scene, the couple is fighting (we can't say over what exactly; the episode won't air for another month), but it shows the off-center sensibility that the actors and Cherry have brought to the series. "The advice that Marc Cherry gave us was to play the comedy really seriously and play the drama with a twinkle in your eye," says Culp.
It looks like a daytime soap. But the colors are too sunshiny. The dialogue sounds ordinary, networky, but then Bree suddenly erupts, almost hissing her lines, "Don't confuse my anal retentiveness" -- beat -- "for actual affection." And one thinks: Is it okay to laugh? Is this "Twin Peaks" or "Days of Our Lives"? (And also this: ohmigod, my own wife/girlfriend/partner actually said the same thing just the other day.)
After a few takes, Cross sits down, wraps herself in a blanket and relaxes. Her face suddenly seems softer, less domestic Medusa; the imaginary snakes slither away. "Mmmm, Hot Tamales!" she gushes, and digs into a box of candy. "Want one?" Her character is one of the more over-the-top on Wisteria Lane. "It is so tiring to play Bree," Cross says. "The tension. After a day on the set, I have to literally straighten out the kinks."
As she imagines Bree, "on the outside, she's like a sculpture, and I have to fill in the interior." Yes, she is repressed. "But we all are, only Bree more so. I think she has a huge terror of abandonment."
One of the things that makes "Desperate Housewives" unique is the fact that the show is propelled by women, by their relationships, their points of view. The women are the suns; the male characters revolve around them like planets. Since prime-time network television is driven by female audience (60 percent), this seems like an obvious choice. But flip through the TV guide: Male-led sitcoms, macho reality games and endless "procedurals" (the "CSI" clones) dominate the airwaves.
"What could be more interesting than the lives of four women?" Cross says. On TV, "there are always roles for wives, but they're never fleshed out." She understands that the shorthand description for the Bree character is a Martha Stewart type off her meds. "But you'll see. Her vulnerability seeps out." Sure, Bree is obsessive-compulsive. "But I think she is in love with her husband and terrified of losing him."
"Women can relate," Eva Longoria says by phone from a New York greenroom, minutes before her guest spot on the Conan O'Brien show. Longoria plays Gabrielle Solis, the vixeny, materialistic ex-model bored with her empty marriage (hence the tryst with the high school jock).
"These women feel modern. They're divorced, married, kids, no kids," Longoria says. "I've heard women say they feel like each character. I've heard men say that, too, about their wives."
As for Gabrielle (Longoria at 29 is the youngest of the lead actresses; the others are in their forties), the actress and former Miss Corpus Christi says, "She provides an outlet for frustrations. Gabrielle has no moral boundaries, no kids. She's not a very good wife. I think there are a lot of Gabrielles out there. Unhappy. Having affairs. Or wanting to."
Says Longoria, "It works because the show is sad, dark, scary, weird and funny."
It is, of course, important not to take all this too seriously (nobody is out there searching for the deeper meaning of middle-age male sexuality in "Everybody Loves Raymond"). But the show has sparked a little flame of controversy.
The American Family Association has complained about the peekaboo of lingerie and promiscuity (after all, Gabrielle would be prosecutable for statutory rape in several states) and convinced a couple of advertisers to pull their spots.
Some conservatives say the premise mocks the all-American goodness of Mom and apple pie. (In a scene from an earlier episode, Felicity Huffman's character, the overstressed minivan mom Lynette Scavo, finally cracks and temporarily abandons her brats a few blocks from Wisteria Lane. Bad mommy!)
From another quarter, the show has been cited as evidence of a backlash against women.
Creator Cherry takes this in stride. "I was stunned, well, just a little stunned," he says, sitting in his barren office on the Universal lot, a boyish and burly man dressed in sweats and sneakers, taking an hour out of his marathon seven-day-a-week writing schedule.
"There was this scathing reviewer who thought I was writing these 1961 portraits of women. Calling them housewives. How dare I? And the fact that a lot of their personal unhappiness revolved around men in their lives." Cherry pauses. "I thought, have you met any women? A lot of the women I know, that's what they're complaining about -- either the man in their life or the lack of a man in their life."
He explains, "Now, if I'd written a show called 'Gabrielle,' I can understand how I might have gotten into trouble." But with the four characters as archetypes, "I'm safe."
And he loves the title. "The best I've ever come up with. Desperate. Housewives. Such an interesting juxtaposition of words. Housewife. A '50s ideal of domestic bliss. And desperate. An adjective you don't normally connect with our ideas about the suburbs."
Cherry himself was a bit desperate when he sat down to write the pilot. He'd been a writer for "Golden Girls" in the early '90s. He executive-produced the forgotten "Five Mrs. Buchanans" in 1994. Then he hit a very dry patch.
"Honestly, I wrote this script because I wasn't working. I went three staffing seasons without a job interview, let alone a job. I was kinda depressed, because apparently I didn't have the best rep in town. I knew I was smart, darn it, so I sat down to write the smartest thing I knew how to do." Darn it. Gosh. Golly. That's the Midwesterner in Cherry coming out (his dad was an oil exec, so he lived in Oklahoma, Hong Kong and Iran as a kid).
Cherry, a bachelor, says the inspiration came from his mother. The two were sitting around one day at her place in Orange County when a bit appeared on the news about the Andrea Yates trial -- the woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub. Son Marc said something like, "How desperate." Mother Martha Cherry remarked, "I've been there." And the idea was born.
"I wanted the four archetypes to represent the four different types of women I experienced in the suburbs. To look at my own mother, there are aspects of all four. She had three kids, my father was off getting his master's degree, and she couldn't handle us. It was actually a revelation of how difficult those times were that led me to this idea. My mother was a woman who insisted on everything being pleasant, and wearing pearls, and wanting everything to seem so very nice. We were a very repressed family who didn't express our emotions a lot."
That's where Bree comes from.
"But I also had a relationship with my mom, being able to talk to her about almost anything. And that's very much in evidence in Teri Hatcher's character (divorcee Susan Mayer) and her relationship with her daughter in the series."
And the vixen Gabrielle? Or the overworked mom Lynette, who stepped off the corporate ladder to raise the ankle-biters?
"My mom was a woman who gave up her career as a singer to move to the suburbs," says Cherry. "I don't think she was ever bored and had an affair with her gardener, but certainly what Gabrielle goes through in terms of having an exciting life and now living in the burbs, yes, I drew some colors from that."
Cherry says that "Desperate Housewives" is a kind of skewed homage to burbo life -- and he found inspiration in everything from the later "I Love Lucy" episodes (after they move to Connecticut) to the Oscar-winning "American Beauty." He also admired "Sex and the City" but knew he couldn't reproduce that R-rated vibe on prime-time network TV, though he held dear the concept of four women sitting around a table dishing about their lives.
"I love the idea of a beautiful neighborhood that represents the very best of American values, but also as a fun backdrop to some darker, deliciously sneaky things going on in people's lives," he says. "The truth is I see both in suburbs. I think that is one of the secrets of our success. Unlike other writers" -- and here he means East Coast urban intellectual snobs -- "who are incredibly cynical about suburban life, I think my love of this world comes through in the project."
But not everyone got it, at least not at first. Cherry peddled his pilot script to the four big broadcast networks, and a bunch of cable channels, and he was roundly rejected. "They heard 'women, comedy, dark,' and said, 'I don't think so,' " he says.
He switched agents (his previous one went to jail for embezzlement) and his new reps at Paradigm suggested he sell the script as a prime-time soap. Cherry reworked some scenes, and voila.
"We started calling it a soap opera, then they started saying it was funny," he says. "What it did, it changed their expectations of how much they were going to laugh. Then the comedy was a pleasant surprise, versus 'You're going to be laughing your head off.' "
It's funny, Cherry says, "the joke is that one of the reasons the script has such a different tone is that more experienced writers for hour-long dramas wouldn't be so stupid as to write something so expensive to shoot" -- with all the ensemble characters in many scenes and sets.
Funny, too, in the way television works: The ABC executives who eventually bought "Desperate Housewives" (Lloyd Braun and Susan Lyne) were ousted from the network before the show aired.
Back on Wisteria Lane, between takes, Culp (Bree's husband, who in an earlier episode suggested a sex surrogate to patch up their marriage) says, "I thought this would be too offbeat for network TV."
That might be a good thing.