October 19 2004 12:00 AM ET
Desperate Housewives a much-needed hit for ABC
Now that the women of Sex and the City are off the streets, the nation's eyes are turning to a different quartet in a leafy suburban subdivision. ABC's new Desperate Housewives is the surprise hit of the television season. So is the tropical island drama Lost, making a network that many had given up for dead suddenly hip. It's all happened so fast for out Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry. "I had this concept around my house for two years and nobody did anything with it," he said. "I'm still kind of stunned."
With its Sunday time slot, Desperate Housewives seems to be filling a void left when Sex and the City went off the air in February--a vehicle for viewers, particularly women, to have a few laughs the night before a new work week begins. Both shows feature four beautiful women. But instead of navigating the single life in the world's most glamorous city, the Desperate Housewives women are dealing with the realities of life behind a façade of the American dream. "This is Sex and the City, the road not taken," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University. While the finale of Sex and the City was seen by 10.6 million people last winter, the Desperate Housewives premiere boasted twice the audience. Drawn in by savvy promotion, good reviews, and curiosity about the title, viewers tried it and liked what they saw.
It joins shows such as The Apprentice, American Idol, and The Bachelor that in recent years drew instant buzz and became immediate hits. Notice something, though? Those are all reality programs. Few scripted series in the last few years have so quickly implanted themselves in the national consciousness. And contrary to other dramatic hits, Housewives has nothing to do with forensics (despite the mystery of what was dug out of the swimming pool) or lawyers. With six series, soon to be seven, citing either CSI or Law & Order in the title, Cherry sensed a hunger for something new. "I wanted to do something different," he said. "I wanted the shows to be a mixture of comedy and drama and mystery. I wanted it to be smart."
The Desperate Housewives parentage "is Malcolm in the Middle, Twin Peaks, Knots Landing--all of them different series, many of which have been off the air [for years]--put in a food processor and the 'high' button pushed," Thompson said. He wonders, though, if viewers will tire of its quirkiness. Thompson said he can't imagine what a sixth season of Desperate Housewives would look like. But Cherry said he's writing a soap opera, the kind that's been absent from prime time since the demise of Melrose Place. "At some point we might morph into a traditional style and the characters are so beloved, that people will go on the journey with us," he said.
The show's success might also be a sign that reality has hit a saturation point. Survivor and The Apprentice aren't going anywhere, but there have already been some notable failures this season: ABC's The Benefactor, Fox's The Next Great Champ, and NBC's Last Comic Standing. It may auger a shift as subtle as network executives favoring scripted series more than reality for midseason replacements, Thompson said. It's also no coincidence that NBC is now negotiating to make a pilot for Five Houses, from out creators Todd Holland and John Riggi, a comedy about five families living in a Los Angeles cul-de-sac. The script has been kicking around Hollywood for seven years.
Cherry can relate. With Desperate Housewives, he'd seen more rejection than a 5-foot-6 basketball player. HBO said it wasn't gritty enough. A CBS suit told him it was too dark for network chief Leslie Moonves's taste. NBC supposedly was choosing between Desperate Housewives and another script and chose the other. Fox thought it wasn't right for the network. So did Lifetime. ABC was willing to take the chance. With a miserable fourth-place showing last season, what did it have to lose? Still, its executives should be careful about declaring a comeback. Even with the two new hits, the network's average prime-time viewership of 10.2 million through the season's first three weeks is only slightly more than last year's 10 million. ABC's Friday night comedy lineup has been weak so far, and Mark Cuban's The Benefactor is a black hole for viewers.
As for Cherry, he had a moment of personal revelation last week. And who better to thank than Oprah Winfrey? He joined Desperate Housewives stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, and Eva Longoria for an Oprah appearance that was aired Friday. Watching Winfrey talk to the actresses, it felt just like he was watching at home. Then she turned to him with a question. "That's when it hit me that something about this is profoundly different, that my life has really changed," he said. (AP)