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ABC finds a hit in suburban ‘Housewives’

Four actresses may be replacing ‘Sex’ quartet
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 “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 facade 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.

‘Twin Peaks,’ ‘Malcolm’ in a blenderWhile the finale of “Sex and the City” was seen by 10.6 million people last winter, the “Desperate Housewives” premiere had twice that. 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 instant hits.

Notice something, though?

Those are all reality programs. Few scripted series have so quickly implanted themselves in the national consciousness in the last few years.

It also has nothing to do with forensics (although what was that dug out of the swimming pool?) or lawyers. And with six series, soon to be a seventh, that have 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 — 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.

Bad news for reality?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,” 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’ 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.