Something is very wrong on Wisteria Lane, and not just behind closed doors.
Overturned cars, splintered trees and wrecked furniture fill the once picture-perfect street at the center of "Desperate Housewives." Windows and roofs are smashed and Mrs. McCluskey's house, oh my, has been reduced to rubble. Death is in the air.
The aftermath of a hissy fit by a stressed homemaker or jealous lover? No, it's a tornado that has savaged suburbia — and series creator Marc Cherry is reveling in the destruction and, of course, the drama.
"Causing all sorts of havoc, that's when I'm at my happiest," a mischievous Cherry said of the two-part episode that brings the ABC drama its cruelest crisis yet, for viewers as well as characters.
The first hour airs Sunday, with a cliffhanger ending (Who died? Who lived?) that won't be resolved anytime soon: The following episode is completed but has yet to be scheduled.
Filming wrapped just as the screenwriters' strike began Nov. 5, shutting down "Desperate Housewives" and other network dramas and comedies. ABC and Cherry want the second hour to kick off a run of new episodes — which would require the strike to wrap before the season does.
Meanwhile, fans will have to live with agonizing uncertainty. That's something most cast members, aside from stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross and Eva Longoria, are accustomed to.
"With the exception of the four women, I don't know that anyone can ever take their job completely for granted," Cherry told The Associated Press. "Good heavens, I killed off Mary Alice in the pilot, Mrs. Huber in episode seven of the first season. My attitude is, that's life. People come and go."
Inspiration for the big-ticket episode came, in part, from the success of last season's hostage crisis, in which Lynette (Huffman) was shot and other characters were killed.
"It taught me the value of doing something exciting," Cherry said. "Very often, if you're just trying to show the lives of ordinary women and trying to make the small events of their lives interesting or big, you get in trouble. Sometimes you can overwrite, sometimes people get too silly."
A natural disaster, on the other hand, provides "a perfect backdrop so that the stakes are high for everyone on every single level," he said.
As they were for production designer Thomas Walsh and the crew, who had the job of pulling off a big-screen sequence with a small-screen budget and time constraints: Although there was an extra $500,000 or so for production (an average hourlong TV episode costs roughly $2 million), the usual nine-day shooting schedule was unchanged.
Organization and planning were key in the transformation of the Universal Studios make-believe neighborhood.
A few miles away, a parking lot in an industrial section of Glendale was designated as a collection site for debris — and the scavenging began. When Steven Spielberg finished with a set for the Indiana Jones sequel also being shot at Universal, "truckload after truckload" of lumber was carried away, Walsh said.
Set dressers raided thrift stores for household goods that were destined to be trashed, while tree cuttings from the studio lot and elsewhere were added to the pile.
The designer debris ultimately was carted back to the lot and attached to 4-by-8-foot wood pallets to allow for repositioning during filming and quick removal in case of emergency (there was none, Walsh said, and no injuries during filming).
When it came to simulating the tornado and its destructive path, the approach was strictly old school since computer-generated effects would be costly and time-consuming. Wind machines created impressive gusts; cranes lifted and dropped cars and air mortars sent flotsam flying.
The house occupied by Karen McCluskey (Kathryn Joosten) fell victim to an earth excavator. It was the only one destroyed; other damage, such as apparent gashes in roofs, was largely simulated.
There was Hollywood history attached to the demolished house, which was featured in "Father Knows Best," and to others: Gabrielle's (Longoria) home was seen in the movie "Harvey," while "The Munsters," "Marcus Welby, M.D." and "The Hardy Boys" — "depending on what generation you are," Walsh said — also used the structures that once occupied another part of the lot.
Was Walsh at all troubled by wiping away a bit of TV's past?
"Sets are amazingly disposable; that's a fact of life," he said. Besides, he said, "we're visual storytellers, not architects."
Cherry admitted to a pang when he saw the tattered set.
"I thought, ‘Oh, my God, what have we done? It really kind of hurt my heart a little bit to see my street so banged up," he said.
But he's more sanguine about erasing remnants of TV tradition.
"To me, it's kind of like my street to destroy at this point," Cherry said. "Even if we shut down production tomorrow, it's Wisteria Lane now. That street is Wisteria Lane."