Wednesday, May 23, 2018
TV and Media

Game-changer to fight club, the fall of 'Desperate Housewives'

Psst! You may not be aware of this, but there is a major network TV show airing its final episode tonight, capping eight seasons of television that helped save a network and redefine the 40-something housewife's image in media.

That's right: ABC's Desperate Housewives says goodbye in a two-hour finale airing on Mother's Day.

You might be forgiven for nearly missing this moment; there isn't nearly the buzz surrounding this farewell that television fans have recently seen for the season finale of The Walking Dead or the return of Mad Men.

That's because Desperate Housewives, once so popular it commanded audiences of more than 20 million viewers, now attracts less than a third of that number, as edgier shows such as AMC's Breaking Bad, HBO's Girls and Showtime's Nurse Jackie steal all the attention.

And just as the show's victory lap should have begun in February and March, creator and executive producer Marc Cherry was hauled before a jury by former co-star Nicollette Sheridan, alleging unfair termination and physical abuse, blowing the secret of key character Mike Delfino's death in testimony before viewers could see it onscreen.

It adds up to a once-groundbreaking TV series limping toward a finale long after many fans stopped paying attention.

"One of the things people kept telling me is this (trial) is so much more interesting than the show," said Maria Elena Fernandez, who covered the trial from Sheridan's lawsuit for the Daily Beast website and Newsweek magazine. "The show just lost its magic completely ... nowhere near as fun as it used to be."

Star Felicity Huffman hinted at the peculiar nature of their goodbye during a news conference at the TV Critics Association's January press tour, months before the lawsuit would go to trial.

"You know what this is like?" she said, responding to a question about what she'll do once the show is over. "This is like having the funeral before you die. Everyone gets to go 'You were great. We're really going to miss you. I'm sorry you're dying.' And you go, 'Thanks. I had a really great time.'"

• • •

When it debuted in October 2004, Desperate Housewives was the kind of blockbuster game-changer for which TV networks pray.

Centered on the travails of four dysfunctional suburbanites hiding multiple secrets, the series blended the outsize entertainment of the campiest soaps with the female-centered friendships of Sex and the City all wrapped in a serious satire of upscale suburbia.

Bowing in the same season ABC unveiled the groundbreaking drama Lost, Desperate Housewives was a critical and commercial hit, drawing 21 million viewers to its debut episode.

The show also had an appealing backstory, revitalizing the careers of several showbiz veterans, including former Golden Girls writer Cherry, along with stars Teri Hatcher (Lois & Clark), Marcia Cross (Melrose Place), Huffman and newcomer Eva Longoria.

"I was, like, a hundred thousand dollars in debt to my mother," said Cherry during the January TV Critics Association news conference, recalling his days before Housewives exploded. "I wrote this script because it was my attempt to show people I was a better writer than maybe they thought. And all hell broke loose."

It also touched the public as a cultural statement on the lives of middle-aged mothers and wives, spawning the unscripted Real Housewives franchise, rival dramas such as Lifetime's Army Wives and a female-centered focus at ABC leading to soapy hits such as Grey's Anatomy, Ugly Betty and Private Practice.

"We were loud," Longoria said in January. "I remember going into the dry cleaning and our faces were on the (bags). And then I went to Ralph's (grocery store) and we were on the shopping bag. … Like, you couldn't escape it."

But, like a plotline ripped from the show, soon after success hit, strife followed.

Cherry, who had exhausted himself re-writing everything in the first season, allowed other producers to step up in the second year, producing a highly criticized story line stranding award-winning African-American actor Alfre Woodard in a role where she kept her son in chains in her basement.

So Cherry shepherded episodes with more fervor in the third season, Fernandez said, recalling trial testimony.

Tension among the actors surfaced when Vanity Fair published a 2005 story noting the stars fought during a photoshoot for the magazine's cover. Already, they were chafing over Hatcher's emerging status as the show's star — playing a klutzy everywoman, she inhabited the most relatable character — fighting over stipulations she wasn't allowed to stand in the center of the photo or choose her outfit first.

"They fought over everything from who had the biggest trailer to who had the most scenes," said Fernandez, noting a recent TV Guide interview acknowledged Hatcher has a "deep rift" with her castmates. "It's sad because it's that stereotypical 'Women can't get along and they're always fighting.' But it was true."

• • •

Though ratings were strong for years, Desperate Housewives never really dominated the zeitgeist again. In 2010, New York magazine asked, "Is Anyone Still Watching Desperate Housewives?" When the show's final season was announced last year, Entertainment Weekly asked, "When did you stop watching Desperate Housewives?"

The characters seemed trapped in their early roles; Huffman's Lynette remained an emasculating critic, Longoria's Gabby was cluelessly self-centered, and Cross' Bree was a tightly wound, secretly dysfunctional ice queen.

"There's so much great, shocking boundary-pushing television that … even the most sensational Desperate Housewives episodes don't cause much of a stir, anymore," Leah Wilson, who edited the 2006 anthology Welcome to Wisteria Lane: On America's Favorite Desperate Housewives, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

Sheridan's lawsuit also unraveled the show's image, centered on her allegation that Cherry hit her when she objected to the elimination of a funny line and wrote her character off the show when she complained.

The trial revealed a stereotypically backstabbing Hollywood workplace where Sheridan's 2009 exit was known by her co-stars and ABC executives long before she was told, Fernandez said.

The jury failed to support Sheridan's allegations by one vote, causing a mistrial, but the damage to the show may have been done.

Fernandez remembered developing a story about the show's 100th episode, which aired in early 2009, for the Los Angeles Times. It was canceled because all the show's major female stars wouldn't appear in the same photo.

"We ended up thinking, 'You know, the show's not even that interesting anymore,' so we dropped it," she said. "They were supposed to pretend everything was okay, and they couldn't."

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