'Desperate Housewives': Cherry's orchard


The years grow jumbled and the labels unwieldy when it comes to ABC's "Desperate Housewives," aka the Little Soap That Could. We do know a few things for sure, such as the fact that the hour celebrates its landmark 100th episode Sunday night. It's also clear that the Nielsen ratings for the show -- already decidedly lofty -- have climbed roughly 30% since last season, thanks to a stroke of genius by creator-showrunner Marc Cherry.

But that, alas, is where things grow a bit muddled. The inspired decision to jump the "Housewives" story line ahead five years for the fifth campaign has left the show set ... when? Presumably, it's early 2014, but it's not exactly clear. The other question -- which will perhaps never be answered -- is just what this series is. Is it comedy? Drama? It's a comedy when it comes to awards consideration, a darkly comic drama in most other respects. But dubbing it a mere hybrid still feels insufficient.

What "Desperate Housewives" certainly is, of course, is the series that saved ABC's hide. In tandem with "Lost," its 2004 launch revitalized not only ABC but also broadcast television itself, bringing a creative jolt to network primetime when it was needed most. It also jump-started the career of Marc Cherry, who had been out of work for two and a half years and was as desperate professionally as his fictitious housewives were emotionally.

"It's been an amazing journey," Cherry agrees, "and the scary thing is it appears to be only about halfway done."

Yes, that's another thing. The hard-driving and meticulously organized Cherry crafted a seven-year plan for the show after "Housewives" proved a breakout hit straight from the gate in 2004. "It was too exhausting to think about anything beyond that," he maintains. "From year one, I couldn't imagine going beyond seven."

The problem for Cherry is that after the show became a hit all over again this fall, the decision to stop at seven was no longer his. ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson and ABC Studios chief Mark Pedowitz immediately began changing the seven to a nine (as in seasons) whenever discussing "Housewives'" future.

"So I said all right, let's start talking about a way to give everybody what they want," Cherry recalls. "We started discussing a scenario where the show would keep running with more higher-level producers and support staff, while allowing me to let go of the heavy day-to-day a little bit. Nothing is official yet, but it's going to get done -- possibly before anyone reads these words."

In short, the hands-on Cherry will be allowed to take the occasional lunch break, and "Desperate Housewives" will be guaranteed a run that takes the show through 200 episodes.

"We're planning to chain Marc to the set for as long as we can," McPherson assures. "This show is special in so many ways to ABC, and it's been like a rebirth this year with the five-year flash-forward that has so energized the show. I remember he originally mentioned the idea to me at a baseball game. I immediately thought, 'Holy shit, that's brilliant!' Here was a guy with a hit show who could easily have sat back and let things run their course. But Marc took it a step further, which speaks to how smart and savvy he is."

The gambit has paid significant viewership dividends. Its household ratings average has soared more than three full points, to over 10, in a numbers culture that typically rises and falls in tiny increments. And more than four years after launching, "Housewives" remains one of the top three most-watched series among young adults.

For the uninitiated, "Desperate Housewives" tells the tangled tale of five women in the tony suburban enclave of Fairview, as seen through the mischievous eyes of a neighbor named Mary Alice (played in flashback by Brenda Strong), who committed suicide. It has turned stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria Parker and Nicollette Sheridan into worldwide icons.

The ladies are persistently rumored in the tabloids to be engaged in constant catfights on the set and sibling rivalries off it. But in the blissful rapture of reaching the 100-episode milestone, any negatives among the actresses take a backseat to gratitude.

"Getting to 100 is a very emotional moment for all of us," Cross assures. "We're all so blessed to be a part of a show that so cleverly strikes the comedy-drama balance. You don't get too many opportunities like this in your career."

Huffman agrees, adding, "We caught the brass ring, you know? We've been able to ride Marc Cherry's coattails all the way to 100. Here's a guy who was literally borrowing money from his mother to survive alone in his little condo, writing. He was thinking about getting into tugboat maintenance. And then he creates 'Desperate Housewives.' We're all just so lucky to be along for the ride."

Sheridan -- who already knows what it's like to be on a series for a lengthy run, having logged seven seasons (1986-1993) on the CBS soap "Knots Landing" -- feels grateful but still restless, believing there remains "so much story left to explore. Fortunately, I get to play the most interesting character on the show. The sky's the limit with Edie."

That's also been the case with the series' popularity overseas. At last count, "Desperate Housewives" was playing in more than 220 territories around the globe. And in the case of a handful of those nations (Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico), it plays in unique customized editions dubbed "reversionings," wherein homegrown casts perform largely the same scripts, with a few allowances for cultural differences.

But Pedowitz, who is in charge of "Housewives' " marketing and merchandising, stresses that ABC Studios has been unusually precise and choosy in the kind of products permitted to carry the series' brand. No "Desperate Housewives" crotchless panties or marital aids, but there have been tie-in books, perfume, high-fashion T-shirts and an interactive PC game that sold more than 400,000 units.

"It's been all about protecting the franchise for the long term," Pedowitz notes, "and so far it's proven to be the right strategy. We've been very cognizant from the get-go about what the brand meant and guarding against denigrating it. We never want to see any of our stuff wind up in the 99-cent bin."

Now that his franchise has proven it can successfully stretch five years beyond its original time frame, what might Cherry still have up his sleeve? There has been scuttlebutt about his taking the reverse tack and going back several years to the tumultuous period just before Mary Ellen decided to do herself in, but it's more likely to be merely an element of a single episode than a full-on directional shift, the man in charge assures.

"I just feel really lucky that people have taken to our little leap so enthusiastically," Cherry admits. "We worked hard to do it smart. The characters and relationships that people love are still there. And here we are in a race with 'Grey's Anatomy' to finish the season as the No. 1 scripted show in primetime. I think I may finally have figured out how to do this show."