Suburban settings often overlooked by Emmy voters


Suburbia often is derided as a wasteland of mind-numbing cookie-cutter conformity, so it's not shocking that shows set in the tract-house and minimall milieu rarely win Emmys for art direction. ABC's "Desperate Housewives" production designer Thomas A. Walsh knows the score all too well, having lost to HBO's "Deadwood" and "Rome" in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

"The suburbs always get annihilated when you've got that type of competition," Walsh says. "It's not even apples to artichokes. It's just two different planets. But it's just as challenging and hard. It's so easy to kind of just do very rounded characterizations. The real challenge is to find interesting nuance and detail and work hard to flesh that out."

When Walsh begins creating a set for the show, he gives the writers a laundry list of questions about the characters who will occupy it, covering everything from their favorite color to their political affiliation.

"In the case of Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), she's a woman with absolutely no maternal instincts whatsoever, who is a runaway Catholic, and so we made fun with religious art and iconography in house," says Walsh, who won an Emmy in 1999 for the short-lived series "Buddy Faro," which aired on CBS. "There are very prominent collectibles of the Madonna and child over the fireplace. We made those choices for her so we could reflect on her character in ways that are, hopefully, somewhat subtle but also give it a visual interest."

Subtle visual character touches abound in the suburban home occupied by Harry Kennison (Jonathan Silverman) in ABC's "In Case of Emergency."

"It was the house he had grown up in, and his parents had moved to Florida, and he's freshly divorced," the show's production designer Lorin Flemming explains. "It was decorated in the '70s and hadn't really changed. So, we put a lot of 'life layer' of two generations having grown up there."

Flemming covered the lime-green walls of the stairwell with framed family photos, including childhood portraits of Silverman and snapshots of her 18-month-old daughter, and crammed every corner with vintage knickknacks acquired from flea markets, thrift stores and antique shops.

"My (set) decorator Claire (Kaufman) and I just shopped like crazy and found so many little cool items from the era and just tried to build layer upon layer, remembering what our houses looked like growing up," Flemming says. "There are piles of things on every desk and little kid's toys hidden in the corner, so you had the real sense of going into a house like that and people having been there forever."

Character nuance is harder to find in Showtime's "Weeds," but that's by design. The show is set in the oppressively homogenous planned community of Agrestic (portrayed in exterior shots by Stevenson Ranch, a 4,000-acre development just north of metropolitan Los Angeles), where widowed mother Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) has turned to dealing marijuana in order to survive.

"You want to think outside the box and do something that hasn't been done," the show's production designer Joseph P. Lucky observes. "But then you realize this is a story about suburbia and the 'Weeds' community, and you have to design within the box rather than outside the box."

This season, Lucky got to slip outside the box when the writers had Nancy convert a rundown house into an indoor pot farm.

"We researched real grow homes and hired a consultant that provided all the hydroponics to grow marijuana, so everything in the grow house is real," Lucky says. "We could've grown real pot if we wanted to. We always joke about what a great publicity stunt that would be."