'Desperate Housewives' Wash Out Reality

LOS ANGELES - Reality television's survivors and junior Trumps have been bumped from the top of the water-cooler agenda -- and all it took was four volatile homemakers.

"Desperate Housewives" has unexpectedly stolen some of reality's gloss and resurrected the prime-time soap opera genre long absent from the broadcast networks.

ABC's Sunday night drama about suburbia and its scandalous ways was the No. 1-rated show in its last airing, drawing more than 27 million viewers and eclipsing shows such as "Survivor" and "The Apprentice."

Real, schmeal. And enough with the endless loop of police and forensic dramas. It's the crimes and misdemeanors of Susan, Lynette, Bree and Gabrielle that fascinate viewers, as top-dog "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" was bumped to No. 2 behind "Desperate Housewives" the week of Nov. 22-28. (It was pre-empted Sunday.)

"I haven't missed an episode," said fan Andrea Hawkins, 31, of Denver. "I've been anxious for any good show to get back on the air. I'm so sick of reality TV. ... There's the `CSIs' and `Law & Order,' but it's nice to have more of a drama on."

Fond memories of past prime-time serials, such as "Melrose Place" and '80s blockbusters "Dallas" and "Dynasty," which Hawkins recalls watching as a youngster, have lingered. Now she has another to savor.

"Desperate Housewives" is "comedy, it's dark, it's a drama, it's a soap opera. It's very well-written," Hawkins said, rattling off a list of virtues.

Web sites are abuzz with talk of Wisteria Lane's fictional residents just as online chatterers dissected the behavior of Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth or Richard Hatch.

"The timing is right for something that people wanted to sink their teeth into in terms of character," said Showtime President Bob Greenblatt. "I lived through the real fun times of `Beverly Hills 90210' and `Melrose Place,' two shows I was involved in when I was at Fox, and I remember those Monday night `Melrose' parties when people would watch it together and talk about it."

"Desperate Housewives" was promoted from the start as a "fun, sexy soap," said ABC marketing executive Mike Benson. One telling promotional tool: Plastic bags distributed through dry cleaners and bearing the line, "Everybody has a little dirty laundry."

In mere weeks, the ABC series' title has become pop-culture shorthand -- a magazine cover story on Jennifer Lopez and new husband Marc Anthony bore the headline "Desperate Housewife?" -- and the show itself has drawn controversy as well as the stellar ratings that are a big part of long-dormant ABC's awakening.

A National Review essay last month praised it as "gloriously entertaining chick-TV" and its characters as symbols of traditional values despite their misbehavior.

On the Christian Broadcasting Network's Web site, however, a pastor's wife faulted the show for its "themes of sex, betrayal and secrets woven throughout the story line."

Even the promotion can be brazen. A "Monday Night Football" spot that featured a seductive, towel-clad Nicollette Sheridan (who plays single swinger Edie) provoked debate and government attention.

But the show doesn't approach the rawness of such cable fare as "The Sopranos." Marc Cherry, the "Desperate Housewives" creator whose got his start on "The Golden Girls" sitcom, said his drama was rejected by HBO as too tame.

"I don't tend to write nudity or with foul language. ... It's the network version of what an HBO show is," Cherry said.

The ABC drama's place in history is more likely to be secured by its respect for retro.

Reality's rise in the last few years displaced many scripted series, especially sitcoms and dramas that didn't fall into a franchise category such as police procedurals, said Tim Brooks, co-author (with Earle Marsh) of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows."

Procedurals, he said, are "a little bit soulless": Only rarely does "CSI" or "Law & Order" track a character's personal life. In what may signal a shift, Thursday's episode of crime drama "Without a Trace" on CBS focuses on a detective's marital strife.

With "Desperate Housewives," however, it's all dish, all the time. Two cast members even boast soap credentials -- Marcia Cross, who plays the straight-laced Bree, was on "Melrose Place" from 1992 to '97 and Sheridan was part of the "Knots Landing" ensemble from 1986 to '93.

"I think viewers were missing that (the emotional involvement)," Brooks said, adding that character dramas have been kept alive through what he calls "kids' soaps" on younger-skewing networks like WB ("Smallville," "Gilmore Girls.")

But prime-time serials that delight in excess and outrageous plot twists have long been missing, until now. The Nov. 28 episode that won "Desperate Housewives" its highest rating so far included the highly publicized killing of a Wisteria Lane resident, the neighborhood busybody.

"It's the mystery and what's going on and where is it going to go," said Benson, senior vice president of marketing for ABC Primetime Entertainment. "It really harkens back to the days of `Dynasty' or `Who Shot J.R.?'" on "Dallas."

"When we go out and market that one of the housewives is going to be killed, it's salacious, it's big, it's exciting. It's like reading a good book and you get another chapter every week," he said.

Even Donald Trump can't buy that kind of conflict.

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