‘Desperate Housewives’ gossip created ‘problems’ on set, but creator Marc Cherry says he’s better for it
Marc Cherry sits in one of his three spacious living rooms, wearing the expression of a man who is completely at home.
“I feel like I’m wearing a pair of very comfortable shoes that I haven’t worn in a while,” proclaims Cherry, 57, who put his distinctive stamp on pop culture with ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” the phenomenally successful prime time soap about the melodramatic lives of a group of suburban women that ran from 2004 to 2012. Over the course of eight seasons, the dramedy drew attention not only for its irreverent tone and inventive plots but also for its reports of bitter behind-the-scenes battles among its female stars.
To be truthful, the living room Cherry’s sitting in doesn’t even belong to him. The space, filled with lavish furniture and artwork, is part of the elaborate set of his new project, “Why Women Kill,” which premieres Thursday on CBS All Access.
The series revolves around three women, living in three different decades, whose lives are turned upside down when they discover their spouses have been unfaithful. The women’s connection? They occupy the same Pasadena house through the years, which necessitates the need for three different living rooms.
“I thought there could be something smart in showing how different women deal with this [situation] based on the expectations of the era they’re living in,” says Cherry, sitting on the edge of a couch at one of two sound stages at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, where “Why Women Kill” is based.
“It gives me the opportunity to show how women have changed, how marriage has changed and indeed how men have changed.”
The concept returns Cherry, who also created the post-”Desperate Housewives” series “Devious Maids” on Lifetime, to familiar ground: creating a universe populated by intelligent, complex women. Like “Desperate Housewives,” the proceedings have a breezy, often darkly humorous feel — the animated, comic book-style opening credits depict wronged women brutally dispatching their misbehaving lovers to the tune of Michael Feinstein’s rendition of the swinging tune “L.O.V.E.”
It also shows how Cherry is approaching cultural and societal norms, which have shifted dramatically since the curtain came down on “Desperate Housewives.”
“A lot has been written about the #MeToo movement and the reckoning, as it’s called, and I steered away from that territory, because so many people have gone there,” Cherry says. “I wanted to go down a different path. Hence the tone of my show. It’s delicious, wicked fun. Whatever gender politics are inherent in it, it’s with a small ‘p.’ I didn’t want to hit my audience over the head.“
Each episode jumps back and forth among the three central women. And, of course, there are killings — three of them.
Ginnifer Goodwin (“Once Upon a Time”) headlines the 1960s segments as an obedient housewife who takes matters into her own hands by befriending her husband’s mistress, a waitress at a neighborhood diner. In the 1980s portion, Lucy Liu (“Elementary”) plays a status-conscious socialite who is devastated when she discovers that her loving husband has a secret life. Kirby Howell-Baptiste (“Killing Eve”) stars in the present-day sequences as a bisexual lawyer who encounters unexpected complications in her open marriage when her husband falls for her female lover.
The project marks Cherry’s introduction to the streaming world, a move that has delighted him so much that he’s “never going back.” With “Desperate Housewives,” he and his associates were churning out 22 to 24 episodes a season. This first season of “Why Women Kill” has 10.
“I certainly have more artistic freedom to explore more adult themes,” Cherry says. “I get to use a couple of curse words here and there. There’s a little nudity if need be. But the most important thing is to be able to explore more provocative, adult issues. Certainly, the idea of centering one of the story lines on an open marriage was something I felt was courageous. I don’t know if a broadcast network would have been brave enough to allow that.”
Cherry’s stars say they have been thrilled by his approach and the series’ freshness. As Liu said in a phone interview, “I love the way Marc injects comedy in the most disastrous situations.”
Added Goodwin in a separate interview: “Marc inspires me. I feel very challenged in all of the best ways by him and the material he writes for me. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to step up in the way he asks me to step up. All the material is grounded and gut-wrenched, heightened and stylized, but connected to something real. It’s fun to play in his sandbox.”
As with “Desperate Housewives” and “Devious Maids,” the key driver in Cherry’s work remains his desire to give insight and depth to his female characters. He based Goodwin’s character on his mother, who has often been his source of inspiration: “She had a very cheery disposition. She loved being a housewife. She always tried to be pleasant.”
He smiles when pressed about his affinity for female-oriented stories.
“I think about that — what draws me to write about women,” he says. “It’s my feeling about women in my own life, about my mother and two sisters. It’s about all the female friends who got me through junior high and high school.
“Part of it is because I’m a gay man,” he continues after a pause. “And part of it is tricky to talk about because it’s true. I don’t want sex out of women. So when I sit down with women and talk to them, all I’m looking at is their brains, their personality, their humor. Since I get past the physical stuff, I think I get more out of women than the average straight guy would. I’m looking for different things.”
Cherry’s excitement with “Why Women Kill” was evident when he appeared at a premiere screening last week at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. When he praised his cast and made a quip about them being “drama-free” — flashing a sly smile — the audience erupted in laughter.
“It really is a drama-free cast,” he says the following day on the set. “Interestingly enough, no one ever asks me about ‘Devious Maids,’ which was also a drama-free cast. Everyone was lovely.”
Although there may not have been any behind-the-camera turmoil, the series did receive criticism from advocates in the Latino community who protested the depiction of Latinx characters, expressing concerns that Latinas were mostly cast as maids or nannies. Tanya Saracho, a writer on that show who is currently an executive producer and showrunner of Starz’s drama “Vida,” has said she was referred to by one coworker as “the diversity hire” of the writers room.
For now, the experience of “Why Women Kill” stands in sharp contrast to his stint on “Desperate Housewives.” The show, which featured Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Eva Longoria and Marcia Cross, was an instant hit, averaging 24 million viewers a week in its first season. Critics and fans saluted how Cherry bent the rules of conventional soap operas in combining drama, comedy and mystery, giving a glamorous, sexy portrait of women over 40.
But the continuing popularity of the series was clouded by difficulties in subsequent seasons. Complaints arose about outrageous story lines. An overworked Cherry suffered a near-nervous breakdown. Actress Nicolette Sheridan, who played a sexpot neighbor, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit, claiming that Cherry struck her on the head on the set. (The suit was ultimately dismissed.) And there were continual reports about fights and rivalries among the actresses.
Asked to reflect on the “Desperate Housewives” experience, Cherry pauses.
“The funny thing about ‘Desperate Housewives’ is that people were writing about the problems with the women before we had problems,” he says. “There were rumors in the press, outright falsehoods. For the first six months, I felt insulted, took umbrage at all of it. And then stuff did start happening. Because we were such a big hit, there was an inordinate amount of attention about supposed cat fights.
“I look back on it and think it was really sad for the cast, because the press wanted them to be at each other’s throats. It made for good copy. There were some things we had to deal with, but ultimately, we got through them. I learned a lot, more from the failures and the bad stuff. I became a better human being and a better showrunner.”
Cherry leans forward and smiles. “I wanted a life and career that was exciting, where different things would happen to me. Well, that’s what I got, for better and for worse. I’ve had so many odd peaks and valleys. Whatever the buffet of show business is, when my time is over, I feel I will have sampled every course.”
‘Why Women Kill’
Where: CBS All Access
When: Any time, starting Thursday
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