With “Desperate Housewives” winding up its lucrative eight-season run on ABC, its creator took a moment last week to distill what he called the show’s “original blend” of television genres.
“Part comedy, part drama, part mystery,” Marc Cherry said.
To the audience he addressed, a Los Angeles jury in a lawsuit brought by a former actress on the show, the concept of watching something that was by turns funny, sad and confounding was not a foreign one.
The two-week trial set for closing arguments Tuesday often seemed a black comedy about a black comedy. There were tears, giggles and a few gasps, the most notable when a producer revealed on the witness stand that a major character would die in an episode airing a few days later. (The character was, in fact, shot to death Sunday night.) Underscoring it all was the absurdity, endemic in today’s television, of asking viewers to care deeply about the minor travails of the very rich and semi-famous.
At the plaintiff’s table sat Nicollette Sheridan, a statuesque blond whose long career of sexpot-next-door roles had culminated in a $4-million-a-year gig as “Desperate Housewives” resident tramp, Edie Britt. Separated from her by four lawyers was Cherry, her former boss, who when asked to confirm that his show’s gross revenue exceeded $1 billion, shrugged and said he never looked at the show’s financial statements.
Sheridan’s wrongful-termination and battery suit boils down to why and with what force Cherry brought his right hand into contact with her left temple during a rehearsal on Sept. 24, 2008. In her telling, Cherry was incensed by her complaints about a line of Edie’s dialogue and struck her so hard that her head jerked to the side.
“He stepped in and he hit me across the head like that,” she testified, slicing her arm through the air in front of the witness stand. With her face flushing and her eyes watering, she told jurors, “It was shocking. It was humiliating. It was demeaning.”
Cherry insisted that he had merely tapped Sheridan on the head to demonstrate a playful smack he wanted Edie to give her husband at the close of a scene. He said the actress, who had a history of causing problems on the set, gave him “an odd look. Like she was making a decision” and then started yelling.
“‘You hit me. You can’t hit me,’” he quoted her as saying.
She went to her lawyer, an account of the incident was leaked to the National Enquirer, and ABC launched an investigation. Cherry was cleared by ABC. But when he killed off Edie Britt in an episode a few months later, Sheridan saw it as an act of retribution
and decided to sue him and the show’s studio, Touchstone Television Productions.
A parade of executives, producers and writers provided jurors an introductory course in the television industry, explaining pilot season and character arcs and defining terms like “giving notes,” “showrunner” and “cliffhanger.” They detailed how “Desperate Housewives” had been a critical and popular smash in its first two seasons but dropped in ratings in subsequent years as it went up against NFL games and saw its offbeat tone replicated on other shows.
This season, the show has typically attracted just over 8 million viewers each week.
“Desperate” — as it’s known at the studio — often came off in testimony as any other workplace. There were mandatory sexual harassment seminars, budget meetings and corporate bosses who never seemed satisfied.
“The feeling was it wasn’t oomphy enough,” Cherry said of a season finale script rejected by ABC.
There was tension over salaries — Sheridan wanted as much money as more famous costars like Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria — and work performance. Hatcher once became so irritated with Sheridan’s line-forgetting that production was temporarily halted.
“She told me that she thought Teri Hatcher was the meanest woman in the world,” Cherry recalled.
If some on-the-job tensions sounded familiar, other aspects of Sheridan and Cherry’s world were strictly Hollywood. She got $175,000 per episode, Cherry’s lawyers noted repeatedly, whether or not she appeared.
One of Cherry’s three assistants, a subsequent witness said, made $156,000 a year. A mid-level writer testified that she earned $648,000 for one season’s work, eliciting groans from a spectator’s gallery packed with reporters earning substantially less for putting verbs after nouns.
A key dispute was at what point Cherry had decided to kill Edie Britt. He testified that the promiscuous real estate agent had run out of story lines, having bedded every eligible man on Wisteria Lane. Killing her had been on his mind for years, he said, but it wasn’t until May 2008 — four months before the incident with Sheridan — that he got approval from the network and ABC to do so.
His timeline was corroborated by a number of other witnesses, including the former head of ABC Entertainment, Steve McPherson, who took the stand wearing sneakers and chewing on a piece of gum. He described his post-network career as managing his personal investments and a wine and spirits business.
But two writers who worked on the 2008 season said Cherry made the final decision to doom Edie after his run-in with Sheridan. Writer Jeff Greenstein got a laugh dismissing previous writers’ room talk about her death: “You would be surprised at how often writers discuss killing off actors.”
It was while testifying about Edie’s death that an executive producer disclosed an upcoming plot twist.
Asked if the character was the most prominent ever killed off, George Perkins hesitated and then reluctantly said Mike Delfino, a character played by James Denton, was scheduled to die in the next episode.
To bolster its case that Edie’s death was nothing more than show business as usual, the studio compiled a montage of 48 deaths that had occurred on “Desperate Housewives.” Richard Olshansky, a former business affairs executive at NBC whom Sheridan hired as a $500-an-hour expert, later noted that the montage included the death of a rat and of several characters who didn’t have names and were played by extras.
He said Edie’s death was “virtually unprecedented” in the history of American television.
“I mean it’s not done,” he said with the definitiveness of a forensic scientist ticking off DNA results.
On cross-examination, Olshansky acknowledged that his research for Sheridan’s case consisted mainly of Internet searches and chats at his home with two industry friends whom he called “the two Mitches.”
His subsequent exchanges with Sheridan’s attorney about the on-screen demises of other characters took on a tone of two cubicle mates on a slow afternoon.
“‘Lost.’ What was that show about?” asked lawyer Mark Baute.
“It’s a pretty hostile environment there on the island,” Olshansky observed.