4 Women of Desperate Housewives
Thanks for tuning in to another installment of Advanced TV Herstory, a podcast that studies, analyzes and celebrates women in television. Today we begin a series that over time will review the fascinating construct of the women who comprise four main characters in a sitcom or drama. We’ll look at trends and deviations. We’ll trace themes where they exist and examine why some shows didn’t garner the recognition they deserved.
Put four women on a stage as talented equals and with the right people behind the scenes, you get magic. If you have opinions about a show or shows that featured 4 women as leads, please send them via comment sections at Libsyn or iTunes or directly as an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This installment looks at the women of Desperate Housewives – Felicity Huffman, Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria and Marcia Cross. Wearing stilettos and Sperry’s, evening wear, suits and short shorts, they became famous for their roles and fashionable styles. Advanced TV Herstory also explores where their fame fits into the show’s legacy.
Don’t let the suburban façade fool you. Desperate Housewives brings a dark, comedic side to the story of four women, 5 if you count their neighbor who is usually their foil. It’s well written and campy – as over the top in its plot lines as a predecessor, Sisters a show set in Winnetka which aired in the early 90s was, only with a greater eye toward matters of morbidity – heart attacks caused, houses burned down and people dying, well, mysteriously.
Desperate Housewives and the comings and goings on Wisteria Lane in the fictional town of Fairview aired from 2004 to 2012 and became an immediate success. From the moment you saw the opening credits, you knew the show has been thought through, a fresh look on domestic life. This is the musical score as the show begins, but the artistic renderings illustrated a story that harkens back to the ages. Believe it or not there is a website devoted to using the Desperate Housewives opening sequence for literary and artistic interpretation exercises.
While some never took the show seriously, it was a success in many ways. Thirty-three different organizations recognized the show with nominations for awards. This array shows the diversity and quality of the show in terms of directing, design, casting, acting, production and writing. As to the big awards, Felicity Huffman won the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Her competition? Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross.
Emmy recognized guest star Kathryn Joosten, who played Karen McCluskey with two awards for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2005 and 2008 and she was nominated a few more times. In 2013, Vanessa Williams was recognized by the NAACP Image Awards winning the Outstanding Supporting Actress - Comedy Series.
By the end of the series, all four leading actresses had won major hardware and the show, great acclaim both in the US and abroad. In 2011 ABC announced cancellation early enough in the last season so as to give the writers every opportunity to wind down the plots and bring an appropriate closure to the viewers.
To follow the show through its seasons is to keep track with an incredibly fast-pasted series of continuous plot lines and a huge cast of extras. Storytelling that advanced the obvious plot also sometimes planted a clue that would come in handy later in that episode or in the season.
The pilot and initial plot revolves around the death of neighbor Mary Alice Young. Like a vine, the stories quickly spread out in many directions. The late Mary Alice’s voice is narrator throughout the seasons. By learning early of her suicide in an otherwise idyllic neighborhood, the audience begins to perceive the dark side of the question posed within the show’s advertising, “How much do we want to know about our neighbors?”
Creator and writer Marc Cherry deftly uses Mary Alice’s voice – that of Brenda Strong – to provide all the necessary backstory to transition to the “action” on Wisteria Lane. Using the old device from soap operas to synopsize past plot lines, Mary Alice starts off Season 2 by bringing us up to speed, reminding us where we left off.
Season 2 narration
That clip is simply a sample of how serial-like this production was. The four main characters (and a large diverse cast) brought the story to life.
In a fan book published at the end of the first season – that's always a good sign of a runaway hit – creator Marc Cherry recounts and describes the four primary women.
Teri Hatcher, who some may remember played Lois Lane in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, from the mid-90s, is Susan Mayer. Susan is the first of our circle on Wisteria Lane to be divorced. We know her situation, we see her heart and Teri Hatcher is an ace at physical comedy. With each bit that includes a pratfall or physical challenge, the show’s wardrobe designers use their powers to contribute to the comedic effect.
Through her adult life, Hatcher had come to grips with the fact that she had been sexually molested as a young girl by an uncle. Using her 15 seconds of fame, which we at Advanced TV Herstory believe may be doled out annually to people in wildly popular TV shows, she wrote a memoir and became active with organizations and campaigns around sexual assault. In this 2014 clip, Hatcher introduces herself to representatives of the United Nations.
Hatcher testimony 1
With this testimony available on YouTube, it’s fascinating to watch Hatcher, white American successful woman recount to a roomful of women from all over the world what led her to reveal her story publicly.
Hatcher testimony 2
And with this testimony, Hatcher has made the most of her profile and. We haven’t heard or seen the last of Teri Hatcher – in her role as advocate.
On to Felicity Huffman as former successful executive who gave up her career for motherhood – Lynette Scavo. Huffman earned great acclaim for her role as Dana Whitaker in the short-lived series by Aaron Sorkin, Sports Night, which aired for two seasons beginning in 1998.
Marc Cherry has consistently said that the character of Lynette is patterned after his mother during his family’s younger years.
I wanted to write a career woman who had given up her career so she could raise kids because she wanted to do right by them., and now she’s not happy. I thought that was, in its own little way, groundbreaking. … For a woman to say, ‘No, this is hard, and I don’t really like it,” I thought that was a brave choice.
This clip from Season 2 is a little piece of domestic insight into the Scavo home when husband Tom is between jobs and they decide it’s his turn to be the at-home parent. Lynette attempts to re-enter the workforce after 7 years.
Prep for interview
Like Hatcher, Huffman, who won the lead actress Emmy in the show’s first year, used the stage created by her character to reach out to real women. As a mother of two herself, Huffman relates well to Lynette’s struggle with parenting young children.
Huffman Flicka impetus
Had the internet been around when Donna Reed or June Cleever were America’s most known mothers, aspirations to project perfection would have prevented those actresses from creating a resource dedicated to the challenges and questions of motherhood. Huffman gave us www.whattheflicka.com which is not a vanity platform for Huffman, but is in fact a network hub for mothers to contribute written pieces or video on a host of topics.
Huffman Flicka 2
Creator Marc Cherry maintains Lynette’s character was his mother from his youth. He adds that Bree Van De Kamp is the mother of his teenage and adult years. Very dry. Very composed, while raising his siblings in Orange County. His imagination takes over from reality in the character played by Marcia Cross. Before Desperate Housewives, Cross had significant roles in Melrose Place, Knots Landing, TV soap One Life to Live and the single season series Everwood.
Says Cherry, - Over the course of the season, Bree has suffered perhaps more than any other character, finding her idyllic, plastic existence challenged by a series of new domestic dramas. In each of her travails, she surprises the audience in new ways – revealing that she loves sex, is open to S & M and wants real intimacy, despite seeming incapable of feeling.
From that first season fan book, Marcia Cross says about her character,
The interesting thing about Bree is that there’s what she wants and what she thinks she wants. She thinks she wants everything to be status quo. But actually she wants to be happier.
In the final season, writers who had overseen Bree’s evolution provided some analysis in a DVD bonus. Cross’ character stood out among the four women for her emotional growth and shift in perspective.
Over the 8 seasons the writers really did send Bree through great challenges. In a few cases, the writers were able to take the edge off of dark situations with the comedic quips, delivered quite capably to or at Bree by Longoria or Nicollette Sheridan. Shame, men, alcoholism – by the end of the series Bree’s world looked nothing like it did on Day One.
This clip from the 8th season reveals Bree at her most vulnerable. The scene a seedy motel room. No make up, looking weary… a Bree Van De Kamp modeling a new flavor of desperate. Late season antagonist Renee Perry is hunting her down thinking Bree has taken up with her man. Vanessa Williams as Renee Perry kicks down the motel room door rocking a leather dress that presents her as nothing short of an action figure.
Bree & Renee
Humor and situational comedy will keep Desperate Housewives among viewers who missed it the first time and now want to power through season after season. The evolution of Bree is perhaps the show’s unintended legacy. Marcia Cross shattered the pearly perfection of Donna Reed and June Cleaver.
Gabrielle Solis “Gabby” is played by Eva Longoria, born in Texas to Mexican-American parents. Longoria’s previous noteworthy work include two years on soap Young & the Restless and a recurring character in the 2003 one-season TV remake of Dragnet.
Creator Marc Cherry thought it was important to depict the suburban experience of his youth.
Growing up in Southern California, my family had many Mexican families around us and I noticed that in the suburbs, race doesn’t matter nearly as much as class. …no one cared what color you were. They just wanted to make sure that you took care of your lawn.
Gabby publicly balances emotional and material fulfillment and comedy serves to highlight her character’s vanity and sense of entitlement. Early on, Gabby identifies with Mary Alice’s desperation – that which drove that character to suicide.
In this clip, Gabby’s successful husband lands in trouble with the FBI and Gabby visits him while he awaits his court date. The scandal devastates them financially, ultimately sends Gabrielle back to modeling.
Gabrielle to Carlos
In the fan book from the first season, before the show was able to traverse paths along race, class and health, Eva Longoria reflected on her role as the only non-white desperate housewife.
The Solises are very pioneering in the way that the Cosbys were. We’re the richest couple on the block and we have a white gardener, which is unheard of in our society. It’s a great thing to see Latinos portrayed in a positive way. I’m a huge activist for Latino rights and it’s a fact that Latinos are still severely underrepresented in television and film, so any time any Latino is cast, I think that it’s great.
Thirteen years later – three after the end of the series, Longoria is busier than ever as a voice in Hollywood and the nation, for greater representation of Latinos. In light of growing anti-immigration sentiment and racism in national political dialogue, she launched an effort called Latino Victory. It focuses on social engagement and political participation at the grassroots level as well as voter registration that is targeted at having its first major impact in the 2016 presidential election. It’s part of Longoria’s activist work under the umbrella theme of The Firsts.
In an age of highly targeted internet presence for news, entertainment and advocacy, Longoria is leveraging her international profile as a Mexican American.
Apart from the programmatic work, Longoria herself is increasingly become a spokesperson or resource on immigration, education and other policy questions that involve immigrants and first generation Americans.
Longoria is by no means the first celebrity to dip her pedicured toe into politics and political debate. Desperate Housewives’ tremendous popularity and Marc Cherry’s certain conviction that a character like Gabrielle Solis fit into a story that otherwise could very easily have been about four white women, has given Longoria room to run.
Now some might say that Desperate Housewives is really a show about five women. Nicollette Sheridan as Edie was the fifth. That may be true, but from the outside, the show’s primary photographic representation was of four women.
Cherry asserts that the role of Edie definitely grew over time, in part due to Sheridan’s over-the-top portrayal. Edie is an outsider to the group of four. She’s self-made having lived a tough life and earned her own way as a realtor to reside on Wisteria lane. Her boot straps story is the tip-off that she’s resourceful and driven.
Nicollette Sheridan, a veteran of prime time soaps Knots Landing and Paper Dolls as well as voice work, originally read for the role of Bree but she saw the role as too uptight for something she may have to keep doing for years and years. Following her reading of Bree, they asked her to read for Edie. She had the part before she left the room.
Sheridan, even in a minor role as resourceful, driven Edie, brought her own amount of controversy or free publicity to the show.
In November 2004, Sheridan appeared in a cross-over TV commercial that bridged Monday Night Football and Desperate Housewives. It appeared right before kickoff and stirred quite a controversy.
Staying in character as Edie, Sheridan comes on to Philadelphia Eagles star Terrell Owens in the locker room, just minutes before kickoff – wearing nothing, for a time, but a towel.
Monday Night Football
What you, the listener, can’t tell from the audio clip of the video is that she drops her towel, Owens gets a big smile on his face and Sheridan jumps into his arms, straddling his waist.
It’s no surprise the next day’s chatter was about whether that was appropriate, given that that the Disney Corporation owns ABC (the network of both programs featured in the commercial). The football team initially stood by their decision to be a part of it. Terrell Owens in a press conference later in the week called it a “clean skit.” The Eagles backpedaled a bit, professing perhaps that it wasn’t the best way to feature the team.
Another controversy simmered. Owens is African-American and Sheridan is white, blonde and blue eyed. Then Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, an African American, questioned whether anyone would have even thought twice had the football player been white.
Just as they did with the Janet Jackson Super Bowl Halftime Show Wardrobe Malfunction, the Federal Communications Commission investigated the advertisement and the media salivated throughout November and into December. In March 2005 the FCC concluded that the ad didn’t violate the law.
It concluded the skit, "although sexually suggestive, is not graphic or explicit.” Lisa de Moraes, a TV columnist for the Washington Post chronicled the closure on the saucy controversy. In a March 15, 2005 column available online de Moraes writes, FCC Chairman Powell observed “that while broadcasters complain about the FCC's ‘indecency enforcement,’ they like to ‘keep it hot and steamy in order to get financial gains and the free advertising it provides.’”
Hot and steamy is exactly how women of Wisteria Lane was promoted, played and celebrated through the show’s run. Through the mysterious and not-so-mysterious deaths to the affairs to the profiles of addiction, writers pulled in the viewer, got you comfortable and then offered you a clever, often dark, twist.
With solid and consistent talent of the regular performers to the long list of A-list cameos, the acting definitely kept up with the writing. As a result, risks could be taken and most times, they paid off.
Remember, we’ve come a long way from the traditional soap opera. Daytime television’s heyday was in the 60s and 70s, when audiences tracked multiple shows in the TV viewing lounge on college campuses, at home or via their VCR.
Serials found new life in prime time in the 80s, with Dallas, Falcon Crest and Dynasty as standouts of highly skilled acting, sophisticated plot development and show longevity. These shows provided the serial plot continuity for the working woman who deserved an hour at the end of a day to herself. To escape.
And we might have left the serial behind and fully embraced reality shows had it not been for a few lines exchanged between creator Marc Cherry and his mother. This clip was from a Paley Center interview with cast and writers early in the show’s run.
M Cherry origin
From the outset, Cherry and his writers didn’t follow guidelines of how four women should be characterized. Lynette, Susan, Gabby and Bree are rarely compared to the women of Sex &
The City or The Golden Girls. The show is as much about the plots and how they resolve unthinkable situations as it is about the women or their lifestyles. Each woman is juggling multiple relationships every day.
For suburban viewers, this show was relatable, complete with familiar conflicts and reactions and numerous outrageous ways to resolve them that would put most of us behind bars.
As we will learn in an upcoming installment of Advanced TV Herstory, the show Sisters which aired from 1991 to 1996 writers also optimized suburban stability and predictability so they could suspend belief and take story lines over the top. After a day of work outside or inside the home, that’s the kind of mind candy many women want and need.
Another big difference between Sisters and Desperate Housewives, rests within the context of the internet, the economy, politics and the advance of the women’s movement. It’s in how Desperate Housewives stars have chosen to use their celebrity for larger causes.
In that respect, in this stage of their seasoned careers, Longoria, Hatcher and Huffman in particular are leveraging their visibility and resources to right the wrongs they parodied on Wisteria Lane.
Desperate Housewives is available on Hulu and on DVD.
While there are hundreds of blogs, websites and fan sites devoted to the show, my goal with this installment, within the context of shows featuring four strong main women characters, was to put the show and women in the light of history. Send me your feedback and interpretation about Desperate Housewives or other ideas.
If you never saw a single episode of Desperate Housewives but like well-crafted shows, give it a shot. Remember, it earned recognition from 33 different entities.
In researching the show I found Marc Cherry’s book published in 2005 season, Desperate Housewives: Behind Closed Doors by Downtown Books to be very insightful.
On YouTube, find Teri Hatcher’s November 25, 2014 testimony at the United Nations’ Commemoration of the International Day to End Violence against Women.
Paley Center for Media session with the cast and crew of Desperate Housewives moderated by Carrie Fisher. It’s not the one dated 2009, it’s the other one. Marcia Cross is wearing is shiny red dress and Eva Longoria is wearing a cream colored winter coat over what looks to be a lacy dress which almost anywhere else in America would pass for lingerie.
I also pulled audio from an unattributed professional video of Felicity Huffman explaining the impetus for her website WhattheFlicka on YouTube as well.
Music you’ve heard in the background is by Big Mean Sound Machine and is found on Free Music Archive.org.
While there is plenty of material for future podcasts, I’m certain you as a listener have a favorite show or story arc that needs its story told. Shoot me a line on Twitter at TVHerstory or an email at email@example.com.
This and scripts from past installments can be found at my website www.cynthiabemisabrams.com. Scripts include embedded resource links whenever appropriate.
Thanks for listening to Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams