An inspired wedding of sharp comedic sensibilities with primetime soapiness, the series that launched a thousand billboards offers enough cat fighting, mystery and <I>muy caliente</I> sex to give it a real chance of ending ABC's desperation to finally establish an hourlong show without "Makeover" in the title.

An inspired wedding of sharp comedic sensibilities with primetime soapiness, the series that launched a thousand billboards offers enough cat fighting, mystery and muy caliente sex to give it a real chance of ending ABC’s desperation to finally establish an hourlong show without “Makeover” in the title. If nothing else, there’s no more indelible moment in a new series this season than the dazzling Eva Longoria mowing the lawn in evening gown and heels to cover up her affair with the gardener, who has been shirking his more traditional duties.

Unlike most of this fall’s promising newcomers, the residents of Wisteria Lane have all kinds of fertile avenues to explore in future episodes. The one cautionary flag is preventing the soapy elements from bubbling over the top, as they threaten to do on only a few occasions in the premiere.

At times, given conventions of the genre, “Desperate Housewives” might be a little too smart for its own good. For the most part, though, producer Marc Cherry (“The Golden Girls”) has concocted a program that’s oodles of fun, chronicling the seemingly idyllic lives of a handful of women after a member of their group, Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), suddenly and inexplicably blows her brains out.

As with “The Big Chill,” the suicide has a significant impact on remaining friends, each of whom have their own particular issues. The divorced Susan (Teri Hatcher), ends up longing for a newly arrived bachelor (James Denton), placing her in competition with the “most predatory divorcee in a five-block radius,” a perfectly cast Nicollette Sheridan.

Gabrielle (Longoria) is a former model who married for money and is finding that late at night (and even in the afternoon) the big ol’ house gets pretty lonely. Meanwhile, Lynette (Felicity Huffman) quit her high-powered job to be a stay-at-home mom, a role she’s ashamed to admit she hates — in contrast to Bree (Marcia Cross), whom her son accuses of running for “mayor of Stepford.”

Although broadly comic in places and darkly so in others, the series also layers on the mystery about Mary Alice, who becomes the omniscient narrator for her surviving friends. It’s an overused device that nevertheless lends an air of gravity to the show, which, thanks to the secrets and laughs, possesses a slightly broader appeal than the average primetime sudser of yester-decade.

Among the series’ many accomplishments, most of the recasting from what media buyers saw in the spring subtly improves the program. And while Hatcher, back in daffy “Lois & Clark” form, ostensibly provides the emotional core, nearly everyone is intriguing in one way or another. Longoria, the least-known of the bunch, has the makings of a breakout star, following a brief stint in ABC’s “L.A. Dragnet” and — fittingly, given her character’s nature — “The Young and the Restless.”

Moreover, after years of futility on the drama front, ABC appears to have gotten its act together in launching this one. In addition to those ubiquitous eye-catching billboards, the series actually has a compatible lead-in (the female-oriented “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”) and is scheduled in the right timeslot. As a bonus, HBO will be less of a competitive factor with its gritty “The Wire” playing in that hour, and if “Housewives” is succeeding when usual Sunday occupant “Alias” returns in January, well, that’s a nice problem to have.

In short, if these girls don’t wind up being golden, it won’t be for lack of opportunity.

Desperate Housewives

ABC, Sun. Oct. 3, 9 P.M.

Production

Filmed in L.A. by Cherry Prods. in association with Touchstone Television. Executive producers, Marc Cherry, Charles Pratt Jr., Michael Edelstein, Tom Spezialy; co-executive producer, Kevin Murphy; producers, George W. Perkins, Larry Shaw; director, Charles McDougall; writer, Cherry.

Crew

Camera, David Franco; editor, Michael Berenbaum; music, Danny Elfman (theme), Steve Bartek; production designer, Thomas A. Walsh; casting, Junie Lowry-Johnson, Scott Genkinger. 60 MIN.

Cast

Susan Mayer - Teri Hatcher Lynette Scavo - Felicity Huffman Bree Van De Kamp - Marcia Cross Gabrielle Solis - Eva Longoria Edie Britt - Nicollette Sheridan Mike Delfino - James Denton Rex Van De Kamp - Steven Culp Carlos Solis - Ricardo Antonio Chavira Paul Young - Mark Moses Mary Alice Young - Brenda Strong Julie Mayer - Andrea Bowen Zach Young - Cody Kasch John - Jesse Metcalfe

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