When it debuted in 2004, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” was different from anything else on the air. A wickedly funny primetime soap with heart, the show quickly became appointment viewing.
From a network perspective, it would be unheard of to tinker with the DNA of a series that has done so well over the years in the Nielsens, but credit creator-showrunner Marc Cherry for not being shy about retooling the storylines to fit his original concept.
Cherry, who saw there were problems in season two and made the bold decision to move up the plot five years this season, has brought the show back to where both fans and critics are once again giving it huzzahs.
Few shows manage to creatively find their way back to the top the way “Housewives” has.
“The first year we were a phenomenon. The second year there was complete backlash,” Cherry says. “The fact that we had so many problems immediately in season two was a surprise, but that’s really where I started to grow as a showrunner. It was a painful growth experience, but I learned the lessons well.”
Cherry says he actually benefited from the sophomore slump.
“So many things went right — sometimes accidentally — in the first season,” so the fact that things weren’t clicking the second season forced him to look at what the series itself was about, what it wasn’t about, and what elements made the show work.
Getting “Housewives” back on track didn’t happen overnight. After the second season, Cherry hired new writers, including exec producer Bob Daily, fellow “Frasier” alum Joe Keenan and Jeff Greenstein from “Will & Grace.”
“When we came on in season three, the mandate was to bring the show back to its roots,” Daily says. That meant having plotlines spring from relatable experiences, no matter how operatic or convoluted the stories became.
Season three was a year of retrenchment, the fourth built on those improvements, and then Cherry shook things up by moving the characters five years into the future. “I knew it was a little risky, but I felt pretty strongly that it was a terrific idea,” Cherry says. “Creatively, we’ve had the best time with it.”
Toying with time gives TV scribes, who normally approach stories in a linear fashion, a tool more common to novelist: The ability to examine the throughline of characters’ lives.
“What’s great is I don’t have to show you every single incident,” Cherry says. “I can go forward, or I’ve been thinking of maybe even going backward in time. I’m not done trying to come up with devices to keep the show fresh and interesting.”
“The time jump was never about moving into the future,” explains exec producer Matt Berry, who joined the show last year. “It was about getting to a place where we could reset, have the people starting now without most of the baggage they’d accumulated in the earlier years, and put them back into starting places so we could move them forward and build in new story arcs.”
“We often talked about the first episode of this season as a new pilot where we could give the women a new drive,” Daily says. From Gabby experiencing the trials of parenting to Lynette dealing with out-of-control teenagers, each woman’s role was redefined. “I think we succeeded in what we were trying to do, which was wipe away some of the soapsuds and get a fresh start.”
The risk paid off. Critics and fans have rediscovered the series, and “Housewives” has been this season’s No. 1 or 2 scripted skein in adults 18-49, and in the top five among total viewers.
While that might seem remarkable for a 5-season-old series fighting back from a slump, ABC Studios president Mark Pedowitz keeps it in perspective.
“No matter whatever patches it might have hit, it’s managed to be a stellar performer for ABC and ABC Studios.”
“The network couldn’t be happier with where we are creatively and in terms of ratings,” Cherry says. “Well, I guess they could always be happier with the ratings — if we could get 50 million viewers a week, they’d like that– but by and large, I’m happy that we’re here.”