Setting aside concerns about stereotypes and socioeconomics for a moment, it’s fascinating how much “Devious Maids” — from “Desperate Housewives” producer Marc Cherry and one of its stars, Eva Longoria — resembles their last collaboration, for mostly good and some ill. Set in motion by a mysterious death, the soapy series focuses on a handful of women struggling to get by, the twist here being their bond plays out during breaks gossiping about their wealthy employers, not cards or coffee. Terrifically cast and cleverly constructed, the show has “hit” written all over it — especially with Lifetime keeping niche score, as opposed to ABC’s broader expectations.
The program is adapted from a Spanish-language series, “Ellas son … la alegria del hogar,” and some of the cultural rifts between that show and the U.S. version are clearly apparent. For all the talk about the One Percent, Americans seldom consider or perceive the country’s caste system or class disparity in quite the same way it’s seen by many South-of-the-border neighbors.
There’s also no avoiding the wince-inducing aspects of sexy Latin maids, particularly with five glamorous actresses — plastered across billboards in slinky black dresses — cast in those roles. Although the series reserves its harshest views and most exaggerated portrayals for their Beverly Hills bosses, Hispanic groups grousing about the premise sight unseen aren’t completely off base in their criticisms.
Nevertheless, get past the title, and “Maids” plays like a conventional primetime soap. Moreover, the Latina-led cast and telenovela-like situations should significantly bolster the show’s commercial prospects by serving as a major attraction to the fast-growing (and younger-skewing) Hispanic audience, already well versed in the over-the-top qualities of serialized fare on Univision or Telemundo. Plans for a bilingual premiere only make the marketing strategy more explicit.
Cherry also knows how to plant a hook, with a maid’s murder in the pre-credits sequence introducing us to some of the characters, starting with Marisol (“Ugly Betty’s” Ana Ortiz), who takes a job in a nearby home and seems keenly interested in the murder. In her quest for information, she goes about the process of befriending her peers, each of whom have their own set of issues.
They include Zoila (“Scrubs’” Judy Reyes), whose daughter (Edy Ganem) has a crush on the rich college student in the house where they both work. “Rich boys — they never fall in love with the help,” Zoila tells her love-struck kid. Then there’s Carmen (Rosalyn Sanchez), who’s desperate to leverage her job for a music star to launch her own singing career; and Rosie (Dania Ramirez), who finds herself working for two self-obsessed actors (“True Blood’s” Mariana Klaveno, Grant Show), and tending to their kid while missing her own.
The casting on the employer side is equally good, with the most inspired stroke being the inclusion of daytime diva Susan Lucci as the lascivious matriarch in the mansion where Zoila works.
Although Cherry is essentially returning to his last great success, he does so at a moment where soaps are piling up in the summer heat (VH1’s “Hit the Floor,” ABC’s “Mistresses,” OWN’s dismal “The Haves and the Have Nots”), seeking to fill a perceived void left by the decline of the daytime drama. In that respect, “Maids” appears better positioned than most, at a juncture where Lifetime is already enjoying what feels like some momentum with series like “The Client List.”
As for false notes, the show has done itself one disservice: By lensing in Georgia, it can replicate the opulent mansions of Beverly Hills, but not the exteriors, so most of the action is virtually housebound. It’s a small quibble, but one that felt noticeable in the two initial episodes, and might become more pronounced over time.
Still, for a new TV series, time — and the prospect of a long run — is a nice problem to contemplate. And if the first pass is any indication, it’s the one happy headache with which these not-so-merry “Maids” appear destined to grapple.