The best moments of “Desperate Housewives” — Marc Cherry’s pathbreaking and strangely underrated 2000s soap opera — were the ones in which the wives got to talking. The four main characters on the show, which came on the air shortly after the end of “Sex and the City” and transplanted aspects of its formula from Manhattan to anonymous suburbia, each represented a particular way of thinking about love, marriage, and the home. The murders and scandal that made the show’s name felt ornamental when debate and frank talk played out over hedges or at the ladies’ poker night.
Which makes it all the more confounding that Cherry’s new soap opera, the CBS All Access drama “Why Women Kill,” is yet the latest show to fail to learn the lessons of one of the last truly huge network hits. His three protagonists — played by Lucy Liu, Ginnifer Goodwin, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste — exist in different timelines, each coping with a collapsing marriage and seeming to move closer to homicide with each slight. That isolation may be part of the show’s point: that these women are driven over the edge by the lack of camaraderie in their lives, a condition that recurs through the decades. But it makes for a deeply unsatisfying show cobbled together from vignettes, a show whose skittish leaps between storylines leaves good actors stranded.
The least successful of the show’s three strands is the one that’s most in line with the goofy excess for which Cherry is best known. Liu’s character exists in a “Dynasty”-style 1980s, clothed in neon synthetic fabrics and trapped in a marriage in which wealth stands in for love and for fidelity. Liu vamps through the role unconvincingly. She’s too good at being tough to credibly fall apart the way the show demands, and forces her voice into reediness as a stand-in for a manically collapsing vulnerability she can’t sell.
Cherry has walked this path before, with Bree on “Desperate Housewives” — an exaggerated caricature of femininity and materialism. But Marcia Cross’s performance was richly layered, and Cross was given access to co-stars on her level. Liu, for all she is badly miscast, still devours her scenes by force of star power; she may not convince you of what she’s going through, but there’s little else worth focusing on, no true friend or potential swain on her particular level. Similarly, Ginnifer Goodwin dominates a story of a cheated-on housewife in the 1960s, adding her familiar warmth and naivete to a tale so reliant on archetypes that it practically tells itself. Goodwin has devoted her life to a man whose greatness as a provider turns out illusory; she gets mad, then, as the cliché goes, prepares to get even.
Both Liu’s and Goodwin’s stories, given a short amount of time and one real character apiece, lean hard on collective memory of their eras, as if the fact that a generic story of unfaithfulness in marriage can be enlivened because its protagonist is dressed like June Cleaver or like Alexis Carrington. At least, in the present-day storyline, such shorthand isn’t easily available, though the show can hardly be said to be straining in the story it tells here. A lascivious Reid Scott aims for a threesome between his wife (Howell-Baptiste) and her girlfriend (Alexandra Daddario, to whom I am not related). They may not be in costumes designed to evoke the late 2010s the way Goodwin’s and Liu’s are of their historical moments, but both Howell-Baptiste’s and Daddario’s characters existing solely as extensions of a man’s libido feels, unfortunately, as contemporary as it gets.
The lasting impact of “Desperate Housewives” remains — strangely — the use of “housewife” as a synonym for any woman on the unkillable “Real Housewives” franchise. Few shows have time or energy for the humane curiosity of Cherry’s breakout show, a drama-comedy hybrid that was content to spend scenes allowing characters to show us who they were in their reactions to big crises and to very small ones, too — and then to debrief among friends and frenemies. In spending time only at the moments of highest tension in its three protagonists’ lives, “Why Women Kill” leaches them of anything other than their ability to create drama. We’ll surely eventually find out precisely why they kill. We may never learn how it is they live, or what they live for.
“Why Women Kill.” CBS All Access. August 15. (Two episodes screened for review).
Cast: Lucy Liu, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jack Davenport, Sam Jaeger, Reid Scott, Alexandra Daddario, Sadie Calvano, Leo Howard, Alicia Coppola, and Katie Finneran.
Executive Producers: Marc Cherry, Brian Grazer, Francie Calfo, Michael Hanel, Mindy Schultheis, and Marc Webb