Call it Sex and the Suburbs. With its addictive mix of close-to-the-bone truths, dark humor and retro-cool vibe—plus a juicy whodunit at the show's center—Desperate Housewives has clearly struck a nerve, scoring as the season's top-rated new drama with an average of 20 million viewers since its Oct. 3 debut. It's also being heralded as the revival of the long-lost nighttime soap—but with an edge. "What happened was the networks stopped airing these fun serial dramas," says executive producer Michael Edelstein. "The public just grabbed on."
Longoria isn't the only one who is feeling the effects of instant water-cooler fame. "Women say, 'You are playing my husband,' and I say, 'I'm sorry!'" notes Doug Savant, whose character is often away on business while his frazzled wife (Felicity Huffman) is left to wrangle their four young children. "He's a great guy," says Savant, "who's oblivious to what his wife's demands are."
If that sounds familiar, well, that's exactly what series creator Marc Cherry intended. "A lot of women are keeping these feelings of 'I'm not happy with this life' a secret," says Cherry, who was inspired when his mother confessed her own unhappiness to him a few years ago. Adds Huffman, 41, who has two young daughters with her actor husband, William H. Macy: "No one ever told me how hard [motherhood] was. Everyone goes, 'Oh, it's the most rewarding thing in life.' Nobody talked about the dark side."
They're talking now. Set amid the white-picket perfection of Wisteria Lane, U.S.A., the show invites viewers to snoop into the lives of four neighborhood pals: Lynette (Huffman), a business exec turned stay-at-home mom; Susan (Teri Hatcher), a sweetly neurotic single mom to an adolescent daughter; Gabrielle (Longoria), a former model; and Bree (Marcia Cross), a tightly wound homemaker. The women are connected by the mysterious suicide of their friend Mary Alice, who narrates from beyond the grave. "Each of them is real at their core," says Edelstein.
Not everyone agrees. Several conservative-leaning advertisers, including Tyson Foods and Lowe's, have declined to purchase future spots because of racy content. Other critics are turned off by the characters' tendency toward one-dimensionality. "I like my housewives Carmela Soprano-style—with depth and danger," says nationally distributed columnist Susan Reimer, who blasted Housewives in a recent piece. "These ladies are props. They are stereotypes. I don't see the smartness."
Either way, people are talking, and the cast—many of whom are series vets enjoying midlife career comebacks—is relishing the buzz. "It's really nice doing this at this point in my life," says former Knots Landing star Nicollette Sheridan, 40, who plays man-prowling divorcee Edie. Adds Hatcher, 39, who recently hawked Radio Shack: "Two years ago I'm crying on my kitchen floor thinking I'll never be able to pay my mortgage. That's the depths of where I came from."
The mood on the Housewives set, which is situated on the same faux street where The Munsters lived, is considerably lighter. On a recent shooting day, former Melrose Place denizen Cross, 42, could be spotted examining her character's severe do—"Will this be the next Rachel?" she quips—while Huffman knitted a banana hat for her daughter's Halloween costume and Longoria gobbled a plate of ribs between scenes.
When Sheridan strides by with a cup of red licorice, Hatcher quietly sneaks a piece. The makings of another one of the castmate clashes that the tabloids have reported? Nah. "I think I can remember one incident in the past six months where one actress made another unhappy because someone wasn't out of their makeup chair in time," says Cherry. For her part, Huffman is just thankful to have a break from her real-life domestic duties. "I have to say, those days that I come to work, it's a vacation," she says. A highly paid day of primping, vamping and free catering? No doubt housewives everywhere, desperate or no, would challenge Huffman to ABC's other new domestic show: Wife Swap.
Michelle Tauber. Michael Fleeman, Carrie Bell, Amy Bonawitz and Dana Meltzer in Los Angeles and Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C.