‘Desperate Housewives’ says goodbye after improbable success

It’s tempting to look at ABC’s “Desperate Housewives,” which comes to the end of its eight-season run tomorrow night at 9, and suggest that a show like that would have trouble getting on television today. But the fact is, “Desperate Housewives” had just as much trouble getting on the air back in 2004. It was not only one of TV’s biggest successes of the ’00s, but one of the medium’s most improbable.
In 2004, the primetime soap opera was more or less dead. So, it seemed, were the careers of several of the show’s stars, who had been popular in the ’80s (Nicollette Sheridan on “Knots Landing”) and/or ’90s (Teri Hatcher on “Lois & Clark,” Marcia Cross on “Melrose Place”) but were now at an age the increasingly youth-obsessed TV business had little use for.
Even deader? The career of the show’s creator, Marc Cherry. He had been a top writer and producer on “The Golden Girls,” then created or co-created three sitcoms that nobody watched with names like “The 5 Mrs. Buchanans” and “Some of My Best Friends.” He was having trouble getting anyone to take his calls, much less hear his pitch for a hybrid of soap, sitcom and murder mystery. (The idea for the show came from a conversation with his mother while they were discussing the case of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her 5 children, and Mrs. Cherry said, unabashed, “I’ve been there.”)
So Cherry went outside the system and did something largely unheard of at the time for someone who had achived as much as he had:
He worked for free.
He wrote the “Desperate Housewives” script not as part of any network’s development cycle, but entirely on spec. He pitched it all around town, and was rejected by nearly everyone. It wound up being bought by ABC, where the executives remained nervous about many aspects of the show, not least of which was that provocative title. (Their preference was “The Secret Lives of Housewives.”) But the title stuck, and critics loved the “Housewives” pilot, just as they did the pilot for another new ABC show that fall called “Lost” – and were convinced that both would be too unconventional to last more than six episodes (possibly combined).
But ABC, in another unorthodox move, put nearly all of its marketing resources behind those two shows (rather than sharing the promo wealth among lesser lights like “Life As We Know It” and “Complete Savages”), and it worked. In its first season, “Desperate Housewives” averaged nearly 24 million viewers a week.
Four months after the show’s huge debut, Cherry and his stars came to the TV critics mid-season press tour to celebrate their instant success. Cherry recalled a conversation he had had with Felicity Huffman (who would go on to beat co-stars Hatcher and Cross for the comedy actress Emmy that season) about their pre-“Housewives” careers:
“We were talking about how you go through your career and people are not answering the phone,” he said, “and even they might say hurtful things to your agent. And then when success comes along, you have that choice: Do I just smile and I´m gracious, or do I go, ‘Yeah, you (expletive deleteds)!’ And I´m trying my darndest to just be gracious about the whole thing. But, yes, there is some semblance of ‘I told you,’ and there is a part of me going, ‘I hope some of these folks are feeling sorry that they picked on poor Marc Cherry.'”
Cherry was feeling pleased with himself, and he had every right to be, not only because the show nobody wanted was so successful, but because it was, at the beginning, so good. I have little use for primetime soaps, but I faithfully watched every episode of “Housewives” for two seasons – the first because Cherry and company so successfully balanced romantic intrigue, mystery and comedy, and the second because the first had built up enough goodwill that I felt I owed the show a chance to pull out of its sophomore slump.
“Desperate Housewives” wasn’t quite like any other show on television, and shows like that tend to creatively burn hotter and faster than more familiar concepts. The initial mystery arc – the unexplained suicide of narrator Mary Alice Young – had felt built into the foundation of Wisteria Lane. Some of the later ones worked better than others, but none ever felt quite as natural. And the show kept building up the soapy stakes until even Cherry didn’t know what to do with any of the characters after four seasons, leading to a reboot of the series that took everyone five years into the future where he could start from scratch with all new stories.  
(The time-jump had the side effect of making these anomalous-ly mature central female characters even older.)
That ’04-’05 network TV season was one of the best I can ever remember in terms of new series development. It gave us “Desperate Housewives” and “Lost,” but also “House” (which says goodbye a week and a day later), “Grey’s Anatomy” and “The Office” (both likely to be back next season, but possibly with a lot of cast turnover), plus the great but shorter-lived “Veronica Mars.” While all of these shows had familiar elements in their DNA, on the whole each seemed not quite like anything to have aired before on American network television. There’s a belief in the business that viewers just want more of the same, and while there’s plenty of evidence of challenging, rule-breaking shows dying quickly, that was a year where a whole bunch of them managed to work at the same time. And “Desperate Housewives” was the most successful of them all at the start. It’s not what it was in terms of audience or quality, but at the beginning, Marc Cherry was right and everyone else in the business was wrong.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com