LOS ANGELES - The lawns on Wisteria Lane are crisply cut, the homes freshly painted and the residents look as youthful as Girl Scouts. But there's reason to suspect it's all a facade. "Desperate Housewives" is crawling into its seventh season, a point where even great series start to show cracks, where viewers begin to wax romantically about the "early days" and wish that everyone involved in their once-beloved show would take a permanent vacation.
Truth is, "Housewives" started losing loyalists long ago. In its first season, the ABC series was nominated for nine Emmys and drew 23.7 million viewers a week. Last season, the average audience was a little over 14 million, and the cast and crew have mustered only three Emmy nominations in the past two years.
The mass exodus is largely deserved. Too often, the show's writers have leaned on ridiculous twists lifted from the worst of daytime soaps. Jeff Greenstein, a longtime producer, admitted the writers went overboard in Season Five when Kyle MacLachlan's character was drugged and violated by his own wife. While he was at it, Greenstein could have tacked on the numerous disasters that have befallen the neighborhood -- the tornado, the nightclub fire, the grocery-store hostage crisis, the plane crash -- ridiculous events that helped contribute to more than 35 deaths and 1,000 times as many raised eyebrows.
"There are times we've gotten a little too big," said Greenstein, standing on one of the set's pristine porches during a break in shooting. "The show has to be grounded in reality."
Creator Marc Cherry seems to have reminded himself of that golden rule, at least judging from the new season's first episode.
The premiere is packed with the zippy zingers that made us fall in love with the dramedy in the first place, thanks in large part to the return of Paul Young (Mark Moses), the widowed husband of the show's narrator, Brenda, and still the creepiest villain in the show's history. He's just been sprung from prison for a murder he didn't commit and insists on moving back among his old neighbors.
"They never came to the trial, they never visited you in prison," says his befuddled lawyer. "It'd be understandable if you hated them a little."
Young replies with gravitas worthy of Anthony Hopkins: "I don't hate them -- a little."
Then there's new cast member Vanessa Williams as a high-society flyer who is Lynette's former college roommate and continuous sparring partner.
"She was always the one with the fashion sense," Lynette (Felicity Huffman) says of her frenemy. "Before I met her, I had never heard of Gucci, Prada or chlamydia."
Williams proved that she can deliver haughty attitude in "Ugly Betty," and it's grand to see her give a repeat performance.
"This show is so trail-blazing and has really opened the door for women my age," said Williams, 47, on the set. "This is an opportunity to see women my age looking fantastic and having lead roles in television. That's rare, because at 38, you're done being the ingenue and on to being the mom or the district attorney."
'One-act play every week'
That reasoning helps explain why the show's four core actresses -- Huffman, Teri Hatcher, Eva Longoria Parker and Marcia Cross -- have remained with the series since Day One. (Nicollette Sheridan, the show's top second-stringer, was written out of the show last year. She claims she was fired because she had accused creator Cherry of assault. A lawsuit is pending.)
"As an actor, you can't underestimate the allure of a steady job," said Huffman, who won an Emmy in 2005 for her role as the eternally exasperated Lynette. "Also, I'm getting to act in a great one-act play every week that continues to be good and interesting. Every week I find myself challenged and stumbling and missing things, and it makes me want to do better the following week."
Cherry, who used to be Dixie Carter's personal assistant before hitting it big as a writer on "The Golden Girls," remembers how devastating it was when Jean Smart and Delta Burke left Carter's hit series, "Designing Women." He wants to make to make sure the same thing doesn't happen with this show.
"While I'm mindful that my gals have other careers going on and are starting families and have other interests that might take them away, my goal is to have the core group until the bitter end," said Cherry, who said he's aiming to last for at least nine seasons.
His starting team seems prepared to stick with him.
"We can go a few more years and then Marc can recycle his 'Golden Girls' scripts," Huffman said. "I want it to be 'Desperate Old Biddies.'"
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