How 'Desperate Housewives' Made Primetime Soap Sexy – and Funny – Again

Shonda Rhimes may have taken the soap ball and run with it, but it was Marc Cherry's satire that gave the genre the boost it needed.

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It's TV Anniversary Week at The Wire, and we're taking a special look at the inordinately prestigious crop of shows celebrating milestone anniversaries this fall. Today, we're looking at ABC's Desperate Housewives, which bowed on October 3rd, 2004.

The continued success of Scandal on ABC's primetime schedule is exciting for a lot of reasons. One, the show wasn't a massive critical success at first, which shows that audiences can still find good programs even if they aren't immediate hits. Two, it's great to see a show with a black female lead succeeding, showing producers for the umpteenth time that diversity in casting does work.

But thrillingly, it also means that audiences are still responding in droves to primetime soap operas. And Scandal is hardly the only soap on right now – think of Revenge, Nashville, this fall's How to Get Away with Murder. And that's just from one network! But those shows have the same network in common with the one that made soap desirable again. No, not Grey's Anatomy; it was Desperate Housewives.

Desperate Housewives was never supposed to be a soap opera. As was once memorably mentioned on Arrested Development, Cherry's intention was to craft a satire – albeit a loving one.

"Satire sounds like you’re making fun of something," he told the Associated Press back in 2004. "And the truth is I’m not making fun of the suburbs."

“I love the values of the suburbs, loved my family, our neighbors. It’s just that stuff happens. I don’t romanticize that life at all.”

"Stuff happens" might be the most PG way to summarize the plot twists and turns in Housewives. In the first season alone, one housewife commits suicide, another has an affair with her teenage gardener, another's house burns down, and yet another asks for a divorce, then has an intense allergic reaction. Sorry, did I say first season? I meant first episode. It is a batshit crazy season of television, anchored by four sensational leads in Susan Meyer (Teri Hatcher), Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross), Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria).

Scandal gets a lot of credit for throwing everything up against the wall to see what works, but that clearly came from Housewives – in the tradition of great daytime soaps. The difference is that daytime soaps have a week's worth of episodes to get through their plots. Housewives and Scandal do just as much in one. It can get messy, of course, but when it's on, it's brilliant.

Uunfortunately, Desperate Housewives lost itself a bit as the years went on. The wink of satire and humor that the first season had in droves was replaced with more twists, turns, and taking itself a bit too seriously. Alfre Woodard's regrettable arc in season 2 represented all of Cherry's worst instincts come to bear. Hell, even the promos got too over-the-top. The show was best when it remembered it was about four women – not girls, but real women – with heightened amounts of drama in their lives. That same problem would go on to hound ABC's Revenge in its second season, when it turned from deliciously over-the-top but aware to a messy web of conspiracies.

But Revenge's first season – and the latter part of its third – are where the first season of Housewives' influence can be felt most strongly. Sure, there are shades of Housewives on shows that take themselves seriously, like Nashville or Scandal. But soap that knows exactly what it is and revels in it? That's too fun to resist.

Given their similar names, you might think Desperate Housewives' greatest legacy is inspiring the Real Housewives franchise. But with Revenge and Scandal still chugging into their fourth seasons, Shonda Rhimes owning all of Thursday night this fall, and even prestige dramas like Masters of Sex and Mad Men keeping things soapy (albeit with the veneer of respectability) on cable, the genre's core tenets are alive and well. We have four very special women to thank for that.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.