Marc Cherry turns domestic angst into a network's hope
By Deborah Starr Siebel -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/19/2004 8:00:00 PM
Marc Cherry bounds out of his golf cart and crosses the lush green lawn of a Universal Studios backlot house that used to be home to Leave It to Beaver. He relishes the fact that the Cleavers used to live here. But if Ward and June Cleaver knew what this writer was up to, they'd be horrified: Nothing of the innocence of that time-honored classic will air on his show.
Instead, the children will be wildly out of control, and the confused, anxiety-ridden grownups will fall victim to suicide, greed, betrayal and adultery—all the result of misdirected lives. In one of the most highly anticipated shows on the new fall schedule, Beaver Cleaver's house has become part of Wisteria Lane, an enclave of perfectly manicured suburban homes hiding the darkly funny secrets of its inhabitants, ABC's Desperate Housewives.
As crafted by Cherry, who cut his comic teeth on the acerbic humor of The Golden Girls, Housewives is a crazy-quilt prime time soap opera. Premiering Sunday Oct. 3 at 9 p.m. ET, the show mixes the suburban cul-de-sac glamour of Knots Landing with the mystery of Twin Peaks. Stepping into this world, where the houses are washed in bright paint-box colors, feels like stepping into the pages of a comic book. Later, pulling away from his computer, he says, "It's good for me to get out. Good to take a little break."
At 42, Cherry is a jovial man with thinning sandy hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a profile that suggests he spends more time at the computer than at the gym. He oozes Midwestern warmth (he spent much of his youth on a farm with his two sisters in Kingfisher, Okla.).
"Marc, you're going to love what we did today," says his director, Fred Gerber, who called to regale him with the story of one of the lead actress's getting hoisted over a neighborhood fence a bit too enthusiastically by her on-screen lover: "She put her foot in his hands—and she went flying."
Cherry smiles. "I can't wait to see it."
As creator and executive producer of the most buzzed-about pilot of the fall season, Cherry has done the near-impossible: written a spec drama pilot that could ultimately turn him into one of the unlikely saviors of ABC's long-struggling prime time lineup. In a season when franchises, spinoffs and copycats rule, he offers a fresh vision. And against the odds, he has done it at a time when his career was circling the drain. "I was absolutely a desperate writer," he says.
Over the past 13 years, Cherry has seen his once thriving TV writing career take a long, slow and very painful nosedive. After Golden Girls in the 1980s and its ill-fated spinoff Golden Palace in '92, there were other sitcoms, even pilot deals. But between 2001 and 2003, before selling Housewives as a spec script, Cherry was simply unemployed. "I couldn't even get a job interview," he says.
He looked around and didn't like what he saw. Sitcoms were drying up. His then agent "was arrested for embezzlement," he says. And, in an industry where maturity is often looked upon as a near-fatal disease, he was turning 40. "It hit me hard," he says. "I was just sitting at home, going, well, now what do I do?"
What Cherry did, in no small part, was watch television. In 2001, he and his mother were watching the televised coverage of the trial of Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who was ultimately convicted of drowning her five children in the bathtub. "I turned to [my mother] and said, 'Gosh, can you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would hurt her own children?' And my mother took her cigarette out of her mouth and turned to me and said, 'I've been there.'"
That brutally honest and unsettling response ("You must understand that I always thought of my mom as the perfect wife and mother," he says.) prompted Cherry to look at the lives of millions of American housewives who are struggling to make their own lives work. His central question, which fuels the entire series, became the following: "What do you do when the life you've chosen doesn't make you happy?"
In the process, Cherry began a reexamination of his own life and choices he had made. At the time, with his career gone cold, he decided that the smartest thing to do was to get out of the sitcom game altogether. "The things that the networks were buying, I thought, were stupid," he says. "Very often, it was the dumb idea about the schlubby dad with the beautiful wife, which has already been done a thousand times before. And I was like, 'You want me to write that again?'"
The rough transition worsened as Cherry's bank account dwindled to the point where he had to ask his mother for a loan. He got into such a funk, in fact, that he was assailed by serious doubts about his talent. "It gets to the point where you wonder if you were just lucky to have worked for a number of years. An idiot writer, but lucky."
Still, Cherry stuck to his reinvention plan, studying Alan Ball's screenplay for the Academy Award-winning American Beauty and teleplays for Six Feet Under, as well as scripts by Woody Allen. "I was studying how they did it, these guys that came from comedy."
He thought he had written a pretty good script. But when his former agent sent out the final product, "everybody passed," says Cherry. A whole year went by. Then another. When his new agents at Paradigm finally read the script, they proposed pitching it not as a dark comedy but as a campy soap—a calculated nod to the success of Fox's The O.C. Bingo.
"When I first got the call," says Stephen McPherson, head of ABC Entertainment, "and his agents said, 'Hey, there's a comedy writer you may know, and he's got a drama spec script,' I will be the first to admit, I wasn't going, Boy, this is gonna be great!" But McPherson, then head of Touchstone Television, read it, put it down and said, "I gotta have this script. I gotta be in business on this project."
Within a week, the script was sold to ABC, and Cherry was thrown into the deep end as a comedy writer now assigned to executive-produce an hour drama. "This is where I was really smart," he says. "I kept announcing to people, at every opportunity, 'I'm an idiot about this end of the business. Help me.' As soon as you start being honest about what you don't know, people are more than happy to help."
"Marc's a fascinating guy," says McPherson. "Whip smart. Very funny. Cynical but at the same time curious and hopeful about the way things can be. He looks at the complications of our lives with incredible curiosity and in a way that leads to incredibly entertaining writing."
Word got out about the off-beat project, and "every actress in town between the ages of 35 and 50 came in to read for the parts," says Executive Producer Michael Edelstein, who was brought in to run the production end of the show. Housewives has an enormous cast, with 13 series regulars (including Teri Hatcher, Nicollette Sheridan, Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman) and seven recurring characters.
So now, Cherry faces an eight-day production schedule that has him polishing scripts written by himself and his writing team almost constantly. "I've had about six days off since June," he says, not the least bit unhappy. How much pressure is he feeling to deliver now that expectations are running so high? "None," says Cherry. "I've failed too many times in this industry. Even if I fail with this, it's been a perfectly great failure."
Even June Cleaver might appreciate that.
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