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Desperate Savior

Marc Cherry turns domestic angst into a network's hope 9/19/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

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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