Desperate Housewives: The 100th episode

The smart satire notches up its century in Britain this week. But all is not well in Wisteria Lane. Guy Adams reports
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There's a moment in Desperate Housewives this week when the bosom of Edie Britt, the fortysomething divorcee played by Nicollette Sheridan, to whom the adjective "desperate" almost certainly applies, provokes a vulgar catcall from a local handyman. "That was insulting and demeaning," she responds, before adding in a tone of absolute delight. "Thank you so very much!"

If you are one of the 120 million people who tune into this remarkably popular TV soap each week, there has probably come a time, during the closing credits of a particularly hammy episode, when you find yourself curled up on the sofa, next to an empty glass of Pinot Grigio, thinking a similar thought about the show you've just watched.

Behind its white picket fence, Desperate Housewives can often be insulting and demeaning. It is, after all, a smart satire about materialism, which exposes the foibles of women who are outwardly racy, smart, and prosperous – yet in reality selfish, weak, and Machiavellian. The show's tone is part suburban pantomime, and part sexist cliché. But that, of course, lies at the heart of its appeal.

"Desperate Housewives catches moments when women do things that they really don't want anyone to see them doing," Marc Cherry, its creator, guiding force, and executive producer tells me. "My job is to find characters that truly represent every aspect of American womanhood, and examine their lives... The show's success hopefully indicates that I've done a fairly decent job."

We are sitting in an eerily familiar kitchen, complete with fake granite work surfaces, expansive hobs, and not one, but two coffee machines. The room forms part of an expensive set sprawled across two aircraft-hangar-sized stages at Universal Studios in Los Angeles. Its normal resident, Bree Van de Kamp, the vampish redhead played by Marcia Cross, is nowhere to be seen.

Cherry is celebrating a professional milestone. On Thursday, Desperate Housewives celebrates its 100th episode in the UK, which in TV industry terms signals its arrival as a cultural institution. In five years since its creation, it has won seven Emmys and two Golden Globes, and been broadcast in more than 50 countries, turning its well-preserved female leads into global symbols of the American dream.

In that time, it has also made billions for ABC, the US network that backed the show, spawning box-sets, companion books, and a range of merchandise that includes a fragrant official perfume ("Forbidden Fruit") and collector's dolls modelled on the five protagonists: Bree, Gabrielle, Edie, Susan and Lynette. Cherry, a camp, rotund, jolly man once (accurately) described as a "somewhat conservative, gay Republican," has created a commercial monster.

Yet there have been signs of trouble in Wisteria Lane. The programme's US audience has seen years of steady decline, and this season dropped to 16 million (from 23 million in 2005). Critics have begun sniffing about its occasionally frivolous plot-lines, and wondering if the suburbia it portrays might be out of tune during a recession.

In its early years, Desperate Housewives seemed racy, funny and brazen; a brilliantly turned, satirical soap in an era dominated by formulaic dramas like House or CSI. But its modus operandi has begun to pall. The plinky-plonky soundtrack now seems childish. Its moralising narrator grates. The fact that Laura Bush once declared herself a fan now feels dangerously like the kiss of death.

Meanwhile, longstanding rumours of discontent among the show's stars resurfaced last month, with the announcement that Sheridan, who has been with the show since its inception, is to be killed off at the end of this season. The move, which has yet to be explained, makes her the first of the original housewives to get the boot.

Cherry banned discussion of Sheridan before we spoke, which only added to the sense of ill-feeling that surrounds her departure. The National Enquirer claimed she is to be killed in an accident involving a power cable, and added that Edie had been targeted for assassination since "[Sheridan] has always clashed with Cherry".

Away from that prickly topic, Cherry robustly rebuts the suggestion that Desperate Housewives might face trouble in a credit-crunched age. "It was 1979 when Dallas premiered and that was the depth of the Jimmy Carter recession. And it became the most popular show on television. People sometimes gravitate to the opposite of what's going on. It's about escapism."

In fairness to the current series, much has been done to shake up the format. The action has jumped forward five years. Several ingredients, including a new bad-guy rather brilliantly played by Neal McDonough, add a dark edge to proceedings.

An entire episode revolves around the financial problems of Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) and her husband, Tom, whose restaurant goes bankrupt. "It's the first time I've ever addressed a national issue in the show," Cherry said. "We hit the issue head on and say money can be something that can drive wedges into friendships. It can make people ugly."

One other national issue is being kept out of the show, he added, revealing that reports of a forthcoming cameo role for Sarah Palin were wide of the mark. "I don't have politicians on my show."

But what happens in front of camera is only half of the joy of Desperate Housewives. Equally important are the exploits of its female leads, who from the moment the show began embraced the values of their high-maintenance characters with brazenness. There were reports of on-set "catfights" over handbags, wardrobe items, boyfriends, husbands and children. At various times, Teri Hatcher (aka Susan Mayer) was reported to be on no-speakers with Eva Longoria Parker (Gabrielle Solis) and Marcia Cross. Diva-like behaviour became legendary. A Vanity Fair profile, for which all five of the principals posed in swimwear, carried the headline: "You wouldn't believe what it took just to get this photo!"

In the accompanying article, readers learnt that the photo-shoot was manned by an ABC representative whose sole job was to prevent fights breaking out. Hatcher was banned from being able to choose her outfit first (lest she upstage her colleagues). Cross stormed off. Hatcher ended up in tears.

These days, the five main stars remain overpaid and under-co-operative. The only housewife at a recent media day for the programme was Dana Delaney, who joined last year as Katherine Mayfair. Of the backstage atmosphere, Delaney noted: "Early on in the show there had been those rumours about everybody not getting along. But when I came on during season four, everybody had gone to their corners and were getting along fine." It's a strange old world, where you play down tales of workplace hostility with a boxing metaphor. But in Wisteria Lane, it probably wouldn't feel right for them to do things any other way.

The 100th episode of 'Desperate Housewives' is on Channel 4 tomorrow at 10pm