From Desperate Housewives to Devious Maids

Marc Cherry's new show has sparked protests about race

What do you do when the long-running hit show you created comes to an end after eight seasons? The answer, if you are Marc Cherry – the man behind soapy success Desperate Housewives – is mine the same material; but with a twist.

Cherry's new show Devious Maids, which comes to the new UK entertainment channel TLC next year, and has started in the US and pretty much lives up (or down, depending on your point of view) to the promise of its title with an opening episode stuffed full of double-crossing, backstabbing and immaculately coiffured women uttering lines like "If you don't stop screwing my husband I'm going to have you deported, comprende?" without moving an overly botoxed eyebrow.

Adapted from a Mexican telenovela, Devious Maids is a typical Cherry show: ludicrously plotted, knowingly over-the-top and featuring dialogue that's ripe to the point of stinking. Among the plus points are the starring roles given to a group of talented Latina actresses including Scrubs's Judy Reyes and Ana Ortiz from Ugly Betty. Among the negatives – all five of those actresses play the titular maids and not everyone is happy with Cherry's stereotyping.

The editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for Latinas called it "an insulting disgrace" while novelist Alisa Valdes compared Cherry's portrayal of the maids to the wider way in which America views Latin American nations, adding "there is something very wrong with an American entertainment industry that continually tells Latinas that [maids] is all they are or can ever be".

Defending the show executive producer Eva Longoria, who starred in Desperate Housewives and is herself Latina, argued: "The only way to break a stereotype is to not ignore it. The stereotype we are grappling with here is that as Latinas, all we are is maids. And yet, this is a show that deconstructs the stereotype by showing us that maids are so much more."

The reality, as is so often the case, falls somewhere in between. Devious Maids is not quite as awful as early critics feared but nor does it strike a brave blow against the stereotyping of Latina actresses. Overall our sympathies are with the maids, firstly because their characters are the more clearly defined, and secondly because the predominantly white employers are largely portrayed as awful, entitled witches. It's also true that the show is at some pains to establish the women's backstories, repeatedly stressing that there's more to these women than domestic drudgery.

The key word there, however, is repeatedly. Cherry has never been a subtle writer and writing for Lifetime, a US channel best known for its daytime soaps, only encourages his more over-the-top instincts. Indeed America's best-known daytime soap-star Susan Lucci has a ball as wealthy, age-obsessed socialite Genevieve Delatour, joyfully stealing every scene she's in by never taking the material too seriously.

Yet while Devious Maids is not as bad as people feared, nor is it likely to provide Cherry with Desperate Housewives-sized success. In 2004 when Desperate Housewives began it seemed fizzy and fresh, reinventing the primetime soap opera by giving it a veneer of self-mockery. But that sort of trick can really only be pulled off once and with the US evening schedules full of knowing soaps such as Revenge and Scandal, Devious Maids comes across as a less assured version of Cherry's greatest hit.

Of course, it may find its feet as the series progresses – and it's already far better than the dreadful US remake of Mistresses – but for now, and despite the controversy, Devious Maids is something of a damp squib.

'Devious Maids' will air on TLC in 2014

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