Once a broadcast network rejects a TV pilot it has shot, it’s not common that the show will go on to live a second life on another network. Such was the fate of Marc Cherry‘s Devious Maids, the second series he developed with ABC following his Sunday cornerstone Desperate Housewives. It seemed like a surefire programming choice for the alphabet network’s fall 2012 season. But in June 2012, network executives’ minds changed. Here Cherry recounts the resuscitation of Devious Maids on Lifetime, how the show became a flagship for Latino actresses and the longevity of dramedies, such as his previous hit Desperate Housewives, at the Emmys.
DEADLINE: How did Devious Maids come together? What sparked your interest in adapting the Mexican soap opera Ellas son…la Alegria del Hogar?
MARC CHERRY: I got a call from my agent that this consortium of producers known as Oasis Entertainment. They buy different formats from countries around the world. They had this show about maids from Mexico and they brought it to me thinking I could do the American version. I took a look at it. They showed me a five minute sizzle reel to catch me up to speed on the show, and it looked a lot like Desperate Housewives, so I actually passed because I already did this show. A few days went by and I kept thinking about the show and it brought back a lot of memories when I was working in Bel-Air as Dixie Carter’s personal assistant. I would go to her home every day, Monday-Friday, and I was 25, so I had just moved to Hollywood. And it was interesting, because it was the first time in my life, having grown up upper middle class in Orange County, that I was the help, for lack of a better phrase. There were a lot of people working in her home – there were two housekeepers, a cook, a chauffeur, a yoga instructor – actually a comically, crazy household that deserves its own sitcom. It was an entertaining place to be. I love Hal Holbrook and Dixie, they were dear to me. It started a full circle thing in my head, and many years have past, and now I have people who work in my home. I’ve seen these issues from both sides, there’s nothing quite like working in someone’s home because you are exposed to the most intimate parts of their life. It’s not a workplace like an office building, college or police station. It’s something more intimate and delicate. I thought, ‘I have a perspective on this.’
DEADLINE: And Eva Longoria’s involvement as executive producer?
CHERRY: This is how Eva came aboard. After I decided I wanted to write about the relationship of rich people, and mansions and the people they have helping them in their house, I thought should I do this with an all Latina cast? The pros and cons were immediately apparent. The con was that I thought some people will accuse me of stereotyping Latinos, but the positive was that there’s actually a lot of wonderful things we can say about the nature of the women that do this work, and because there are so many Latinos working in Bel Air and Beverly Hills, I thought this could be the first time I put together the first Latina five lead female ensemble. I thought this could be historical and I called my good friend Eva to get her opinion on it. We knew there were pitfalls, but we saw it as a fantastic opportunity. And because of casting Eva Longoria in Desperate Housewives, I was stunned at the talent pool among Latinas. She agreed that this could be a great opportunity and talked me through some of the issues that I should look at and how to shape the characters. We got together and made sure that I spoke to actual Latina maids, people who worked in Beverly Hills and Bel Air. She was really the one who gave me the courage to go ahead and approach the show with a Latina cast and I wouldn’t have done it without her. She directed the first episode of the second season, did an amazing job and hopefully I’ll talk her into doing another one.
DEADLINE: Is Eva involved in the writers’ room and do you plan to feature her in a cameo?
CHERRY: At the beginning of the year, we pitch all the storylines to her, we get her copy of all the scripts and copies of the cuts. She’ll call with thoughts and notes on certain storylines. She was intensely involved at the beginning of this season because she was directing. If she ever has a concern, she picks up the phone and hollers. As far as the cameo, I want to use her at some point in the show, and I don’t want to use her as a cameo. I want her to come play a big juicy part. So, we’re looking for the right story line to do that with. She’s a secret weapon I’m holding behind my back and waiting to use it.
DEADLINE: The show goes to pilot, then ABC passes on it. How did this impact you? Are you hopeless? Was it like ‘We’re turning it down, but we’re going to shop it around’ since your deal was with ABC Studios?
CHERRY: It was a real surprise that they passed because the early reactions to the pilot were really good. I’m not exactly sure, I think they got a hold of some testing that made them dubious, and I think it was a tough decision for them when they passed. And quite frankly, one of the storylines I wasn’t sure was written well or cast well. We ended up reshooting that storyline. I believed in the cast so much, my immediate reaction was to tell my agents: We have to find another home for this, because this one deserves to be seen because this is a special group of folks. And I was very, very lucky because people get their pilots passed on. As luck may have it, Lifetime was aware of the show and heard of the concept. We sent the pilot over to them and it took less than 2 weeks for talks to begin, and we started going over it. We decided that the one storyline needed to be reshot and rewritten. Then the people at Disney studios were helpful about working up the finances so we could do this. We made the decision to shoot in Georgia to make this economically more feasible. It was such a happy ending.
DEADLINE: When TV pilots are rejected, they wind up in a graveyard. Are TV programming executives nowadays more open minded to reviving another network’s rejected pilots than, say 10 years ago? What happened with Devious Maids – is this an anomaly?
CHERRY: I think it’s very rare. Most places like to develop their programs in house. I think it will always be rare that network executives do this, but on the same token, the industry is so replete with examples. Some network executive says no and another network benefits from it. Desperate Housewives was turned down in script form by every network in town and God love Steph McPherson who was running Disney Studios at the time because he got a hold of it and said ‘I believe in this piece of material.’ And The Sopranos,I believe was passed on at Fox. As more of those examples happen, more people are willing to take a look. I think the difficulty that networks always ask the question: Is this our brand? Which sometimes I think is a silly question to ask because if you get the right kind of show, it will change your brand. Desperate Housewives definitely had an impact on changing ABC’s brand, and the executives who are open to it and look at it, can have great success by just opening their minds.
DEADLINE: By taking the show from broadcast to a cable network, were there huge sacrifices you had to make as far as budget goes?
CHERRY: Yes, definitely. We had to find ways to do it cheaper, but by shooting in Georgia it solved the vast majority of our problems.
DEADLINE: What was the major storyline that needed to be changed?
CHERRY: It was Carmen, the character played by Roselyn Sanchez. She worked for a rock and roll singer. I think I had written them way too acidicly, so I think I created a more engaging household. I came up with the characters of Alejandro and Odessa the Russian maid. I came up with characters who were easier on the senses because it was a toxic household. It worked out. The people we cast were lovely, but that was a misfire on my part.
DEADLINE: During Oscar season, a contender’s behind-the-scenes challenges –i.e. the lengthy process to make and cast Gravity — are often cornerstones to their awards campaigns; often used to garner sympathy among voters. That’s hardly the case with Emmy contender campaigns. Do you agree? Or do the behind-the-scene challenges help spotlight a TV contender?
CHERRY: That’s an excellent question and I can’t give an interesting answer. I certainly know that Desperate Housewives benefited because we were turned down by practically every studio in town and for us to become the No. 1 new series of the year, No. 4 in the ratings, and No. 1 in the demo — it was so ironic that we’d had been turned down and were a huge success. I think we got a lot of press about that, but that story is pretty rare. To this day, I can’t think of another show that was so passed upon and turned out so well in terms of ratings success. I don’t know if that really works. Those of us who are working in TV — we’re so busy in working in it, I’m only vaguely aware of what others have gone through to get their shows done.
DEADLINE: Like Desperate Housewives, Devious Maids is a mix of comedy and drama. Do you think Emmy voters’ attitudes toward dramedies have changed, particularly as they flip flop between categories?
CHERRY: It’s hard for dramedies in general. I remember when Ally McBeal won the Emmy and there was some grousing because it was tonally different from the shows it was up against. And the truth of the matter it’s always apples and oranges thing. We’re not Two and a Half Men. We don’t report to be; that’s more a traditional comedy. As I approach it creatively, I can’t worry about it. I just have to do my show and hope a bunch of people like it. After all these years in the business, I have to have a ‘let the chips fall where they may’ attitude about it. Hopefully people will see it and recognize the show.
DEADLINE: Being on Lifetime, a basic cable network, do you have more freedom than you would at a broadcast network with the show? Can you get away with more?
CHERRY: Yes. (With Desperate Housewives) on every episode and every other episode we had notes from the Broadcast Standards & Practices over concerns with lines or showing too much in one scene. So far, I’m on my 23rd episode with Devious Maids and maybe received one note about it. So I’ve felt that there’s a relaxed attitude about it, not that doing we’re doing anything particularly racy. I would say the biggest difference between cable and network is that since they asked me to do 13 episodes this season, it’s a much saner process. I have more time at the onset of the season to work out my storylines and plot. That makes all the difference in the world. I’m more prepared and that’s because I have more time to do the work. I can’ t think about doing 23 episodes a season.
DEADLINE: Do you have any other shows that you are looking to put into development?
CHERRY: I’m not sure. At this point, I think I will probably look to produce, but from a distance. The time is coming to a close on my day-to-day showrunning. I’m just getting old. I just had my 52nd birthday. There’s some exciting talent out there I would like to supervise. I’m eyeing other opportunities. People know I’m interested in theater and I’m getting calls from New York and there are screenplay opportunities. As long as Devious is going, I want to be a part of it. We are the little show that could.
DEADLINE: This is a Pro-Latino show. As a Republican, is the party missing out on something when it comes to their hard stand on immigration?
CHERRY: Here’s what I’m going to say and I’m not a spokesman. I don’t ever comment on the Republicans, even though I’m a registered one. I don’t agree on their every position. Let me just say publicly that I am fully in support of the dreamers in this country. It’s a wonderful country and I can understand why anyone would come here and be in support of that, and I think both Democrats and Republicans totally know that our immigration situation is a mess and should be fixed. I’m not articulate enough to offer up any policies, but I definitely support the dreamers and want to see this situation resolved in a beneficial way.