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'Desperate Housewives' trial has its own dark humor

Closing arguments are set for Tuesday in the wrongful-termination and battery suit brought by actress Nicollette Sheridan.

March 13, 2012|By Harriet Ryan, Los Angeles Times
  • Nicollette Sheridan, left, and Teri Hatcher vie for the attention of the neighborhood bachelor in "Desperate Housewives."
Nicollette Sheridan, left, and Teri Hatcher vie for the attention of the… (Peter "Hopper" Stone, ABC,…)

With "Desperate Housewives" winding up its lucrative eight-season run on ABC, its creator took a moment last week to distill what he called the show's "original blend" of television genres.

"Part comedy, part drama, part mystery," Marc Cherry said.

To the audience he addressed, a Los Angeles jury in a lawsuit brought by a former actress on the show, the concept of watching something that was by turns funny, sad and confounding was not a foreign one.

The two-week trial set for closing arguments Tuesday often seemed a black comedy about a black comedy. There were tears, giggles and a few gasps, the most notable when a producer revealed on the witness stand that a major character would die in an episode airing a few days later. (The character was, in fact, shot to death Sunday night.) Underscoring it all was the absurdity, endemic in today's television, of asking viewers to care deeply about the minor travails of the very rich and semi-famous.

At the plaintiff's table sat Nicollette Sheridan, a statuesque blond whose long career of sexpot-next-door roles had culminated in a $4-million-a-year gig as "Desperate Housewives" resident tramp, Edie Britt. Separated from her by four lawyers was Cherry, her former boss, who when asked to confirm that his show's gross revenue exceeded $1 billion, shrugged and said he never looked at the show's financial statements.

Sheridan's wrongful-termination and battery suit boils down to why and with what force Cherry brought his right hand into contact with her left temple during a rehearsal on Sept. 24, 2008. In her telling, Cherry was incensed by her complaints about a line of Edie's dialogue and struck her so hard that her head jerked to the side.

"He stepped in and he hit me across the head like that," she testified, slicing her arm through the air in front of the witness stand. With her face flushing and her eyes watering, she told jurors, "It was shocking. It was humiliating. It was demeaning."

Cherry insisted that he had merely tapped Sheridan on the head to demonstrate a playful smack he wanted Edie to give her husband at the close of a scene. He said the actress, who had a history of causing problems on the set, gave him "an odd look. Like she was making a decision" and then started yelling.

"'You hit me. You can't hit me,'" he quoted her as saying.

She went to her lawyer, an account of the incident was leaked to the National Enquirer, and ABC launched an investigation. Cherry was cleared by ABC. But when he killed off Edie Britt in an episode a few months later, Sheridan saw it as an act of retribution

and decided to sue him and the show's studio, Touchstone Television Productions.

A parade of executives, producers and writers provided jurors an introductory course in the television industry, explaining pilot season and character arcs and defining terms like "giving notes," "showrunner" and "cliffhanger." They detailed how "Desperate Housewives" had been a critical and popular smash in its first two seasons but dropped in ratings in subsequent years as it went up against NFL games and saw its offbeat tone replicated on other shows.

This season, the show has typically attracted just over 8 million viewers each week.

"Desperate" — as it's known at the studio — often came off in testimony as any other workplace. There were mandatory sexual harassment seminars, budget meetings and corporate bosses who never seemed satisfied.

"The feeling was it wasn't oomphy enough," Cherry said of a season finale script rejected by ABC.

There was tension over salaries — Sheridan wanted as much money as more famous costars like Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria — and work performance. Hatcher once became so irritated with Sheridan's line-forgetting that production was temporarily halted.

"She told me that she thought Teri Hatcher was the meanest woman in the world," Cherry recalled.

If some on-the-job tensions sounded familiar, other aspects of Sheridan and Cherry's world were strictly Hollywood. She got $175,000 per episode, Cherry's lawyers noted repeatedly, whether or not she appeared.

One of Cherry's three assistants, a subsequent witness said, made $156,000 a year. A mid-level writer testified that she earned $648,000 for one season's work, eliciting groans from a spectator's gallery packed with reporters earning substantially less for putting verbs after nouns.

A key dispute was at what point Cherry had decided to kill Edie Britt. He testified that the promiscuous real estate agent had run out of story lines, having bedded every eligible man on Wisteria Lane. Killing her had been on his mind for years, he said, but it wasn't until May 2008 — four months before the incident with Sheridan — that he got approval from the network and ABC to do so.

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