In a perfect world, "Devious Maids," a new drama written by Marc Cherry and produced by Eva Longoria, both late of "Desperate Housewives," could be judged simply by its own merits, as an attempt to translate a popular telenovela to American television, in this case Lifetime.
Taken as such, "Devious Maids" is just unfortunate — a silly, hyperactive version of "Downton Abbey," relocated to Beverly Hills and populated with as many cliches and stereotypes as can fit upstairs and down. The rich are all various degrees of horrible, their employees (the maids of the title) a requisite combination of sass and surrender.
But like it or not, "Devious Maids" must be viewed, at least partially, through the lens of cultural politics. Television remains disproportionately populated by white men, and "Devious Maids" was created by Longoria specifically to help remedy that; it stars a quintet of talented Latina actresses who don't often get a chance to play lead.
Not surprisingly, many people began objecting to the seeming contradiction in form and function long before the show even had a premiere date. In trailers and ads, the maids are all portrayed as sexy and scheming, wielding the narrative upper hand as deftly as the flick of their feather dusters. (Feather dusters being part of the whole frilly aproned sexual fetish previously relegated to French gals.)
There hasn't been an English-language show with this many Latin characters since "Ugly Betty," and it has to be this?
There being no such thing as bad publicity, Longoria and her stars have taken to the Internet to build buzz via spirited defense, and Lifetime has been hawking it with precisely the level of excitement one would expect from a still-struggling network that has managed to nab a Cherry project. (ABC, the hoped-for destination, passed.)
It would be great to report here that "Devious Maids" is not that bad, except that it is, despite a lot of real talent on-screen.
In a desire to recapture the dark playfulness and poison-candy sheen of "Desperate Housewives'" Wisteria Lane, Cherry goes for high drawing room camp, opening with the show's Evil Queen, Evelyn Powell (Rebecca Wisocky), informing her maid, Flora (Paula Garces), that as much as she admires "your people" for cleaning other people's toilets and attempting to better themselves, "if you don't stop screwing my husband, I will deport you," before flouncing off to the cocktail party on the main floor.
Even as she is tearfully scrawling a message claiming she was raped, and blaming Evelyn's husband, Adrian (Tom Irwin), Flora is set upon by a figure in black and stabbed repeatedly; she is barely able to stagger down the stairs in time to fall face forward into the pool. Yes, just like Jay Gatsby and the guy from "Sunset Blvd.," only they didn't have to walk through the whole house to do it.
At the funeral, her friends and fellow maids murmur apprehensively about the obligatory secret before deciding not to say anything, even though some poor waiter has been wrongfully accused.
Zola (Judy Reyes) and her lovely daughter, Valentina (Edy Ganem), work for Genevieve Delatour, a pill-popping, procedure-scheduling woman so clearly carved from soap that she is played by Susan Lucci. Rosie (Dania Ramirez) is struggling to get her young son out of Mexico by working as a nanny for a pair of narcissistic actors — Spence (Grant Show) is nice enough but Peri (Mariana Klaveno) is an exercise in misogyny (does anyone hate actresses more than screenwriters?). Carmen (Roselyn Sanchez) has just joined the household staff of Latino music star Alejandro Rubio (Matt Cedeño) for the sole reason of promoting her own music — she is way too smart and hot to be a real maid — just as if this is the sort of thing that works.
The fifth maid, Marisol (Ana Ortiz), is also way too smart for the service industry, as dissatisfied second wife Taylor (Brianna Brown) immediately points out during Marisol's interview, but her passive-aggressive husband, Michael (Brett Cullen), overrules her and Marisol is hired, clearly with an agenda beyond earning money through hard work.
The mystery of Flora's death provides the uber-narrative, but "Devious Maids," like "Desperate Housewives," feeds off class-conscious subplots (Valentina has a very "West Side Story" crush on the young master of the house, Peri sees her baby as a prop). The performances are uniformly heroic in their attempts to do much with little, but if Longoria is trying to, as she says, celebrate the lives of working women, it would help to have the characters at least resemble a real person.
In the end, "Devious Maids" is just another swing at the ubiquitous piñata of the oblivious rich, this time with the business end of the feather dusters.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-PG-LV (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for coarse language and violence)