Devious Maids, the new show from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, may be a bit more controversial than his last series, and not just because of lines like, “If you don’t stop screwing my husband, I’ll have you deported.” In the show, premiering on Lifetime Canada on June 23, Cherry adapted a Mexican Desperate Housewives clone into a story about maids working for rich people in Beverly Hills. “There are no racial concepts in the original show,” says Sabrina Wind, an executive producer on both of Cherry’s shows. “It’s a Mexican show, so everyone in it is Mexican.” But in a U.S. adaptation, issues of race and social class went hand in hand: “What was most true and most interesting was to cast five Latinas. It’s an accurate idea of what maids in Beverly Hills would look like.”
This casting has created some advance criticism, including an open letter from Cosmopolitan for Latinas editor Michelle Herrera Mulligan, who called it an “insulting disgrace.” Much of the criticism has focused on the idea that Devious Maids (originally pitched to ABC as a spinoff of Desperate Housewives) may be peddling old stereotypes, including the use of Latin guitar music to represent the maids. Vanessa Verduga, an actor and blogger in New York City, says the problem isn’t that the characters are servants: “There is absolutely no shame in being a maid or playing one on TV or films.” It’s that the melodramatic nature of the story, with the sexy maids scheming and sleeping around, fits in with “the Hollywood perception that Latinas are subservient sexual objects.” Cherry hasn’t been deft in fending off the charge. In an interview with the New York Post, he accused the show’s attackers of being people who “view things merely through the prism of race.”
But Wind says some of the reaction has been more positive, thanks to help from an old Desperate Housewives star, who is helping to produce the series. “Under Eva Longoria’s tutelage,” she says, “we went out to a number of Latino advocacy groups and said, ‘Here’s our show, tell us what you think.’ And they have become supporters of the show.” With most broadcast and cable networks offering little diversity in casting despite an increasingly diverse audience, the casting alone could also turn out to be a point in the show’s favour (as with the somewhat stereotypical character played by Sofia Vergara on Modern Family). “I understand the initial reaction; that was my reaction too,” says Inez Gonzalez, of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. “But as an activist who works to get more Latinas in front of the camera, I also know how big this opportunity is.”
Devious Maids could tap into another growing market: viewers frustrated with all the TV shows from the point of view of rich people. Hollywood is making more movies that are openly about class war, such as Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, where people steal from rich celebrities. But few such stories have made it to TV, where most characters are affluent. Wind says Cherry wanted to do something different by focusing on “the five maids and what their wants and needs and desires would be,” and intended “the rich characters to be the foils for the maids’ stories.” Like other Lifetime shows, such as The Client List, starring Jennifer Love Hewitt as a debt-ridden single mother working in a massage parlour, Devious Maids may use its trashy subject matter to portray working people who wouldn’t be the stars on HBO.
It’s too early to tell whether Cherry, who specializes in over-the-top comedic melodrama, can succeed with tricky issues of race and class. But some critics have said they’ll give him a chance. “I want to see these devious maids strive to improve their positions in life in a honest and dignified way,” Verduga says. And Wind adds that the show will be creating more chances for its actresses, who have told her “how trying it is to get jobs in Hollywood when they are constantly competing against each other, when they come in for colour-blind casting only to find out it’s not as colour-blind as they thought it would be.” Controversial or not, it’ll be showing a part of life we don’t normally see on TV—certainly not on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.