Sunday, August 11, 2013

How the First Seven Episodes of "Devious Maids" Totally Sucked Me In Last Night

Note to the writers of Revenge (who, hopefully, have learned from their season-two mistakes): This is how you write engrossing soap opera that succeeds on both an entertainment and an emotional level. You need to include at least one character whom I can root for. That was probably the main thing that kept me fully invested throughout my seven-episode marathon of the new Lifetime dramedy serial Devious Maids on a Saturday night when I probably should have had better things to do.

With the possible exception of one (Adrian Powell, nicely played by Tom Irwin, still handsome and fully embracing the smarmy side that I could have sworn he occasionally hinted at as Claire Danes's dad on My So-Called Life), every character on Devious Maids has at least one redeeming quality. Yes, even Evelyn Powell, Adrian's bitter, uptight wife.

It's not just the way Rebecca Wisocky can deliver a withering, judgmental glare and a sarcastic quip with such panache, making Evelyn a sort of evil desperate housewife (Bree Van de Kamp's tortured, twisted sister?) on too many little blue pills, but also because when she sits alone in a room sobbing while looking at old home movies of her dead 6-year-old son, I feel her pain. I can't wait to find out what she did to cause his demise 15 years ago, and if that's what turned her into such an unrelenting harpy.

The Powells are the Graysons on Revenge, only childless, without any political aspirations (that we know of) and without any secret organization (again, that we know of) hounding them. Once again, the husband half of the marital equation outdoes his wife in evil misdeeds. Tom Irwin is more devious than any maid on the show, and I'm disappointed that he hasn't yet entered the orbit of Susan Lucci's Genevieve Delatour. Make it happen soon, writers!

I'm a huge Lucci/Erica Kane fan, so I don't mind that Lucci is basically playing a nicer version of her All My Children alter ego (and pretty much every character she played in TV movies in the '80s and '90s). She might be somewhat limited as an actress, but she knows how to play to her strengths. As she proved in her appearances on Hot in Cleveland, Lucci is a great comedian. I hope Devious Maids continues to showcase that previously rarely seen Lucci side in future episodes, but I'd rather watch her be ogled and bribed into bed by Angela Chase's father than by Reverend Camden from 7th Heaven.

And then there are those devious maids. This being a Marc Cherry creation, we should expect shades of Desperate Housewives (which he also created) and The Golden Girls (for which he was a producer and writer), as well as Sex and the City and Hot in Cleveland, since this is, after all, a TV series with four female leads and is constitutionally obligated to follow the long-standing prototype.

Once again, we have four female archetypes: There's the flawed-but-grounded one (Carrie Bradshaw/Dorothy Zbornak/Joy Scroggs/Susan Mayer) in Ana Ortiz's Marisol Saurez, the glamorous one (Samantha Jones/Blanche Devereaux/Victoria Chase/Gabrielle Solis) in Roselyn Sánchez's Carmen Luna, the salty one (Miranda Hobbs/Sophia Petrillo/Elka Ostrovsky/Lynette Scavo) in Judy Reyes' Zoila Diaz, and the traditional-values one (Charlotte York/Rose Nylund/Melanie Moretti/Bree Van de Kamp) in Dania Ramirez's Rosie Falta.

And as with Desperate Housewive's Mary Alice, there's the dead one. This might be my one problem with what played out in those first seven episodes. Flora's murder is the crux of Devious Maids' plot, so I wish the show would do more to make me care about her. We only got the opening scene of the series to form an opinion of her (in just a few moments onscreen, Paula Garcés impressed me more than she has on the online reboot of All My Children so far), and the show has spent all the time since basically trashing her. At least Mary Alice, despite her questionable actions, was presented sympathetically and as a somewhat fully rounded character, due, in part, to flashbacks as well as to her narration of the series. We were able to care about her even if we didn't really know her.

The actresses playing the living leads do so with varying degrees of success. Reyes is basically playing Scrubs' Nurse Carla, older, more bitter and self-righteous and with a 19-year-old daughter (Edy Ganem, stunning) in tow. Ramirez is appealing, but it's sometimes hard to tell whether she's playing the immigrant Latina stereotypes (she talks just like how an Argentine friend of mine used to impersonate a fictional Mexican maid named Soledad) for laughs or for authenticity. I do enjoy her chemistry with Melrose Place's still-hot Grant Show, though.

Sánchez is a complete package -- effective actress, good singer, adept at both drama and comedy, drop-dead beautiful -- who has the potential to follow Sofía Vergara as the next 40-year-old breakout Latina star. But Ortiz is the real revelation here. Although I've loved the actress since I first saw her on an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, I never quite took to her as Ugly Betty's big sister. (I know a little sibling rivalry and jealousy make for great dramedy, but I prefer my TV big sisters tough but supportive, more like Rayna James's sibling Tandy on Nashville, played by the sadly underused Judith Hoag.)

Who knew all Ortiz needed was her own spotlight to really shine? She owns her character and carries the main storyline with the grace of a scholar pretending to be working class. She's so won me over with her intelligence and occasional sass as a woman quietly challenging all the stereotypes of what the help is supposed to act like and talk like that I fear what will become of her when she finally gets her son out of his legal jam. I'm really not dying to see her in a classroom.

But this murder mystery can't possibly go on for several seasons, right? Marisol will probably exonerate her kid by the season finale and end up having to go back to her previous life as a high-powered college professor, just as I'm becoming invested in her newfound friendships with her fellow maids, particularly Rosie.

Or will she? Maybe that's just one more potential twist to look forward to in a show that hopefully has a few big ones in store.

I may be dragging today after my sleepless Saturday night spent catching up on Devious Maids, but with the eighth episode set to air tonight, I can hardly wait to once again stay up way past my bedtime just to see what happens next.
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