Wisteria Lane's Katherine Mayfair (Dana Delany) stands at a podium before a grand, twinkling ballroom, resplendent in formfitting purple satin though her updo is uncharacteristically disheveled. She's going on about the Founders Day award something relating to community service and whatnot but Bree Hodge (Marcia Cross) is having none of it. ''From the moment I started working with that obnoxious backstabber,'' Bree fumes at her banquet table, ''she's done nothing but pull the spotlight off of me and onto her.'' Just a moment later, though, the spotlight is back on Bree literally as Katherine announces that Wisteria Lane's resident perfectionist is, in fact, the recipient of this year's award. Bree floats up to the podium, all flowy teal dress and perfect red curls. As Katherine leans in to offer a congratulatory embrace, she whispers to Bree, ''I know you tried to poison me, you bitch.''
''Nice hair,'' Bree replies under her breath. Then, turning on her trademark smile, she faces her adoring audience.
Did someone say ''bitchtastic''? Because that attitude is exactly what Cross and Delany have helped bring back to ABC's Desperate Housewives this season and, thank goodness, they're just fine sharing the spotlight. Bree and Katherine's on-again, off-again friendship spiked with a delicious battle-of-the-Martha Stewarts rivalry has reinfused the series with the sweet-and-sour punch that hooked us when it premiered back in 2004. ''It's very All About Eve,'' Cross says, ''which I love.'' Adds Eva Longoria Parker, whose Gabrielle Solis is her own special divalicious breed of bitch, ''Before the strike, I felt like we were on such a roll.''
The viewers agreed: Before the strike, the ladies of Wisteria Lane were averaging 18.8 million viewers, landing them at No. 4 in prime time; that's up from No. 10 (with 17 million) the previous season. So can they maintain or even top that momentum when the show returns from its strike-induced hiatus with six fresh episodes starting on April 13?
Creator and exec producer Marc Cherry thinks so: He's got plans for more Bree-Katherine matchups (including a joint business venture), while Gabrielle will deal with Carlos' blindness (a result of his tornado injuries), Susan will continue to help Mike through rehab, and Lynette will revisit her almost affair with chef -- turned -- pizza guy Rick. ''I didn't mind taking a little break,'' says Cherry. ''I feel more recharged than ever. I think in a weird way the strike could be the best thing that ever happened to the show.''
Things run remarkably smoothly on the Housewives set these days a reporter can roam freely without fear of stumbling upon any behind-the-scenes tension, and it's nearly impossible to speak to anyone involved in the show without the phrase ''well-oiled machine'' popping up. ''There's been a kind of settling in,'' says Felicity Huffman, the cast's resident Emmy winner for her role as harried working mom Lynette Scavo. ''Everyone's sort of figured out how to be here and how to work together.''
It didn't always seem that way. The first season scored big with audiences, but the ensuing media onslaught culminated in a Vanity Fair cover story that fueled rumors of discord among the leading ladies. ''During that time you couldn't watch Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood without them doing something on Housewives, five nights a week,'' Cherry recalls. ''While that's certainly flattering, it's exhausting.'' Then it was the viewers' turn to feel exhausted, courtesy of a convoluted season 2 story line that no one really remembers much about, except that it involved a dude shackled in the new neighbors' basement and Alfre Woodard playing a piano. ''In the past, things have gotten a little too operatic, a little too big,'' Cross says. ''I think it's been more in the realm of believability this year. It's still far out there, but it's not cellars and people chained up.'' Cherry attributes part of the second season's trouble to an extra-big episode order (24, instead of the normal 22 or 23), too little preparation time, and his own lack of experience in running a story-line-eating hour-long drama. ''We had some missteps in that season that informed the seasons afterward,'' Cherry says. ''What I learned about the mysteries is they're the glue that holds the seasons together. So the casting, the story, everything has to be exactly right. This season we got it right.''
Starting with creating the character of Katherine Mayfair, and hiring Delany to play her. Cherry had wanted Delany on the show ever since she auditioned for and ultimately turned down the role of Bree. ''Even though,'' he adds, ''Marcia Cross is perfect as Bree, and God really protected me with that casting. She made Bree a far more likable character than I thought she could be.'' ''Likable'' isn't the first word that pops to mind when it comes to Katherine, however. A former Wisteria Lane resident who left more than a decade ago under darkly mysterious circumstances, she's returned from Chicago with a new husband and her Bree-baiting cooking and hostessing skills not to mention her passive-aggressiveness firmly intact. ''The addition of Dana Delany was a masterstroke,'' Cherry says. ''We never had a female villain on the street before. Shades of Amanda from Melrose Place keep popping up.'' Delany credits her castmates for helping her slip into villain mode which, of course, she means in the nicest way possible. ''It's a matter of figuring out the tone,'' she says. ''These actors manage to have this really light touch and throw it away. I learned that from them.''
When we last left the ladies post-tornado, Bree and Katherine had finally bonded (after several testy run-ins, mostly pie-related) when Bree learned of Katherine's husband's former affair. But when the show returns, the two have a fast falling-out over planning that Founders Day banquet, capped off with Katherine's not-so-accidental (but hardly fatal) poisoning. They will, however, reconcile once again and launch a catering business together, a story line both actresses are looking forward to. ''Sometimes you're the focus of attention on a series and sometimes you're not,'' Cross says. ''I've been itching for a growth spurt [for Bree], and I think this whole working-with-Katherine thing will move her forward.'' Meanwhile, we'll get closer to finding out the rest of Katherine's secrets: What happened to her previous husband? (He'll show up in flashback, at least played by Gary Cole.) Why doesn't her daughter remember living in the neighborhood? What was in that letter she burned? ''Everybody wants to know what was in the note,'' Delany says. ''[The audience is] going to learn parts of it. I know now. And I know what I did [in the past]. Marc told me right before the strike, and I thought, 'Wow.'''
Of course, there's plenty of drama in store for the rest of the gals as well. Gabrielle will learn that Carlos' blindness is permanent but not before Carlos (Ricardo Chavira) tricks her into remarrying him. (Though she'll also find there are certain perks, like the handicapped-parking placard that allows her a prime spot at the mall, leading to a less-than-politically-correct altercation with some angry men in wheelchairs.) Bree and Orson (Kyle MacLachlan) will keep living with Susan (Teri Hatcher) until their home is repaired and Orson will eventually reveal his part in the accident that put Mike (James Denton) in a coma back in season 2. The ladies will freeze out Edie (Nicollette Sheridan) when they think she's slept with one of the husbands, but ''she has not,'' Cherry says. ''Well, she's probably gone farther than she should.'' And The O.C.'s Chris Carmack will guest-star as Susan's cousin and a possible paramour for one of the ladies; Julianne Moore, however, will not appear, contrary to rampant Internet rumor. ''I love her,'' Cherry sighs. ''If I thought I could get her, I'd cast her.''
Over at the Scavo household, Lynette's crush, Rick (Jason Gedrick), will return to wreak more havoc on her marriage. But don't worry, Cherry knows how nervous that makes you: ''Tom and Lynette's is the marriage that America has said to me, 'You have to protect them.' I have to be very careful.'' Instead of Rick and Lynette consummating their emotional dalliance, Rick will simply cause more conflict when ''something awful'' befalls him that Tom (Doug Savant) may or may not be responsible for. Huffman, for one, welcomes the chance to resolve that nerve-touching story line. ''It's great that he's coming back because that got interrupted by cancer and the tornado,'' Huffman says. ''What's bigger than an affair of the heart? Well, cancer and a tornado.''
And what's bigger than cancer and a tornado? Apparently the two-hour finale, which will include the unveiling of Katherine's secrets and a huge twist ending. What could it be? A death? A new mystery? A revelation that the ladies are actually stranded on an island with an enigmatic smoke monster? ''How can I describe this without giving it away?'' Cherry teases. ''It's going to be shocking, and it's going to change the whole series.'' At least what's left of it to change. It seems Cherry has decided to take a page from the Lost playbook and set Housewives' expiration date well in advance. He plans to pull the plug after three more seasons, once the series' standard seven-year contract runs out in 2011 and he swears this isn't an Edie Britt-worthy bluff. ''I don't want to be one of those series that goes on and on and on and by the time it finishes up its run, no one cares anymore,'' he says. ''The great thing about The Mary Tyler Moore Show was that we missed it when it went away. I feel like I already had my down year, season 2, and now I'm trying to protect the memory.'' (ABC reps declined to comment on Cherry's plans.)
For now, it appears the show's legacy is in the capable, well-manicured hands of two dueling domestic goddesses. And they're reveling in every minute of it. ''When Marcia and I look at each other, I have to work hard to keep from laughing,'' Delany says. ''She gets a gleam in her eye that's so devious.'' Adds Cross, ''I have a huge crush on her right now, which is nice because you can flip it around and use it [as tension]. It's fun, but she can make me cry. She can do that cold thing on cue she can make icicles hang off a room.'' But only if they match the decor, of course.