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Screen Saviors

If you're not already watching ''Desperate Housewives,'' ''Veronica Mars,'' and the season's three other standouts, start now! Here's what you need to know to catch up

Eva Longoria, Marcia Cross, ...
Image credit: Desperate Housewives Photograph by Justin Stephens
Eva Longoria, Marcia Cross, ... | FROM LEFT: LONGORIA, HATCHER, CROSS, AND HUFFMAN
Image credit: Desperate Housewives Photograph by Justin Stephens
FROM LEFT: LONGORIA, HATCHER, CROSS, AND HUFFMAN

Desperate Housewives

ABC, Sundays, 9 p.m.

Why ''Desperate Housewives'' is one of fall's best shows

THE PLOT Deceptively perfect housewife Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) shoots herself after a day of making waffles and picking up dry cleaning, leaving her circle of friends on idyllic Wisteria Lane with a lot of questions. (Most pressing: Who sent her that ominous ''I know what you did'' letter they found among her clothes?) Mary Alice narrates the series from the Great Beyond as her friends examine their own suburban ennui: Susan (Hatcher) vies with Edie (Nicollette Sheridan) for the attention of new neighbor Mike Delfino (James Denton). Lynette (Huffman) punches her husband (Doug Savant) in the face when he suggests they ''risk it'' without a condom during some hanky-panky. Bree (Cross) reacts to her husband's declaration that he wants a divorce by trying to kill him (accidentally?) with a salad made with onions, to which he's fatally allergic. And Gabrielle (Longoria) mows the lawn in her gorgeous pink party gown when her husband threatens to fire their teenage gardener, who has been tending more to Gabrielle than to the shrubbery.

WHY WE LOVE IT It's a lusciously hyperreal suburban paradise, and the genre-defying cocktail of a script knocks us silly with its mix of hilarious, ironic, dramatic, and oh-so-true moments. ''There really, truly is nothing like it on television,'' gushes Longoria.

Creator Marc Cherry drew inspiration from his own mom's revelation that she sympathized with Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five kids: ''She said, 'Yeah, I've been there.''' Adds Huffman, a real-life mother of two: ''Marc's tapped into the zeitgeist of women. There aren't many models out there — there's usually either the bad mother or the perfect mother.'' Best of all, Housewives fills the nighttime soap void that's been empty since Melrose Place disappeared in 1999. (The fact that Melrose's Savant and Cross star is just icing on this bittersweet cake.) ''It's great [to revive the prime-time soap] because people chitty-chat about it all week,'' Cross says. ''But this has moments of deep reality, so it carries a little more weight.''

WHAT IT'S UP AGAINST CBS Sunday Movie, Jack & Bobby (The WB), Law & Order: Criminal Intent (NBC), The Partner (Fox), The Wire (HBO)

WHAT'S NEXT Cherry is the incredibly articulate writer here, so we'll let him tell you: ''Gabrielle's affair will have hilarious and tragic consequences. Bree's husband will attempt to leave his family, only to be drawn back by a tragic accident. Susan will continue to make a fool out of herself. Lynette will get hooked on her children's ADD medication. All of them will start to uncover the dark secret Mary Alice's husband and son are covering up. That father-son relationship will be revealed to be very creepy.'' And men, if you need a reason to watch this female-centric show, Hatcher has nine words for you: ''Susan finds herself locked out of her house naked.'' Sold yet? We thought so.

—Jennifer Armstrong

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