The new dark dramedy “Why Women Kill” has a lot going on: open marriage, bisexuality, adultery, a closeted spouse, an overdose, a front-yard brawl, a choking incident involving meatloaf, shoulder pads. And that’s just the first episode of the show, which arrives Thursday on CBS All Access. (Behold, in Episode 2, a “mobile sex den,” as one character describes it.)
The series, created by Marc Cherry (“Desperate Housewives”), centers on three women and their defiance of patriarchal suppression and societal expectations across multiple decades. Beth Ann (Ginnifer Goodwin) is a stifled 1960s housewife, Simone (Lucy Liu) is a wealthy socialite in the 1980s and Taylor (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) is a feminist lawyer in the present day. What they have in common: All live in the same home in their respective time period, and all are dealing with their own marital infidelity.
“Why Women Kill” is Cherry’s fourth series showcasing a female ensemble. He began his career writing bold, sharp and sexy older women in the early 1990s on the enduring sitcom “The Golden Girls.” Cherry then went on to create “Desperate Housewives,” which ran for eight seasons on ABC and leaned into the dark, juicy corners of suburbia; he followed that up with the Lifetime series “Devious Maids,” which cast a spotlight on the lives of Latina domestic workers. During a recent phone interview, Cherry discussed the stealthy gender politics of his work and how being gay affects his depictions of women. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
What does “Why Women Kill” add to the current conversations about how women are treated by men and about the power they have to control that dynamic?
Ever since the #MeToo movement started, I saw so many writers on television dealing with heavy political issues inspired by the times in which we live. In many ways, I’m taking a different path: I’m dealing with classic issues, and I do hope to say a little something about how women’s roles have changed and how marriage has changed. It’s a reminder of why women make different choices in different eras — they were affected by the times in which they live. I’m sneaking the politics in the middle of all this fun debauchery.
That seems to have always been your approach going back as far as the “Golden Girls.”
Something that ended up being really groundbreaking was an episode that my writing partner and I did: We had Blanche’s brother, a gay cop, and his police officer boyfriend announce they were getting married. That was one of the first shows to deal with that. The episode turned out really well, but we also got death threats for it.
Did those death threats ever stop you from exploring other potentially controversial issues in your work?
No. Mostly you laugh about it because it’s like, “Really?” It’s a weird badge of honor. But it also taught me that if you’re going to take the audience out of their comfort zone, there are some people out there who are going to react.
I made sure there were gay neighbors on “Desperate Housewives.” I thought just by their very being and the fact that everyone treated them normally, I was making my statement. The most political thing I’m doing in this one is showing a couple who’s engaging in polyamory. But I try to always use a soft hand when touching big issues.
In “Why Women Kill,” Taylor’s husband Eli (Reid Scott), a screenwriter, and the new woman in their open marriage, Jade (Alexandra Daddario), discuss Hollywood writers. Jade says, “I never pay attention to who writes the movie,” and Eli replies, “You’ll do well in Hollywood.” Do you share Eli’s bitterness on the subject of writers being overlooked in Hollywood?
It’s not bitterness. It’s kind of a self-deprecating writer’s attitude. And, by the way, I’ve done better than most. “Desperate Housewives” made me far more well known than I ever anticipated, but to be a writer in Hollywood, as far as the general American public goes, is to be a little invisible. I’ve certainly made my peace with that, because every Instagram star is craving for celebrity, and having tasted a little bit of it, I’m more than happy to remain in the shadows. I always say, actors, they need to get hired; directors need something to direct. But with writing, no one can stop you. In that regard, we’re the luckiest people in Hollywood.
In 2017, ABC passed on your Southern drama that was set to star Reba McEntire. What new ground did you hope to break with that show?
I was going to examine some different issues: She’s an older white female, and I had her paired with a young Muslim F.B.I. agent. We were going to compare and contrast cultural differences. So ABC made their decision, and in a weird way, I’m glad. I’m going to probably try to take another bite of that apple. And now that I’ve discovered the amazing world of streaming, I would rather work with Reba in a streaming atmosphere because you just get to do better work.
What can you do with a woman’s sexuality on TV now that you couldn’t before?
Since I started on “The Golden Girls,” a show that was groundbreaking in its treatment of older women’s sexuality, I don’t even think twice about it. Once you’ve written some filthy jokes for Estelle Getty and Bea Arthur, everything else seems tame. To have a character use a four-letter [curse] word [on “Why Women Kill”], it’s like, “Oh, O.K., good, I get to play in a more adult sandbox.” With “Desperate Housewives,” gosh, we were on the cover of Newsweek and the headline was, “Has [pop culture] gone too far?”
An episode from the first season of “Desperate Housewives” featured one of its characters, played by Felicity Huffman, pledging to make a monetary donation to get her sons into a prestigious private school. When you learned about Huffman’s involvement in the college admissions bribery scheme on behalf of her daughter, what did it feel like to have life imitating your art?
[Cherry’s publicist: “I’m sorry to jump in here, but we have to just stick with questions on ‘Why Women Kill.’ We’re not going to be able to address Felicity’s particular situation.”]
You know what, I’m going to answer this one question, and very respectfully: It’s a punch to the gut to find out that someone you love is involved in any kind of scandal. If it seems like all of Hollywood is rooting for Felicity, it’s because she spent her entire career being kind and professional, and I am part of the community that adores her and prays for this whole time in her life to be over.
On a different note: You’ve said that Felicity once said you have a vagina in your brain. What do you think made her say that?
I have been blushing about that for 15 years. It’s a lovely thing to say, but it does make me turn red. Here’s the thing: The joy of being a gay writer is when I write women, because I’m not particularly interested in their physicality vis-à-vis my own prurient interest. What I really care about is: Does a woman have a brain? Is she funny? Does she have a sense of herself?
I am not intimidated by women’s strength — I rejoice in it. I think there’s some — certainly not all — male writers who write the fantasy women they wish they could’ve met when they were in high school. Women were who I depended upon. Women protected me in high school. I’m 57 now, and I’ve put in over a half-century of loving women, learning about them, depending upon them and, in the last 30 years, writing about them. And I’m continuing my journey.