Though Marc Cherry's Devious Maids may be a bit of an on-the-nose tribute to his wildly successful Desperate Housewives both in title and structure, the new Lifetime series' pilot was far better than most of the latter-day Housewives episodes. Maids is funny, dark and stars four Latina women -- if the rest of the series follow the pilot's lead (and after watching episode two, "Setting the Table," I'm optimistic it will), Lifetime will have something worth watching other than Dance Moms and How I Met Your Mother reruns.
Set in Beverly Hills, Maids opens at the mansion of Evelyn Powell (Rebecca Wisocky) who, taking a few moments away from a glamorous social gathering she's hosting, condescends to her maid Flora Hernandez (Paula Garcés, who sadly most likely won't go on to narrate the entire series) about the American dream, only to turn the speech with a patented Housewives-type twist and confront the woman about sleeping with her husband. After Evelyn and her husband Adrian (Tom Irwin) exit, Flora pens some kind of strange confessional letter which includes the phrases, "You can't just throw me away," "We both know what happened," and "I was raped," and sticks it in a copy of the Brothers Grimm's The Peasant & The Devil, and is then quickly stabbed by a masked source. Fortunately, moments after Flora walks from her murder scene into the Powell's pool to die (just go with it), her presumed killer stumbles down the steps, holding the murder weapon we saw not moments ago. Case closed! (Obviously not case closed.)
A week later, we're at Flora's funeral, attended by her best friends, who also happen to be maids. There's, Valentina Del Barrio (Edy Ganem) and her mother Zoila (Judy Reyes), Carmen Luna (Roselyn Sanchez) and Rosie Falta (Dania Ramirez), plus one Marisol Duarte (Ana Ortiz), who doesn't stand with the other women but mourns Flora as well. As the pilot goes on, we learn about these ladies, their equally frustrating housekeeping gigs and their relationships to one another; the former four have clearly known each other for some time -- long enough to vaguely discuss though not reveal a major secret that Flora had been hiding -- while Marisol is the new maid in town.
In critiquing Maids, it's absolutely necessary to point out the problematic fact that an American series about four women of color of course has them playing maids. Honestly, the stereotypes seen in Marisol, Valentina, Zoila, Carmen and Rosie weren't quite as bad as I feared, but there's definitely a level of discomfort here which will no-doubt inspire writers better versed in cultural theory and the portrayal of Latina characters on television to speak out, and I very much look forward to reading their points of view (though I will point out that the IMDb page for the series has the first non-white female actresses listed seventh down the page).
Until then, I'll settle on the fact that it's great we have four strong Latina ladies at the forefront of Maids, but simultaneously pretty disappointing that their biggest enemies are privileged white women who are determined to put their housekeepers in their place. Not only are Odessa (Melinda Page Hamilton), Taylor (Brianna Brown), Peri (Mariana Klaveno), Genevieve (Susan Lucci, age-defying goddess) and Evelyn (Rebecca Wisocky) ill-conceived villains; their characters are mostly just boring. Cherry's gang (which includes Eva Longoria, don't you know) clearly has a juicy story to tell about the titular women, which makes it all the more frustrating that the other much flatter female characters got an enormous amount of screentime. Hopefully this is just a establishing character-heavy plot device for the pilot, and will not be the case as the series moves forward.
I can't say that the acting in Maids is all that good, but purely on soap value, the series shines. The mystery is a lot of fun, there are some solid moments of sarcasm, a few great instances of darkness and, best of all, a cameo from Valerie Mahaffey, who Housewives fans will instantly remember as Alma Hodge. If Lifetime can keep up the level of soapy fun and former Wisteria Lane favorites, I'll be happy (and slightly ashamed, of course) to keep watching every week.
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