This television review by ALESSANDRA STANLEY appeared in The New York Times.
All those real housewives, all those semi-real Kardashians, so many make-believe mistresses, district attorneys, multitasking soccer moms and divorced dads, and it’s almost impossible to tell who picks up after them.
Domestic workers are all but invisible on television. It’s gotten to the point that the only time viewers see a broom is during an Olympic curling match.
“Devious Maids,” a series starting Sunday on Lifetime, is therefore a landmark of sorts, a show focused not on the ladies who lunch, but on the ones who prepare it, then wash the dishes, mop the floors and iron the tablecloth. The series, created by Marc Cherry, who was also responsible for “Desperate Housewives,” is a recession-era corollary to the privilege and pizazz of that show’s Wisteria Lane. (Eva Longoria, who played Gabrielle on “Desperate Housewives,” is an executive producer. )
There are rich, bored housewives on “Devious Maids,” but those catty, self-centered Beverly Hills employers are mere foils for the real heroines, who are poor, Hispanic and striving: desperate housekeepers.
And that perspective is the main selling point of a show that has amusing touches, but is relentlessly arch and tongue in cheek in a way that seemed fresh when “Desperate Housewives” began in 2004, but now is less so. That tone has been used to good effect so often on shows like “Ugly Betty,” “Drop Dead Diva” and “Suburgatory” that it has grown a little stale, even on Lifetime.
There is more to these hard-working women than their laundry skills — they are called devious for a reason — but the story lines and dialogue may be a bit too cute and contrived to hold viewers’ interest for long. It’s the cast, which includes Ana Ortiz of “Ugly Betty” and Judy Reyes, who played Carla on “Scrubs,” that commands attention.
There has been a small, but noisy, reflex reaction against “Devious Maids,” because it casts Hispanic actresses as cleaning ladies, which is missing the point.
Television has more Hispanic performers than ever before, and dramas and sitcoms have always offered plenty of working-class heroes, but the imperative to avoid offensive stereotypes is so strong in Hollywood that when it comes to regular characters, Hispanics are more often cast as homeowners than housekeepers. When he got his own show, George Lopez made a point of playing a manager at an aviation company; his father, long-lost, was a businessman; his father-in-law, a doctor.
Maids and other domestic servants don’t have the pride of place they had in an earlier, less self-conscious time. Shirley Booth was the star of “Hazel,” a ’60s show about a live-in maid. Alice, the housekeeper, was a central character on “The Brady Bunch.” Florence, the maid, was one of the real stars of “The Jeffersons.”
Butlers were fashionable for a while, including Mr. French on “Family Affair,” the title character of “Mr. Belvedere,” and Geoffrey on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Baby sitters evolved from servile to saucy, from the deferential English nanny in “Nanny and the Professor” to Fran Drescher as the nasal, whining star of “The Nanny” and Tony Danza as the manny in “Who’s the Boss?”
Lately, even those kinds of professional, if not always dutiful, domestic servants have all but vanished from the landscape — one of the few left is Berta, the work-averse cleaning lady in “Two and a Half Men,” played by Conchata Ferrell. The joke on that show is that Berta rules the roost and the roosters.
The more common power dynamic between master and servant is shown only in the past tense, on period dramas like “Downton Abbey,” which romanticizes the British prewar caste system, and “Mad Men,” which revels in the shock value of atavism — one of the more startling leitmotifs on “Mad Men” is the cold, peremptory tone employers use with their secretaries and maids.
On the face of it, the invisible maid phenomenon doesn’t make sense. Statistics suggest that the number of domestic workers in the country — maids, nannies and care givers — could be anywhere from 800,000 to over 2 million. That means that are probably more domestic servants than either doctors or lawyers in the United States — yet there is no “Scandal” about the Washington fixers who unclog the sink or a “Law & Order” spinoff about the people who impose order on sock drawers.
That’s partly because domestic servants, who often live with the families they work for and develop an intimate, but unequal relationship with their employers, belie Americans’ egalitarian and anti-elitist self-image. In a culture that prides itself on upward mobility and class-blindness, maids and housekeepers are an unwelcome reminder of society’s more exploitative underbelly. It’s a particularly delicate issue because low-skill, low-wage jobs are more often filled by poor minorities and immigrants, documented and not.
The issue was so sensitive in the 1970s that Norman Lear made a running joke of it on “Maude” — Bea Arthur’s character was a liberal who kept assuring her African-American maid, Florida (Esther Rolle), that they were social peers. (Florida later became the lead character in the spinoff “Good Times.”)
Nowadays, television writers don’t even joke about domestic help; they mostly avoid the subject. American viewers may be inured to sex and violence, but they are oddly sheltered on issues of class. People are accustomed to the heightened reality of shows like “The Bachelor” or “The Voice,” and not the reality of how life actually works.
“Devious Maids” doesn’t try to correct the balance. This isn’t a show about how the other half really lives. It’s an over-the-top dramedy that was partly inspired by a Mexican telenovela, “Ellas Son … la Alegría del Hogar.” It champions the maid and mocks the rich and powerful: Susan Lucci of “All My Children” fame plays a wealthy, man-crazed matron.
All the maids are Latinas, from different backgrounds, and each has a secret agenda. Carmen (Roselyn Sánchez) takes a job as a maid in the household of a Latin pop music star to try to impress him with her music, and Marisol (Ms. Ortiz) pretends to be a maid to investigate a murder that the police — and the employers — have pinned on her son.
Marisol is the central heroine, but it’s a villainess who steals the most scenes. Rebecca Wisocky, who played Bree’s mother on “Desperate Housewives,” is the imperious and manipulative Evelyn Powell, a woman who weeps when her maid is killed not because of the loss but because of the blood on her living room carpet.
“My maid was murdered,” Evelyn wails indignantly at the police. “Who is going to clean all this up?”
“Devious Maids” is the one show on television that answers the question.
Lifetime, Sunday nights at 10, Eastern and Pacific times; 9, Central time.
Produced by ABC Studios. Created by Marc Cherry; inspired by the Mexican telenovela “Ellas Son … la Alegría del Hogar.” Mr. Cherry, Sabrina Wind, Eva Longoria, Paul McGuigan, Larry Shuman, David Lonner, John Mass, Paul Presburger and Michael Garcia, executive producers,
WITH: Ana Ortiz (Marisol Duarte), Dania Ramírez (Rosie Falta), Roselyn Sánchez (Carmen Luna), Edy Ganem (Valentina Diaz), Judy Reyes (Zoila Diaz), Rebecca Wisocky (Evelyn Powell) and Susan Lucci (Genevieve Delatour).