Review: 'Why Women Kill' is a delicious 'Desperate Housewives' successor

Review: 'Why Women Kill' is a delicious 'Desperate Housewives' successor

At a time when TV series are being revived and rebooted left and right, fans might wonder whether "Desperate Housewives," ABC's 2004-2012 hit nighttime soap starring Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, Eva Longoria, Nicollette Sheridan and Felicity Huffman, might join the ranks of "Murphy Brown" and "Beverly Hills, 90210."

But who needs to see the "Housewives" again (especially while one is waiting to be sentenced, possibly to prison) when the spirit of the juicy drama can be so easily captured again by creator Marc Cherry?

Cherry's new CBS All Access series, "Why Women Kill" (Thursdays, ★★★ out of four), is like “Housewives” boiled down to its most essential elements – death, sex, great actresses and mystery – with the freedom to curse. Despite its partial period setting, "Women" is essentially a modern version of "Housewives," mixing dark comedy with violence to illuminate the lives of its main characters.

Starring the talented trio of Lucy Liu, Ginnifer Goodwin and Kirby Howell-Baptiste ("The Good Place," "Barry"), "Women" is set in a single Pasadena, California, house in three different decades, occupied by three different married couples. Three deaths will occur, but we don't know going in who dies, or whether the main characters are responsible. But we do know there's infidelity, jealousy and a lot of great fashion.

In the 1960s, we have Beth Ann (Goodwin), as prim and proper as a housewife can be, who has as much chemistry with her husband, Rob (Sam Jaeger), as she does with her vacuum cleaner. When a neighbor tells her that Rob is cheating with a waitress at a nearby diner, Beth Ann befriends the other woman and then tries to emulate her in an attempt to win back Rob’s affections.

Simone (Liu) and her husband, Karl (Jack Davenport), a seemingly perfect and wealthy couple, occupy the house in the glamorous and gaudy 1980s. But their relationship is fractured when Simone discovers Karl is a closeted gay man. Lashing out at Karl, at her vapid friends and the world, Simone tries to keep up appearances while seeking out comfort (and sex) from an 18-year-old neighbor (Leo Howard).

The present-day Pasadena house is home to bisexual Taylor (Howell-Baptiste) and her husband, Eli (Reid Scott), a couple with an open marriage that's rocked when one of Taylor's "playmates," Jade (Alexandra Daddario), arrives for an extended stay. Jade ends up in bed with both wife and husband, testing how much insecurity and jealousy their marriage can take. It's not the most sensitive or enlightened take on polyamory, but it doesn't exploit its characters for gratuitous titillation, either.

The series occupies the same kind of heightened, soapy, technicolor world of “Housewives.” Freed from broadcast-network censors, Cherry uses tasteful nudity and limited profanity that makes the bad behavior of his characters more authentic without shoehorning in adult content as some streaming and premium-cable shows do (looking at you, "Star Trek: Discovery").

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The story toggles between the three time periods, although the most entertaining setting is the wonderfully garish 1980s. In all three decades, the characters are recognizable – the socialite, the housewife, the sexually fluid millennial – but are just unique enough to avoid cliché (well, apart from Jade, another Daddario character who's incredibly attractive but little else).

The acting is melodramatic without being too over the top, and Liu, especially, shines. Clad in shoulder pads and more jewelry than “Dynasty” dreamed up, she dominates every scene, her mix of restraint and ostentation delightfully hilarious. Howell-Baptiste has so much more to do here than in her guest spots on series like "Veronica Mars," showing her range and dynamism as a leading woman. Goodwin, in part because of the timid and subservient nature of her character, falls flatter than the other two, but is well-cast and charming. The husbands are fun, but Scott is especially amusing, adding another jerky, privileged liberal to his repertoire (which includes very similar bros in “Veep” and this summer’s “Late Night"), and relishing lines about how his wife is “one hot feminist.”

“Women” is the kind of high-concept, plot-heavy drama that, in time, can radically fall off the rails. With only two episodes made available for preview, it’s hard to tell if it will careen off the path or nail a 10.0 landing. (Cherry has said he envisions the series as an anthology like "American Horror Story.") But the early episodes are charming and fun enough to make it worth sticking around to watch how it ends, whether it's in disaster or triumph.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Why Women Kill' review: 'Desperate Housewives' creator strikes gold