On Sunday nights this summer, Lifetime is hoping to draw audiences with a campy, soapy drama from Marc Cherry, the creative mind behind Desperate Housewives. It's called Devious Maids, and it looks nothing like anything else on television because it has five Latina stars. It's an unprecedented lineup for a prime-time drama.
The show itself is an upstairs/downstairs story about sensible maids and their neurotic bosses. In the first episode, there's a murder (complete with the victim staggering into the swimming pool), accusations of affairs, a suicide attempt and a star-crossed love story.
Viewers also get nonstop horrible stereotypes, in the form of wealthy white snobs bossing around long-suffering, noble Latina maids. An immigrant mother separated from her young son tries to reunite with him, but her boss won't let her take the time off to see an attorney because she has a facial and an interview. Another employer can't tell the difference between one Latina maid and another. It's an almost cartoonish take on the relationship between the servant and the served.
You wind up wondering: Why does every Hispanic female character on this show have to be a maid?
Thankfully, the maids themselves aren't stereotypes. But there are no Latina bosses here. The series barely shows the maids' homes or relatives who aren't servants. Even when these funny, charismatic ladies get together for lunch in a park, what do they talk about? Not their own families or interests; they talk about their bosses.
A great TV writer once told me that a series evoking serious racial stereotypes has to earn that privilege by saying something insightful. That writer, the late David Mills, helped create an HBO miniseries about black drug addicts in Baltimore called The Corner. One of the many complicated characters is an addict named Gary who once had a successful construction business. He passionately described how he tried to help his neighbors when he was doing well, but many of them, he felt, wanted to fail.
Gary put a human face on the disintegration of his entire neighborhood. The Corner cracked open the ugliness of a drug-ravaged city to tell a layered story about people who could be stereotypes — black drug addicts. Devious Maids never gets beyond empty outlines of hard-working Latinas serving rich white people.
Other landmark shows just burst stereotypes wide open. In fact, The Cosby Show was revolutionary, showing an upper-middle-class black family. Now English-language TV channels are desperately seeking their own Cosby Show for Latinos.
But Bill Cosby was a superstar comic who controlled his own sitcom. If American TV outlets want a Hispanic version, maybe they should consider handing a talented Hispanic performer and producer the latitude to create his or her own vision.
Until then, a campy soap opera about virtuous maids and their abusive bosses won't do much besides give a few really great Latina actresses a little more steady employment.
Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.