NEW YORK – "Desperate Housewives" (search) has done what only a handful of TV shows have ever done — debuted as the No. 1 show in the country and kept right on going.
Some 20 million viewers tuned in Sunday night for the series second episode — down just slightly from the nearly 22 million who saw the show's record-setting debut last week.
From nowhere, the show became the most popular series in the country — beating stalwarts like "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Survivor" — in its first week on the air.
In it's second week, "Housewives" came in fourth behind "CSI," "Without a Trace" and "CSI: Miami," but it still cleaned up for ABC, which has long lagged behind the other major networks.
"This thing just exploded out of the gate," says Mediaweek magazine's ratings guru, Marc Berman. "There was nothing like this on TV."
The feat puts "Housewives" in elite company alongside such shows as "Laverne & Shirley," "Cosby" and "ER," which came on TV with huge audiences right out of the box.
"Wives" was ABC's best debut since "NYPD Blue" came on in 1993. ABC's other new breakout hit is the drama "Lost," which was watched by 16.5 million viewers last week.
This week alone, the sexy "Wives" cast will appear on "Oprah," the cover of Entertainment Weekly, a slew of morning shows and similar programs.
Creator Marc Cherry said he got the idea for the show from listening to his mother's stories about his old neighborhood.
"I was at my mom's house watching coverage of the [child-killer Andrea] Yates trial, and I was just horrified," he said. "I turned to my mom and said, 'Can you imagine a woman so desperate that she would hurt her own children?'
"And my mother took her cigarette out of her mouth and turned to me and said, 'I've been there.'"
Cherry said it took him about an hour and a half to come up with the title for the show.
"Housewives is just this happy word from the [past] and I wanted to put something with it that said we were skewing it," he said.
The dark drama/comedy stars Teri Hatcher, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Nicolette Sheridan and former soap star Eva Longoria as a group of well-to-do, suburban wives (and ex-wives) who are struggling to keep it together in a world they thought they wanted — but now wonder if they can emotionally afford.
"The core of any TV show that will keep viewers coming back is investment in the characters," says Tim Brooks, co-author of the TV industry bible, "The Complete Guide to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows."
"And it seems to me with this cast and the way they're painting in the nuances of the characters — how different they are from each other and yet together [in this neighborhood] — it's a recipe for a very long run," he said.
Opening-night audience: Nearly 22 million
Last Sunday's audience: 20 million
The appeal: Suburban women try to keep their neat, little lives from spinning out of control.
In upcoming episodes: Lynette, played by Felicity Huffman, becomes addicted to one of her kids' ADD medicine. A snoopy neighbor tries to blackmail Susan (Teri Hatcher) about the fire at Edie's house.