"Hot girl summer" turns deadly in Why Women Kill. The decadent, darkly comedic summer drama from Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry, premiering Aug. 15 on CBS All Access, takes a time-hopping approach to scandal and infidelity. The series follows three women living in the same house in three different decades -- a housewife in the 1960s (Ginnifer Goodwin), a socialite in the 1980s (Lucy Liu), and a lawyer in 2019 (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) -- as they deal with the aftermath of betrayal in their relationships. Not everyone makes it out alive.
"I don't think it would be a Marc Cherry show if it wasn't extremely complicated, if the relationships didn't evolve and change and twist over time," Howell-Baptiste told TV Guide. The colorful series promises to deliver enough surprises to keep audiences on their toes, but beneath the soapy drama and slick twists, the core of Why Women Kill is found in what doesn't change: On this show, there's nothing more timeless than a woman scorned.
"Themes aren't necessarily repeated through the eras, but they're sort of reimagined and reexamined through the eras," said actor Reid Scott, who co-stars in the present-day storyline as the husband of Howell-Baptiste's character. "A lot of the things that our unit is going through, the couples in the other eras are going through as well, just in the '60s version and the '80s version."
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, TV Guide sat down with each pair of actors to get the scoop on the relationship drama in what Scott calls "the murder house of South Pasadena."
The show's earliest timeline, set in 1963, revolves around a seemingly picture-perfect couple, Beth Ann (Goodwin) and Rob Stanton (Sam Jaeger), who try to redefine themselves by moving to a fancy new mansion. "We are escaping the previous version of our life," said Goodwin. "It doesn't work."
Beth Ann's carefully crafted world begins to unravel when she discovers Rob has been cheating on her with a waitress, sending her on a journey that Cherry plotted out for Goodwin in meticulous detail before she took the part. The actress first met Cherry years ago when he gave her and her Once Upon a Time co-star Josh Dallas, a tour of Walt Disney's old office, which Cherry then occupied. ("I was trying to show off for my now-husband," Goodwin recalled.) The next time she sat down with Cherry, he sold her on Why Women Kill by walking her through Beth Ann's entire story -- which entertained her so much that this time, she's keeping Dallas out of the loop.
"It's the first time I haven't let him read scripts," said Goodwin. "He'll be like, 'You won't even tell me who you're working with,' and I'm like, 'No, it'll give too much away. I want you to have to go for the ride. I really want you to watch this one and have the experience I had just listening to Marc tell the story.'"
"And what a relief it is to have the creator of your show have that specific a vision from the get-go," Jaeger added. "The last thing you want is to get halfway into a season and realize, 'We don't know where we're going here.'"
Both actors agreed Cherry takes Why Women Kill in a "darker," twistier direction than he did in Desperate Housewives, and Goodwin teased a trauma in Beth Ann's past. "Her growth was stunted at the time of this trauma, so she's living in probably more of an early-1950s, mid-1950s world and mentality," Goodwin said. Everything Beth Ann has tried to bury resurfaces when Rob's infidelity shatters her image of their marriage, forcing her to confront the fact that she doesn't have a life outside her husband. "She doesn't have any skills, she doesn't have the rights we have today," the actress explained. "There's nothing that she could do to support herself."
In the face of that realization, Beth Ann's story becomes "a kind of coming-of-age story," as Jaeger put it. The actor explained, "We are realizing with her that the spot in which she's found herself is not fair. And we root for her to awaken from that. That era specifically, people would make exceptions for their marriage to the nth degree, women specifically, because they felt like that was the thing to do, that it was better to take it on the chin and keep it together. And Beth Ann's story is a woman who finds that she's just not capable of doing that anymore. Thankfully."
Why Women Kill is never more deliciously campy than it is in its 1980s timeline, which spotlights Lucy Liu's fashionable socialite, Simone, and her third husband, Karl (Jack Davenport).
"They're not afraid to be fabulous. They're proud of it," Liu told TV Guide. For her character in particular, "the facade of being rich and being perfect and having everything in its right place is very important."
The couple's happy 10-year marriage is rocked when Simone learns Karl is gay. "One of the interesting things about the show is because you have these three different time periods you're able to look at how the pressures that relationships come under [are different] depending on the moment in history," said Davenport. "And Karl's predicament is partly to do with the time that they're in."
When Karl's secret comes to light, it kicks off a complicated dance between husband and wife as Simone worries about appearances and Karl fights to preserve, in some form, what they have. "They were really happy, and they got something from each other that no other person had ever given them," Davenport explained. "Given the nature of his betrayal, is it worth just entirely throwing everything out?"
"They have a very spirited relationship," Liu said. "[Simone is] very brave in how she uses her words and she's very committed to the life that she leads. And that gives a sense of comedy and drama at the same time. I think the important thing is that the character doesn't realize it's funny -- it's a very dramatic moment for her -- but the audience is taking it hopefully as a funnier tone, because it's kind of ridiculous some of the things that she says. And she believes them so strongly that it creates this very comedic moment between her and her husband. He really has some zingers too."
Davenport agreed, "Even in the bleakest moments they reflexively fall back on humor and teasing each other and kind of whistling in the dark, really, and I think that's quite an interesting coping strategy."
In the present-day timeline, Why Women Kill turns its attention to Taylor Harding (Howell-Baptiste), a lawyer, and Eli Cohen (Scott), an out-of-work writer who, in Scott's words, "has been riding his better half's coattails for the last few years." The couple's open marriage, a house of cards they keep together with a strict set of rules, begins to collapse when Taylor invites one of her hookups, Jade (Alexandra Daddario), to stay with them for the weekend.
"What Taylor thinks in the beginning is she has a situation that benefits her, and later on she sees that there are other people involved and she can't control all the pieces," Howell-Baptiste explained.
The situation starts spinning out of her hands when Eli takes an interest in Jade. "Eli isn't someone who's really taken advantage of the open relationship so much, and he's so instantly beguiled by Jade that it becomes an issue when he wants her to be his hall pass," Scott said. "She's quite objectified too, by both of us."
While Taylor and Eli pay lip service to the importance of honesty in their relationship, there's a lot they aren't saying. "Maybe they don't lie openly to each other, but they both definitely lie a lot to themselves," Howell-Baptiste said. Both she and Scott agreed that there's something modern about their characters' refusal to admit their own flaws.
"I think a reflection of our era and where we are now is essentially hypocrisy, pointing the finger at someone else and saying, 'You've done this,' but they don't own their parts in the dysfunction," said Howell-Baptiste.
The actress also offered her take on why murderous women are so compelling. "It doesn't happen a lot, and as a society we paint women as, if you're not nurturing then there's something wrong with you," said Howell-Baptiste. "We've been taught as women that we should be able to withstand everything and anything, and I think when the bough breaks it's fascinating. I mean, a woman who has lost it is endlessly fascinating. Women, we're smarter and stronger, so if you've driven us to that point, something's really gone wrong."
Why Women Kill premieres Thursday, Aug. 15 on CBS All Access.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of CBS Corporation.)
Reporting by Sadie Gennis