A few good 'Wives'

With Kim Delaney, Catherine Bell and Sally Pressman, this soap drama is surging to a Lifetime series record.

Posted: June 28, 2007

At ease, Kim Delaney.

After being dishonorably discharged from CSI: Miami in '02 - a year after her own show, Philly, was canceled - Roxborough's Delaney is back on active duty with a hot new show.

Thanks to Army Wives, the highest-rated series in Lifetime's 23-year history, Delaney is basking in the kind of success she hasn't enjoyed since her eight-season run on ABC's NYPD Blue ended in '03.

"You put all the effort in, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," she says from Charleston, S.C., where Wives is filmed. "When it works on this level, it's exciting."

Based on Tanya Biank's '06 book Under the Sabres: The Unwritten Code of Military Marriage, Wives revolves around a diverse group of women - and one man - living with their spouses and families on a bustling Army base.

Costars include sultry JAG alum Catherine Bell, Brigid Brannagh (CSI), and newcomer Sally Pressman, formerly a professional ballerina. Mark Gordon (Grey's Anatomy) is executive producer.

After four episodes, Wives (at 10 p.m. Sundays) averages 3.6 million total viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. That's an increase of 173 percent over the time slot's previous occupant, Blood Ties.

Delaney, 47, plays matriarch Claudia Joy Holden, no-nonsense wife of Col. Michael Holden (Brian McNamara). Widely respected on the base, she is the show's moral center.

"There's a fine line between her morals and the Army's," Delaney says. "She stays steady, no matter what happens. I think I need my own Claudia Joy Holden."

No joke.

In '02, Delaney was arrested for DUI. Three years later, she lost custody of her only child, Jack, now 17, after he testified in a Santa Monica, Calif., court that her drinking endangered his life.

Also in '05, her brother John died from a massive heart attack while playing basketball with the Delaney clan at their parents' home in Ventnor, N.J. He was 47.

It seems that the actress' luck is finally turning.

Jack, now a high school senior and captain of the varsity basketball team, has toured Penn and Villanova and recently attended a Penn basketball camp.

And on the professional front, Wives is tearing up cable. Even Delaney says she's surprised.

"I knew it was good work, but you never know what people are going to watch. Everywhere I go - the shoe store, the eye doctor - everybody's talking about it. They're already hooked. Forget about it."

Timing is a big factor. With the country at war in Iraq, Wives hits many viewers where they live. (By comparison, Steven Bochco's Over There, about a mostly male combat unit in Iraq, lasted only one season on FX in '05.)

Wives gets tons of feedback, mostly positive, on the Lifetime Web site from real Army wives, and husbands, says a network rep.

After nine seasons on JAG as tough-as-titanium lawyer Lt. "Mac" MacKenzie, Catherine Bell jumped at the role of Denise Sherwood, a devoted homemaker being physically abused by her teenage son.

"I wanted something totally different," says Bell, 38, a motorcyclist, race-car driver and kickboxer. "I always play strong, badass women. I knew this would be a challenge."

Bell had one caveat. She insisted to the producers that her character eventually wake up and defend herself.

Playing a weak woman for a movie was OK with Bell, but doing it week after week, possibly for years, would send a bad message, she says.

"To me, it's always about the message. I can't play a woman who puts up with abuse forever and never changes. Ultimately, the message is that being weak and not standing up for yourself is OK."

Roxy LeBlanc, Wives' sexy breakout character, has no such handicap. Played by Pressman, she does what she wants, when she wants. A sassy, "white trash" mother of two, she marries a soldier (Drew Fuller) after knowing him four days.

In an early episode, Roxy struts out of a bathroom stall in nothing but a thong and high heels. (Relax, she needed to clean a wine stain off her dress.)

"She's more fun than being me," says Pressman. "She's got no edge, no negativity. She just goes with the flow. She doesn't really care what people think."

Pressman, 25, a native New Yorker and a dancer since age 2, was a member of the Manhattan Ballet Company. After graduating from Yale, she moved to L.A. to pursue acting. Wives is her first series.

"When I did ballet, I'd have five performances a year," she says. "At some point, I realized it was the performance I enjoyed, not the actual ballet, so I started exploring acting."

Speaking of exploring, Lifetime is not eager for Wives' cast to disclose personal feelings about the war. Like good Army wives, Delaney and Pressman won't get into it. Bell, however, will.

"I don't understand why we're there. It's a complicated situation and I don't think there's a simple answer. I'd like to see us out of there as soon as possible.

"Bottom line, I support our troops and their families 100 percent. I think everybody does."

Contact staff writer Gail Shister at 215-854-2224 or gshister@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/gailshister.


Army Wives


at 10 p.m.

on Lifetime

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