USA TODAY

Save a few pesky storm clouds, nothing today is out of the ordinary on Wisteria Lane, home to ABC’s Desperate Housewives. Outside Gabrielle Solis’ house, the rose bushes have been impeccably pruned (by a gardener who lost his pants). The lawn has been mowed (by a housewife in high heels). And a bitter feud is erupting between two leading ladies.

The raised voices heard from inside Gabrielle’s home grow more audible as Eva Longoria (Gabrielle) takes her fight with one of the other women outside to the front porch.

Tabloid reports have been pitting the housewives against each other, and indeed, today’s fireworks have been brewing for weeks. It’s remarkable a confrontation hadn’t happened sooner.

In case you’re not one of the 22 million Desperate fans who have helped make the dramedy TV’s No. 1 new show, here’s the story behind the nastiness: Gabrielle has been hiding a naughty secret from her friends. Underappreciated by her control-freak husband, Gabrielle has been carrying on with her 17-year-old gardener, John. In the scene being shot today (to air in December), one of the other housewives discovers the affair and is none too pleased.

While we can’t tell you which of Gabrielle’s neighbors uncovers the indiscretion (we’ve been sworn to secrecy), we can report the hugs exchanged between the actresses after takes. ”We hate fighting with each other,” says Longoria. “After we finish, we’re like, ‘I don’t want to yell at you. I’m so sorry.’ It’s just awful.”

Despite what the supermarket tabs would have you believe, the only feuding going on between these actresses is on screen. Yes, like most everything on this mysterious cul-de-sac, from the silk roses to the faux house fronts, little here is as it seems. Even Wisteria Lane is a fabrication. The street has existed for decades on the Universal Studiosbacklot as Colonial Drive, previously home to The Munsters and the Leave It to Beaver Cleavers.

Colonial’s newest neighbors are sort of a hybrid of both TV families. Say if Herman Munster had sneaked across the street to ”visit” June Cleaver, they very well might have produced accident-prone single mom Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), neurotically perfect Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross), over-sexed but under-loved ex-runway model Gabrielle Solis (Longoria), harried mother to four Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), and neighborhood tramp Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan).

With a lunch break called, Huffman pulls Longoria under a stack of Nordstrom gift boxes she’s holding over her head as they shield themselves from the rain and make a mad dash into one of the many houses that line the block. Hatcher is throwing a baby shower for her hairdresser, and all five stars — including Sheridan, who arrives a little later, and Cross, who arrives a lot later with her hair in curlers — attend.

Set insiders say talk of feuding is complete rubbish. And each of the women has prepared a clever response to feuding queries.

Says Hatcher: “From what I understand, Felicity says, ‘When we’re all drunk we get along really well.’ “But as the cast member most victimized and bothered by the rumors, Hatcher concedes, ”It saddens me that that’s what the (tabloids) choose to grab on to.”

“It is insulting,” agrees Cross.

The only cast member who seems to be getting a kick out of all this tongue-wagging is Sheridan, who plays Wisteria’s real estate agent seductress and mother to an as-yet-unseen 6-year-old son.

“People love controversy,” says Sheridan, batting her eyelashes. “When you have five women interacting, they love to think that there’s all sorts of jealousy and competitiveness going on. It isn’t . . . but I think it helps the show.”

Tabloid darling Sheridan, the playful Paris Hilton fashionista of her day, has long existed as a controversial figure and seems to feast off that reputation. Sashaying outside her trailer in her fuzzy boots and unfazed by the rain, the leggy blonde looks back over her shoulder when she hears a Teamster whistle at her. Before long, Sheridan is surrounded by three men, sharing cigarettes and swapping off-color jokes.r>

“Every neighborhood needs a troublemaker,” says Sheridan, who auditioned for the role of Bree. “Edie breezes in and causes trouble and breezes back out again. “Now everywhere I go, husbands tell me they want to see more Edie.”

The Desperate Housewives phenomenon began Oct. 3, when the frisky fivesome took over theprime-time neighborhood with a premiere episode attracting 21.6 million curious cats. Its numbers have held firm; last Sunday’s show lured 21.5 million. Suddenly, hit-starved ABC isn’t so desperate.

Series creator Marc Cherry, who was struggling for a hit and was down to his bottom dollar, is now zooming around the valley in a shiny new Lexus with a license plate that reads ”DSP HSWV.” ABC quickly picked up the show for a full season. Copycat shows are in the works, with NBC reviving a comedy written seven years ago called Five Houses, about families living in yet another cul-de-sac. And ABC has ordered up The Colony, about rich families in Malibu.

In this spinoff-happy world of three CSIs and a fourth Law & Order due in January, Cherry doesn’t rule out the possibility of a Desperate spinoff, should ABC come looking for, oh, say, a show about desperate husbands set on Misteria Lane.

“On the one hand, I wouldn’t want to damage the show we have,” he says. “On the other hand, I’m a whore, so I suppose enough dollar signs could convince me of anything.”

The cast knows they’ve struck gold. “When you feel like you’ve been kind of nowhere for four years,” says Hatcher, “it makes you that much more appreciative.”

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