Remember these names: Gabrielle, Lynette, Edie, Susan and Bree. You're going to be hearing a lot about them. A lot more, should I say.

A warm welcome please for Desperate Housewives (M-Net, 8.30pm), the ladies of Wisteria Lane, a wide, curving suburban street with leafy trees, manicured lawns and large houses set back from the road.

It's a picture-postcard setting, the kind of neighbourhood you dream of raising your kids in. For me, personally, it's a nightmare of the screaming, sweating variety, and perhaps it is too for some of

our heroines.

The first episode opens with Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) going about her daily routine - feeding her family, running errands, doing her chores. Then she calmly blows her brains out. It's the dearly departed who narrates the story of the remaining housewives from her now clear and elevated view, who in turn ponder what could have driven their friend with her apparently perfect life to suicide.

Bree (Marcia Cross) is like Martha Stewart on steroids, with her perfect hair that never moves and her gourmet dinners which make her teenage children more resentful than grateful. Why can't she open a tin of pork 'n beans like other mothers, her son grumbles. She's also a member of the NRA, which she hopes will discourage her husband from cheating on her.

Edie (Teri Hatcher) didn't take that precaution, so her hubby left her for his secretary. She lives with her teenage daughter, Julie (Andrea Bowen). Lynette's (Felicity Huffman) husband is frequently away on business, which doesn't sit well with her since she is left behind with four small brats (and they are). Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that she gave up a hugely successful career to be a stay-at-home mom.

Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) is a trophy wife, having married the man who promised to give her everything she wanted. "Turns out I wanted the wrong things," she muses after she's shagged the teenage gardener (Jesse Metcalfe). She goes to hilarious extremes to make sure her husband doesn't fire her toy-boy.

Last, but by no means least, there is Edie (Nicolette Sheridan), a sexy predatory divorcee who doesn't let her single status stand in the way of a varied and energetic sex life. She and Susan immediately enter a war for the attentions of the handsome new single neighbour Mike Delfino (James Denton). He's a plumber. Or is he? Hmmm ...

Rounding out the cast are the various husbands, and the nosy, gossipy neighbour Mrs Huber. Secrets abound in this seemingly perfect environment where everyone is hiding something, and nothing is as it seems on the surface.

M-Net sent us a copy of the first episode, and I have to say it's one of the best things I've seen on the box for ages. Darkly funny, it's an absolute must-watch. What with a funeral, a fire, a swimming pool being dug up in the dead of night, an attempted murder, a gun, a threatening letter, blocked pipes and burned macaroni all in the first hour, it's hardly your typical day in the 'burbs.

Along with the tape, M-Net also sent a promotional gift to tie in with the launch, which can explain a bit more about the characters. A laundry bag (the show's tagline is "everyone has a little dirty laundry") contained five bottles of luridly coloured dishwashing "gel", one for each housewife - the usual green, an alarming canary yellow, luminous pink and lavender. Somewhere between J'oburg and here, most of Susan's turquoise liquid leaked out, making a right mess of things.

Also in the bag was a miniature red G-string marked with Gabrielle's name, Edie's feather duster, Bree's hand cream and Susan's peanut butter. These are all items which feature in the show. Unfortunately, the peanut butter in the show is not as interesting as it sounds. Funny, yes. Interesting, no.

Desperate Housewives topped the US popularity charts last year and became the number one show of 2004. It also made waves when it premiered in the UK earlier this year, attracting the biggest TV audience since the launch of ER more than 10 years ago - statistics one should be beware of since there are so many more television viewers than there were a decade ago. But it sounds good.

The American public voted the show the best new dramatic television series at the People Choice Awards and thereafter the housewives nabbed a couple of Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Hatcher got the Golden Globe award for best actress in a television series (comedy or musical) and the show won for best television series (comedy or musical). At the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Hatcher collected another statuette and the rest of the cast garnered the award for best ensemble.

  • Top Billing (SABC3, 7.30pm): I just can't resist my weekly fix of making goldfish faces at how some people live. Imagine spending your life racing yachts around the world? Or having Jenny le Roux drape you in faux fur before popping off for a day at the spa?

    In tonight's episode, celebrities Marc Lottering (who is the only one truly deserving of that description here since he actually worked for it), Ferdie (Big Brother - remember that?) and Ezra (Idols) get a chance to make their own wine.

    The travel insert is on Gabon, Pavarotti is interviewed, and Michael Mol proves that men will always be boys when it comes to toys as he explores the latest in gadgets and gizmos.

  • Teri Hatcher Interview (M-Net, 8pm): The pay channel has scooped Diane Sawyer's interview with Teri Hatcher. Hatcher talks about love and her failed marriage, unemployment and making it back to the top - a Hollywood dream for a woman over 40 (although these five are going to make a lot of people rethink that milestone). Is she a desperate housewife in real life?

    At 7.30pm, M-Net screens The Making of Amalia which, together with the interview, means Celebrity Homes falls away. Amalia is M-Net's new Afrikaans drama series, which begins next Thursday at 7.30pm.

  • Wife Swap (DStv's BBC Prime, 9pm): The British version this time, although this third season also includes some international swops. German discipline meets British gender-politics as Sharon leaves her partner and three children in Bristol to swop with Anna-Christina in Veale, Germany.

    Next week, life couldn't be more different when Tanya swops her Ramsey-Street-style suburb of Melbourne, Australia, and her six children, for Elissa's home and two daughters in Manchester, northern England.

  • Changes: SABC2 and e.tv will offer live coverage of the funeral of Pope John Paul tomorrow from 9am. Because of the funeral, the wedding between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles has been moved to Saturday, along with BBC Prime's live coverage of that event, from 1.30pm.