Desperate Success

As a writer for Desperate Housewives, Josh Senter is living a life scripted for TV and mingling with Hollywood's elite.

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Josh Senter nearly killed Angelina Jolie. Well, sort of.

It happened following the Golden Globes in January. Josh—27 and the youngest writer for ABC’s hit show Desperate Housewives—stood on a penthouse balcony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel during a post-show party with the cast of 24. Snipers stood on nearby rooftops, and bright spotlights filled the night sky. Josh had just polished off his umpteenth glass of champagne and switched to a mudslide. As he lit a cigar, he rested his drink on the balcony’s railing. In that moment, a friend accidentally bumped the glass over the rail. Josh reached the edge of the balcony just in time to watch as the glass fell, seemingly in slow motion, toward the red carpet below. After what seemed like an eternity, it abruptly shattered on the pavement, right beside the famed red fabric. A dazed friend looked up and pointed toward Josh. “You nearly killed Angelina Jolie!” he shouted.

In reality, Mrs. Smith was nowhere to be found. But finding himself in such a surreal Hollywood situation was nothing new for Josh.

If Josh’s life were a TV show, it would follow the basic premise he uses for all of the characters he writes: “The trick is to write the opposite of what you’d expect a character to do,” he says. “You want to create someone who’s stereotypical and then put them in surroundings in opposition to where they want to be and force them to do things they wouldn’t typically do.”

Words to live by.

During the past decade, Josh went from a Missouri farm to regularly rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s A-list. At the age of 14, the home-schooled student from a fundamentalist Christian family had rarely seen a television. Ten years later, he would write for the No. 1 TV show in America.


L.A. Story

As the third season of Desperate Housewives comes to a close, the series is still a hit. By now, Josh has grown accustomed to the lifestyle of a successful L.A. screenwriter. A typical weekday goes like this: After a leisurely morning, Josh drives his Audi A4 to Universal Studios and parks in a spot with his name on it. He walks into the office around 10 a.m. He spends the first hour surfing the ’Net and reading the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. Around 11, the show’s writers convene to work on upcoming segments. Headed by lead writer Marc Cherry, the team first puts together an 11-page outline for each episode. The outline consists of six acts, separated by commercial breaks. The writers then break into groups to write the show’s many scenes.

Josh sticks out amid a team of primarily Ivy League, West Coast–native writers—including former writers for NYPD Blue, Frasier and Will & Grace. “At first, I felt a little bit of frustration in trying to relate,” he admits. “But after three years, all of our lives have begun to blend together.” Josh has found his niche by writing about family and women, two things he knows well after growing up with four sisters. “Women are complicated, so you really have to delve into the characters,” says Josh, who has written for Showtime’s controversial series, The L Word. He says he doesn’t want to become typecast as someone who writes about women.

Of all the residents on Wisteria Lane, it’s a woman that Josh relates to most: Bree (the Stepford Wives–like redhead played by Marcia Cross who is obsessed with organization and domestic upkeep). Like Bree, Josh is constantly working on his home, a century-old house he recently bought in the Hollywood Hills.

Not surprisingly, Josh writes many of the lines for Bree and Lynette, the down-to-earth mother of four on Desperate Housewives. He draws much of his inspiration from his mother, Brenda. “I was constantly hauling around the kids like Lynette,” she says. “And I’m very structured like Bree.” Josh also pens many of the lines for Mary Alice, the deceased housewife and narrator who offers life lessons at the end of every episode.

 


Before the ’burbs

Josh didn’t need to grow up in the ’burbs to write about them. As a boy, he lived on a 500-acre farm near Plato, Missouri. It is a town nearly 90 miles northeast of Springfield where “everything was green and sky,” as he puts it. His mother home-schooled Josh and his four sisters, so they rarely left the farm or interacted with peers. While his sisters played, Josh was alone. He’d spend hours wandering through the woods by himself, following winding brooks and concocting far-fetched stories. “Being alone so much probably helped me become a better writer since it’s just you and the computer when you write,” he says.

Josh also found other ways to entertain himself. He taught himself how to illustrate cartoon cells, paint with watercolor and mold pottery. He transformed the basement bathroom into a darkroom during a photography kick. And after being cast as the lead in a local play, The Pirates of Penzance, he made his own costume on his mom’s sewing machine. “He’s always been bizarrely creative,” says Hannah, his younger sister and a Missouri State theatre major.

Ironically, Josh rarely watched television before the age of 13 because of his parents’ fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Still, he’d occasionally get a glimpse. While mowing, he’d sometimes sneak into his family’s cabin to watch cartoons like Tail Spin and Rescue Rangers on a small black-and-white screen. And while visiting his grandparents’ house in Oklahoma during summers, he’d sit on the couch for hours and soak up the flickering images. “Whenever I saw moving pictures,” he says, “I just clung to it.”
In particular, Josh recalls seeing Jurassic Park (which he refers to as “my generation’s Star Wars”) for the first time. “It was this life-changing moment where I realized the possibilities were endless,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that.” He saved up his money and bought a video camera that he used to make homemade short films and music videos with Hannah. In the meantime, he worked toward his other life ambition: Becoming a Disney animator. “I used to go through reams of paper just drawing bodies and arms and legs and trying to master my craft,” he says. “I still doodle during writing meetings.”

After graduating from home school, Josh sent his portfolio to Disney. The company’s animators wrote back several months later to say they were impressed but not hiring. When they told him to call back in six months, he instead decided to pursue his other passion—film. He submitted several homemade films to Pasadena’s Art Center of Design, which is known for such famous alumni as Oscar winner Michael Bay. The prestigious college only lets in 15 film students per year and, as a rule, that handful of students is comprised of only college graduates. Despite the odds, Josh was accepted. “I was so naïve,” says Josh. “I’ve been naïve throughout my entire life, so I don’t realize all the limits and blockades that are there. To this day, I can’t believe they accepted me based on those films.”

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