WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — It was the shot heard ‘round the world — or at least in living rooms across America.
Viewers tuned to ABC on the night of Oct. 3, 2004, had barely settled into their recliners for the premiere episode of “Desperate Housewives,” when one of the show’s characters, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), picked up a revolver and put a bullet in her brain.
We were instantly hooked.
The suicide sent shock waves through Wisteria Lane, an idyllic suburban thoroughfare that actually harbored many dark secrets behind its picket fences. And it prompted Mary Alice’s friends to examine their own existential misery: There was Susan (Teri Hatcher), an insecure divorcee; Lynette (Felicity Huffman), a career woman turned frazzled stay-at-home mom; Bree (Marcia Cross), a psycho Martha Stewart wannabe; and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), a young trophy wife who happened to be bopping the hunky teen gardener.
June Cleaver would have been appalled, but a nation became addicted to creator Marc Cherry’s offbeat blend of mordant humor, campy melodrama and murder mystery. Who knew that there was so much voyeuristic joy to be found in watching seemingly well-adjusted suburbanites engage in sordid behavior?
“Desperate Housewives” became a water-cooler blockbuster. It helped woeful ABC rise from the Nielsen dead, garnered lots of shiny awards and defied the Hollywood norm by turning its over-30 female stars into media sensations.
It also prompted television, which had been obsessed with young singles, to rediscover the American housewife. A parade of like-minded shows — mostly reality TV series — followed in its wake. The Bravo cable network, in particular, struck gold with its overwrought “Real Housewives” franchise. (Cherry should demand royalties.)
Over eight seasons of sin and skin, “Desperate Housewives” lost much of its creative edge. And as the stories became more outlandish, the ratings became less impressive. When it leaves the air for good on Sunday, it will be with more of a whimper than a bang.
But there’s no denying that it was a pioneering show that left a big dent on pop culture and provided us with a number of fun moments. And now, some last tasty bites of its forbidden fruit:
A DEAD END
Suburban serenity? Not quite. Some war zones have seen less carnage than Wisteria Lane. Our rough estimate puts the death toll at 52 so far — 53, if you count Juanita’s class hamster, Cupcake.
And these aren’t your humdrum deaths. Bree’s husband Rex (Steven Culp), for example, expired after being poisoned by the family pharmacist. Then there was Victor Land (John Slattery), who was impaled by a flying fence post during a tornado, and Gaby’s mother-in-law (Lupe Ontiveros), who tumbled down some hospital stairs after waking up from a coma as a result of being run over by Bree’s son, Andrew.
But nothing beats the untimely demise of Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan) for pure shock — and absurdity. After being nearly strangled to death by her third husband, poor Edie fled via car, only to crash into a utility pole and get fried by a loose wire.
It’s also noteworthy for its real-life infamy — leading to a wrongful termination suit by Sheridan against Cherry.
At times, the story lines were so far-fetched we suspected Cherry and his crew were doing bong hits in the writer’s room. We’d be here for hours if we tried to log all the insane plots. Instead, we’ll rank our top five:
1. New neighbor Betty Applewhite (Alfre Woodard) keeps her mentally challenged son (and murder suspect) chained up in the basement. It’s creepy and offensive and a waste of Woodard’s talent.
2. Bree fakes being pregnant to cover up the fact that her daughter, Danielle, has been knocked up and banished to a convent. The plan worked … for a while.
3. After vying for (and losing) the love of Mike Delfino (James Denton), Katherine Mayfair (Dana Delany) goes crazy, and then goes lesbian when seduced by a former stripper.
4. To make ends meet, Susan takes a job with a soft-core porn website, doing housework in her undies. Totally out of character. Totally ridiculous.
5. Turns out that Juanita really isn’t Gaby’s biological child, thanks to a switcheroo at the hospital. A timeworn soap trope made more annoying by the fact that it really goes nowhere.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
All the show’s characters dealt with their share of hardship. But perhaps none was put through the wringer more than Mike Delfino.
In addition to being thrust into a number of fistfights, Mike was framed for murder, did some jail time, suffered through a hit-and-run accident, spent six months in a coma, became addicted to painkillers, did a stint in rehab, went through a divorce and was forced to remove his shirt a number of times.
It seems only fitting, then, that poor Mike would meet a horrific end. After putting the beat-down on a loan shark, he was killed in a drive-by shooting.
And, now, a moment of silence for the friendly neighborhood plumber.
Yes, it was awfully zany, but “Desperate Housewives” could also occasionally pack an unexpected emotional wallop. Scenes in which Gaby confronted her abuser and Susan spoke at Mike’s funeral left lasting impressions.
But perhaps no moment touched us more than when Tom informed a pregnant Lynette in the hospital that one of their unborn twins had died. Huffman dug extra deep for this one, and the look of anguish on her face was heartbreaking.
That explains why she was always our favorite of the bunch.
LIKE A GOOD NEIGHBOR …
The show, of course, was about more than the core gal pals and their arm candy. They got plenty of support from other residents, including the revolving “fifth wife.” A few of our standouts and their contributions.
—Mrs. McCluskey (Kathryn Joosten), the golden girl. What she added: Plenty of senior sass and spunk. Always good for raising a ruckus.
—Bob (Tuc Watkins) and Lee (Kevin Rahm), the gay guys. What they added: Two engaging characters who weren’t prone to stereotypes and self-loathing.
—Katherine Mayfair (Dana Delany), the ice princess. What she added: A savvy domestic diva and worthy rival for Bree.
—Renee Perry (Vanessa Williams), Lynette’s old college friend. What she added: You can never have too much snark.
BY THE NUMBERS
Sometimes words don’t suffice. You do the math:
5: Years skipped ahead in the Season 5 flash-forward.
6: Networks passed on the pilot script before ABC bought it.
15: Emmy nominations for Season 1 (Won six).
180: Episodes produced over the show’s eight seasons.
30.62 million: Viewers watched the Season 1 finale.
THAT’S A WRAP — REALLY
Don’t expect the women of Wisteria Lane to go the “Sex and the City” route and head to the big screen. Cherry says there are absolutely no plans for a movie.
“I think ‘Sex and the City’ only did something like 69 episodes. So the advantage for them was that they hadn’t really plumbed the depths of those characters,” he told TV critics at a farewell news conference. “(But) after eight years, boy, I think we’re done, and I’m happy about it. … I’m just never sending these gals to Dubai.”
Two-hour series finale
9 p.m. EDT Sunday
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article