One day when [my mother] least expects it, I’m gonna do something so awful it is going to rock her world. I mean, it is really going to destroy her. When that day comes, trust me, I’ll know paradise.
—Andrew (Shawn Pyfrom), “Live Alone and Like It”
It’s easy to see why millions of viewers came back repeatedly to Desperate Housewives. With its mischievous score, self-satisfied narration, and hot, talented female leads, the series acts like a winner, and who doesn’t want to hang with one of those? Better still, it’s a winner that doesn’t discriminate. Where viewers had to pay premium fees to stay current with Carrie Bradshaw and her cohorts, ABC’s housewives require no such exclusivity. Housewives is TV, not HBO.
Reportedly, that pay-cable network was among the many (CBS, NBC, Fox, Showtime, Lifetime) who declined Marc Cherry’s spec script of Housewives. It’s likely HBO recognized a Sex and the City rip-off (simplistic voiceover; three distinct types paired with one increasingly annoying “everywoman”) when it saw one, but who knew Cherry planned to steal from The Sopranos too? Host to one gruesome death after another, the series has evolved into a lurid, live-action comic book.
No surprise, then, that Housewives’ roots are in a decidedly dark real-world occurrence. As the story goes, Cherry’s mother inspired his series when, while watching coverage of the Andrea Yates trial with her son, a sympathetic Martha Cherry said, “I’ve been there.” Stunned to learn that Mom wasn’t always perfectly happy (talk about a duh-squared revelation), the apparently very myopic Cherry set out to tell—or at least represent—the “truth” behind the homemaker facade. Through farce and unrelenting, unsettling violence.
Not that you hear, or read, much about that. Sure, we know Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) blew her brains out to launch the show, but that’s just a plot point. “Oh Mary Alice,” Susan (Teri Hatcher) asked at the close of the premiere, “What did you do?” We got our answer in the first season finale. Quietly “desperate” about infertility problems, Mary Alice bought a jonesing addict’s baby, then poked a chef’s knife through the mother’s gullet when she returned (devoid of track marks) three years later to reclaim her little boy. It’s all very mama-bear-protecting-her-cub, heat-of-passion, fight-or-flight kind of stuff. Perfectly understandable. And if the violence ended there, I’d have no problem with (though still no interest in) Cherry’s pit of suburban hell. But I’m stunned that Wisteria Lane is rife with homicidal nut-jobs and no one seems to care.
Maybe it’s my problem. Even as a kid, it didn’t seem funny to me when the anvils fell on Wile E. Coyote—and those cartoons didn’t even show blood. Cherry’s cartoon takes its depravity further, setting crazy boys and frantic men loose to bash in the skulls of non-hot women or, as circumstances warrant, run them over and feel no remorse.
The latter was the case with Andrew (Shawn Pyfrom), the pot-smoking, increasingly diabolical son of Bree (Marcia Cross). Cherry has said that Bree’s domestic perfectionism (hers is a life of hospital corners and complex home cooking) and insistence on surface pleasantries is modeled on his own mother. So was her reaction to Andrew’s (alleged) homosexuality: “I would love you even if you were a murderer,” Bree/Martha told Andrew/Marc. A vet of sitcoms (he wrote for Golden Girls), Cherry knows how to deliver a punchline—hence his zest at sharing this tidbit with reporters. But did he not suspect that we would see Andrew, the character Cherry calls a “narcissistic sociopath,” as a stand-in for his creator? While there’s nothing new about an artist—a term I use extremely loosely here—using his work to burrow through personal issues, Housewives is more transparent in this regard than most. Bree’s hurts are deeper, and the assaults on her less deserved, than those of her fellow housewives. Her son swears to destroy her when she least expects it, her husband cheats on her with an S&M mistress, and an infatuated pharmacist plots to kill her husband by tampering with his medication. Sublimated mommy issues, anyone?
Judging by the finale, Bree’s whipping wife status is unlikely to change any time soon. As promised, the show killed off a major character: her husband Rex (the fantastic Steven Culp) died in the hospital, thinking Bree’s machinations were the cause of his demise. (Meanwhile, Roger Bart’s unhinged pharmacist is set to become a regular next season.) Deliciously smug, Rex was my favorite Desperate man and his push-and-pull-away relationship with Bree the only one that remotely held my interest. Alas, according to the show’s broad strokes-storytelling, he had to go. “As we neared the end of Season One, our plan was that each woman would enter a new life chapter,” co-executive producer Kevin Murphy told Entertainment Weekly. “Gabrielle would learn to function without Carlos, Susan and Mike would build their relationship, Lynette would go back to work, and Bree would become a single woman. We either had to have Rex divorce her or die.” Well, sure. Never mind that the series might have found genuine drama by exploring its oldest marriage; with Susan shacking up with Mike, someone else had to be single, dammit!
If losing Rex ensured my boycott of Wisteria Lane, I’d had one foot out the door since November’s distasteful “Guilty.” A milestone in several ways, the episode cross-cut Paul’s (Mark Moses) extended murder of blackmailer/busybody Martha (!) Huber (Christine Estabrook) with Susan’s passionate first sex with Mike (James Denton), the mysterious plumber across the street. If the show was aiming for a pompous, obvious parallel between sex and death, it failed. The scene just played as icky—soap opera meets snuff film. (Presumably, the FCC was too busy investigating Nicolette Sheridan’s dropped towel on Monday Night Football to notice.) Mere months later, a beaming Cherry accepted the Golden Globe for best comedy. Now that plot twist was funny—albeit in a dark, Desperate, hell-in-a-handbasket kind of way.