No Sweats Allowed
Thanks to a few Desperate Housewives, ABC got its first open-mouthed kiss of validation in a very long time. Nary a half-eaten bull testicle or forensic scalpel in sight, the series premiere piqued the curiosity of over 21 million viewers—this season’s top debut so far on any network, and the best for affection-starved ABC in 11 years. Whether all those tube-watchers will decide to commit or bail following last Sunday’s (3 October 2004) one-night-stand, the show’s initial blockbuster ratings suggest a few things that audiences have long craved yet done without.
Fans have mourned the nighttime melodrama since the end of Melrose Place, itself a cheeky revamp of earlier classics Dynasty, Dallas and others. Gritty police procedurals and reality contests have their place, but lack the stuff that make soaps so narcotic: serialized plotting, unapologetic artifice, a black-and-white moral code and equally unsubtle characters (preferably in sparkly evening gowns). Such an over-the-top genre perfectly suits today’s pop culture, which is utterly fixated with irony and camp; pundits on shows like Best Week Ever endlessly obsess over the incidental humor and subtext in even the basest, most artless fare in film, TV, music and the tabloids. Plus, with the exception of Sex and the City, it’s been ages since a female-centered show has sustained national attention.
Delivering all that and more, Desperate Housewives could potentially replace the departed Sex as the TV Sunday ritual for women and gay men everywhere, although DH is the guiltier pleasure of the two. The new show is front-loaded with soap stars old (Melrose Place‘s Marcia Cross, Knots Landing‘s Nicolette Sheridan) and newer (Eva Longoria of The Young and the Restless), and boasts a veteran team of writers and directors who’ve done time on General Hospital, Melrose Place, Santa Barbara, and The Colbys, plus cultish fare like The Golden Girls, Queer as Folk, and Sex and the City.
Like the seminal Sex, Housewives features a photogenic quartet of women, each a modern archetype. Yet while Carrie and crew enjoyed the limitless expanse of upscale Manhattan to work through their problems, these thin, well-lit housewives are tightly confined to Wisteria Lane, a Hollywood cutout of a suburban block. A claustrophobic, stylized parody of perfect lawns and picket fences, this perma-sunny prison isolates and magnifies the women’s escalating travails. True to its sudsy pedigree, Housewives is a relentlessly plot-driven affair, although it always relays the improbable action with a knowing wink.
Housewives’ extracts full-tilt glamour and drama from its mundane suburban setting. They may prefer stilettos to sweats, but these suburban divas struggle with everyday issues: boredom, marital strife, loneliness, and identity crises. Their recognizable pathos triggers outsized conflicts. The premiere squeezes in arson, poisoning, adultery, divorce, an “I know what you did” letter, and a suicide that may have been a murder—all on quiet Wisteria Lane.
The deceased is serene stay-at-home mom Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), whose supposedly self-inflicted gunshot death kicks off episode one. As she cheerfully narrates off-screen, Mary Alice can’t offer any explanation for shooting herself on a normal day spent “quietly polishing the routine of my perfect life.” Omniscient and smug in the afterlife, she introduces the neighbors she left behind, each also teetering on the edge of self-destruction. No one says so out loud, but the suicide provokes grim introspection: if Mary Alice had nothing to live for, do I?
Bree (Cross) is the helmet-haired Martha Stewart clone whose zealous quest for domestic perfection leaves her family and marriage in the tundra. Her robotic obsession with DIY upholstering, fusion cuisine, and muffin baskets is SNL-worthy, but Cross sneaks in a few heartbreaking glimmers of Bree’s very real discomfort with intimacy. A Latina ex-model turned trophy wife, Gabrielle (Longoria) spars with her controlling rich husband and has kitchen-table nooners with her sexy young gardener. A vampy, lingerie-wearing bombshell in the tradition of young Heather Locklear, Gabrielle goes through the motions of her meaningless affair “to keep from blowing my brains out.” Lynette (Felicity Huffman) is the corporate executive whose remarkable fertility (triplets and an infant in three years) forced the end of her high-flying career. More than resentful of her traveling husband, Lynette can’t admit that she dislikes motherhood and her bratty children.
Perhaps the most stereotypically “desperate” of all, Susan (Teri Hatcher) is a painfully insecure, newly divorced mother whose spouse left her for his secretary. Her sex-talk-savvy teen daughter (Andrea Bowen) encourages her to get over it with the new plumber down the street (James Denton). Susan is game, but must conjure up the confidence to compete with Edie (Sheridan), the slutty, aggressive divorcee down the block.
While they sip coffee and politely mourn Mary Alice’s death together, the sisterly, sugar-swapping connection between the surviving women is superficial, and clearly vulnerable to shifting alliances, acts of betrayal and crowd-pleasing cat-fights (oversexed Edie is already on the outs). In this pressurized arena, friendship will likely prove as tenuous as marriage or emotional stability.
In its acerbic yet frothy way, Desperate Housewives satirizes women’s clichéd, impossible choices: career or family, love or sex, independence or intimacy. Our tragicomic heroines face an uphill battle, already bearing fatal flaws (selfishness, neediness, poor judgment, self-hatred, self-delusion) that will hobble their happiness. It remains to be seen whether this cleverly trashy postmodern soap will allow them to resolve and understand their legitimate issues, or we’ll just enjoy their meltdowns, over and over again.