Desperate Housewives

(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, Noel Murray looks at former super-hit Desperate Housewives. Next week, Zack Handlen drops in on The Mentalist.)

Not only was I a fan of Desperate Housewives once upon a time, I can even remember the moment I got hooked on the show. I’d liked the murder-mystery teased by the first episode of the first season and had enjoyed the second episode too, but it was the third episode that sold me, and in particular, it was a scene at a dinner party in which the core characters swapped embarrassing stories. When it was time for prissy perfectionist Bree Van de Kamp to take her turn, she exacted some revenge on her husband, by coldly telling her friends, “Rex cries after he ejaculates.” It was a funny line, but more importantly, it was one of those, “Wait… what?” moments that Desperate Housewives dropped so often and so well in its first season. Early on, this wasn’t just another scandalous, upper-class-suburban mystery-soap; it was the kind of show people talked about the next day. And as rewarding as it can be to find some excellent, little-watched series and become a champion, the fact is that television is a mass medium, which means that one of the great pleasures of being a TV fan is sharing something shocking or funny or moving with tens of millions of other viewers simultaneously.

I can’t remember exactly when I stopped being a fan of Desperate Housewives, but I know it happened early in the third season. The show’s second season had been something of a drag, essentially repeating what had worked the first time around but with less zing and with a glut of new characters (including a neighbor played by Alfre Woodard, whom the writers never figured out how to use). By the middle of the third season, Desperate Housewives seemed to be going the way of so many “outrageous” comedy-dramas before it and was starting to see its characters behave differently from episode-to-episode, depending on what crazy plot twist the writers wanted to put across. Even worse, after the resolution of the big story that bound the show’s leads together, the Desperate Housewives writers found fewer and fewer reasons to put the main characters in the same room at the same time, which made the ensemble drama feel more like four separate shows woven together. And most weeks, I only enjoyed one or two of them. 

Around the middle of season three, I realized that my wife and I were about four episodes behind, with no great desire to catch up, so I deleted our TiVo Season Pass for Desperate Housewives and dumped the unwatched episodes. I briefly considered coming back when I read that the fifth season had skipped ahead five years in the characters’ lives, but after the initial hubbub over that twist settled down, I didn’t hear a whole of chatter about the show, which meant I didn’t feel like I was missing anything too zeitgeist-y. So I moved on, remaining blissfully unaware of what’s been happening on Wisteria Lane for the last four years.

When I received this assignment to check back in on Desperate Housewives, I hit Wikipedia and tried to give myself a crash-course on seasons three through seven. I could get the gist, but it was still pretty baffling to dive into the seventh season’s fifteenth episode, “Farewell Letter,” and to sort out who was who and what was what. Either way, “Farewell Letter” still offered some strong reminders of why I once liked Desperate Housewives—and why I quit on it. 

The episode is tied together by multiple goodbyes: Lynette Scavo (played by Felicity Huffman, and at one time my favorite character) decides to kick her college-aged twin sons out of the house so that they’ll learn to fend for themselves; Gabrielle Solis (played by Eva Longoria) returns to her dusty, dinky hometown to stand on the grave of the stepfather who molested her and read a letter that will give her closure on her past; and Bree (played by Marcia Cross, and at one time my second-favorite character) tells the young hunk she’s been dating that he needs to leave and go spend time with the son he never knew he had. And elsewhere in the neighborhood—in a storyline that I’m not sure I could untangle even if I had hours and hours to spend reading plot synopses on the internet—former (?) DH villain Paul Young (played by Mark Moses) confronts his new wife with the news that he knows she’s the daughter of his longtime enemy Felicia Tilman, and he kicks her out.

The one storyline that doesn’t really tie in to the “farewell” theme is the one involving perpetual screw-up Susan Mayer (played by Teri Hatcher). Recently diagnosed with a deformed kidney—on the heels of losing a kidney—Susan has been undergoing dialysis, which gets her out of a ticket when a cop stops her for running a stop sign. So Susan starts dropping her dialysis into conversations all over town, as a way to cut in lines and get out of trouble. Only when she tries to get into an exclusive restaurant with her friend Renee (played by Vanessa Williams, apparently a new cast member this season) does Susan hit a roadblock, since everyone else waiting for a table has a health woe they can point to as a reason for preferential treatment. At the end of the episode, Susan collapses in the restaurant, which qualifies as a “goodbye” inasmuch as she’s whisked away to the hospital.

Desperate Housewives can still be very funny. When Lynette’s sons get fed up with her nagging about their haplessness, one says, “You’re acting like we stabbed someone,” to which she quips, “Of course you didn’t… you don’t know where the knives are.” And Desperate Housewives can still be very dramatic. Gabrielle has a surprisingly great time soaking up the adulation of her hometown fans, until she runs into one of her old teachers, a nun, and Gabrielle confronts her about how she did nothing when Gabrielle confided in her about her abusive home. Plus, the show still has its soap opera hooks working, as evidenced by the business with Paul, who from what I’ve seen and read has a devious plan to exact revenge on his Wisteria Lane neighbors, if Felicia and her daughter don’t stop him first. I especially liked that the daughter, Beth Young, has fallen in love with Paul despite her mother’s intentions, which reminds me of the Desperate Housewives I used to enjoy so much, where best-laid-plans are undone by unexpected emotional ties.

But am I tempted to start watching again? No, not really. My complaint about the lack of interaction between the main characters still pertains, at least in this episode. At one point, when Bree’s boyfriend asks her to leave Wisteria Lane with him, she says she’d miss her friends, which was a funny thing to say, given that she doesn’t appear in a single scene with any of those friends. My complaint about the characters’ situational behavior still pertains too. Although I found it strange that Bree would be dating a tattooed dude—which is out of character with the fusspot she used to be—since I’ve missed several years of plot, I’m going to assume she changed over time. Still, the resolution of the Lynette and her kids storyline was pretty dopey and abrupt, as the boys move in across the street with old Mrs. McCluskey and Lynette tries to prove to her neighbor that her sons are lousy by providing them with a keg and encouraging them to trash Mrs. McCluskey’s house. (Wacky, to be sure… but one of the reasons I quit this show was that the previously engaging Lynette storylines had turned similarly cartoonish.)

And then there are the Desperate Housewives quirks I’d forgotten, like the wall-to-wall “Isn’t this nutty?” score, which plays even when Gabrielle is talking about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. I’d forgotten, too, about the big tying-up-the-episode montages, narrated by the dead Mary Alice Young in her condescending “let me tell you a story” tone (always beginning with the word, “Yes…”). Those elements haven’t aged too well.

The biggest problem with Desperate Housewives though is that this is the kind of show that needs to be in the thick of the cultural conversation to really be meaningful, and though it’s still popular compared to the bulk of what’s on network TV, and reportedly hugely popular worldwide, domestic viewership is down from an average of 23 million an episode in the first two seasons to 13 million an episode now (give or take a few hundred thousand). I read online that ABC and creator Marc Cherry are planning to keep the show going for at least two more seasons (even though the full cast has yet to sign on for that), and I’ve no doubt that the writers can keep coming up with enough twists and shocks to keep their core viewers hooked for as long as they want to run. But where are the glamorous magazine profiles? Where’s the backstage gossip? Where are the SNL parodies and late night talk-show jokes?

Lots of people are still watching Desperate Housewives, definitely, and it’s still an above-average prime-time soap (again, judging by this episode). But not as many people are talking about it as there used to be. And for a show like this, where everything’s heightened for the maximum coast-to-coast gasp factor, it makes a big difference when there are fewer people gasping.

Stray observations:

  • I used to like how Desperate Housewives episodes were named after Stephen Sondheim songs, and now the show’s been on the air so long that Cherry is getting into the deep cuts. A song from Passion!

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