I have to admit I was late to the Desperate Housewives bandwagon. It came at a time when television sitcoms were limping toward a dry death, and I was turned off by a few scenes I watched on the Internet. When the show came out in 2004, some critics compared it to the then-recently ended Sex and the City – and the only thing the two shows share is a strong female-centered cast; while SATC was a clever, but often sentimental program about the friendships between four women, Desperate Housewives was a clever and barbed parody of night-time soaps, as well as, a curdled look at the feminine mystique, and how it still manages to ensnare women some 40 years later. As with many pop culture phenomenon, the hype that surrounds Desperate Housewives often overshadowed what was at its core a very well-written, consistently excellent, sometimes brilliant program. It suffered the dreaded sophomore jinx, when it couldn’t deliver on the artistic promise of the first season, but the DVD set of the first season of Desperate Housewives proves that even if it wasn’t part of the zeitgeist in 2004 (it eventually spawned a whole franchise of housewife reality shows), it still would’ve been one of the brightest shows of the decade.
What sets apart this show from others is how excellent the pilot is – in fact, it’s arguably the best episode of the series. In it we’re introduced to the four main characters: hapless divorcee, Susan Delfino (Teri Hatcher); former executive turned harried housewife, Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman); obsessed homemaker, Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross); and trophy wife, Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria). The four women live on a cul-de-sac of the fictitious Wisteria Lane, an upscale suburban neighborhood with gorgeous colonial homes. The four women are thrown into a tragic mystery when their friend, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) kills herself in the very first episode. It appeared that Mary Alice had it all, which troubled her friends who were left trying to figure out why she committed suicide. While the mystery served as the major arc of the show, each character had her own story to deal with: Susan entered a relationship with a handsome, but mysterious plumber who has stashes of cash and a gun; Lynette’s suffering from severe mommy blues, and is itching to get back to the workforce where she thrived and shone; Bree’s picture-perfect marriage is imploding because of infidelity, incrimination, and a tragic accident that tears her idyllic family apart; and Gabrielle’s stepping out on her husband with the hot young gardener who’s still in high school. And every soap needs a villain – Dynasty had Alexis Carrington, Dallas had J.R. Ewing, and Melrose Place had Amanda Woodward – in Desperate Housewives, every woman on Wisteria Lane has to keep a wary eye on Edie Britt (Nicholette Sheridan), the vampy divorcee, with a penchant for high class hooker gear.
With all these twisting stories, one could assume that the writers would lose control of the plots, or have difficulty in keeping them interesting or logical. But the team of writers does a great job in doing an incredibly tricky thing: having high-gloss camp, but with sincere and genuine emotions. That means that save a few examples, the show doesn’t veer wildly into melodrama or slapstick farce without some sense of organic transition. That’s not to say that there isn’t any melodrama or slapstick, but when those moments come, they do not feel tacked on or forced.
That isn’t to say that the show’s perfect. There is a troubling cloud of misogyny that hangs over the stories – an old-fashioned misogyny that is popular among waspish gay men – it feels at times like something written by George Cukor or Richard Blackwell. The ladies are put through some serious paces – and thanks to the game cast, it all works. It’s still sometimes pause-inducing to these women be put through trials of suffering. But it’s ridiculous to watch this show with too much pointy-headed scholarship (though the show was a popular subject for pop culture courses in universities). Poo-pooing the sexism that the female characters suffer is to miss the point of the show – the retrograde misogyny is part of the show’s charm – it’s a shellacked, candy-coated pastiche of Sirksian melodrama, stirred with Clare Boothe Luce comedy, and sprinkled with Aaron Spelling-style camp, with a large dose of Twin Peaks plopped in.
In the midst of all this post-feminist theater are actors who perform admirably – each adapting to the highly stylized, almost Kabuki performance tone. Hatcher as the daffy Susan is gifted with some nifty physical comedy – at times, the writers rely too much on making her a fool, but the actress does and admirable Lucille Ball homage (there’s an epic pratfall that sends Hatcher crashing through a giant table with a towering wedding cake); Cross as the tightly-wound Bree is also very good – though the uptight, too-perfect housewife bit is a bit cliché – she’s far more interesting when she’s being sassy and assertive; Huffman’s the show’s MVP, dropping mini-symphonies of brilliant acting in her scenes – the writers tend to overdo the overwhelmed, overworked mom bit, but Huffman steals every scene with tremendous performances throughout the show; the only minor off-key note is Longoria – not because she’s untalented but because her character isn’t given as much emotional range or comedic heights, but the actress acquits herself well.
Not everyone will enjoy Desperate Housewives – the show’s arch tone may put some viewers off. Also the outlandish plots may seem incredible – it seems as if the writers don’t feel the need to reign it in at all. But again, for the show’s fans, the more ridiculous the plot twists were, the better. And at its best, the show strikes some gorgeous notes – the comedy is sublime, the mystery intriguiging, and the drama compelling.