overthinking the idiot box

June 13, 2005

When paired together for the NBC Upfront coverage, Joel and Nathan had no idea how the other felt about a little number-one show called Desperate Housewives. But when Nathan praised the quirky humor, and Joel bemoaned the sloppy writing, a line in the sand was drawn, and these two warriors of television criticism agreed to a future throwdown of epic proportions. And now, the time is nigh for...

The Housewives Catfight

by Joel Bergen and Nathan Bredeman (The Cinderella Men)

Nathan: And away we go.

Twenty-four episodes. Four women. Innumerable guest-stars. Impressive actors. Admirable writing. An entire season careening from one gloriously campy disaster to the next.

This is why I love Desperate Housewives. Let's start at the beginning.

I admit, at first I was skeptical. When I first heard the words "Teri Hatcher star vehicle," I cringed, imagining some ponderous hour-long drama in which Hatcher would solve the problems of her neighbors and learn Important Life Lessons, a la Crossing Jordan or Touched by an Angel. Shudder at the thought.

Instead, creator Marc Cherry served up an ice cream sundae of clich³s, truisms and predictable plot twists, all glossed to a high sheen, with equal hints of sweetness and menace. Everything old made new again.

We'll get into the specifics later, because I want to say first and foremost what I love about the show: casting.

Desperate Housewives, along with The West Wing and Scrubs, is the best-cast show on television. Every character is pitch-perfect, from the smallest guest star to the main four women.

Those women! I'd never seen Marcia Cross before, but her portrayal of tightly-wound supermom Bree Van De Camp is superb, especially her plastered-on smile. It strikes the perfect note of icy creepiness. Eva Longoria has the thankless task of making money-grubbing-model-turned-trophy wife Gabrielle sympathetic and, amazingly enough, succeeds. Teri Hatcher, as bumbling, stumbling Susan, is incredible. Teri Hatcher as the slapstick mental case — who knew it would work? Who knew Lois Lane could do pratfalls? And Felicity Huffman... !

Ah, Felicity Huffman.

Clearly the best actress on the show. Head and shoulders above the rest. Huffman, who plays business-exec-turned-harried-mother-of-four Lynette, is funny and sexy and frustrating and devilish and warm. Seeing her here reminds me how good she was on Aaron Sorkin's Sports Night, and how angry I am that the show didn't get the recognition it so clearly deserved.

Joel: One episode (repeated in 24 minor variations). Four women who rarely interact with one another. Innumerable guest stars who amounted to nothing. Impressive actors wasted. Hackneyed writing. An entire season leading up to one big whimper of a "So what?"

These are a few of the reasons I think Desperate Housewives is the most overrated show on television (I won't say I hate it... unless it steals Arrested Development's Best Comedy Emmy).

Unlike you, I was excited when I first heard about this series. The title was perfect (still the best thing about the show) and the premise full of potential. A campy soap-mystery dramedy about suburban women on the verge? Sign me up!

As if that weren't enough to get me to tune in, two of my favorite TV actresses were going to star.

I fell in love with Marcia Cross as the crazy, psychopathic Kimberly on Melrose Place. Even when engaging in the absurdities her address required (stealing a baby, blowing up the apartment complex, developing an alternate personality not unlike Bree Van De Camp), Cross imbued the character with humanity, playing it both camp and real at the same time.

Like you, I thought Felicity Huffman was brilliant on Sports Night and am still angry it never found its audience. As Dana Whitaker, she too walked a fine line between comedy and drama, and deftly took a character who could easily have been unbearable and made her endearing.

All of these perfect ingredients make watching Desperate Housewives each week that much more painful. I can't help but think, "What a waste!"

I won't begrudge you the top-notch casting (at least when it comes to the women of Wisteria Lane — the men are about as charismatic as paint thinner), but just think what these gifted actresses could bring if they had more to do.

I made a joke about it in an earlier column, but I see it as a serious problem for the show: Each of the four main characters essentially plays out the same story every week. Susan gets all clumsy while trying to make things work with Mike, Gabrielle almost gets caught cheating on her husband, Lynette can't handle her possessed children and Bree gets uptight over something her husband or son does.

Towards the end of the season, there started to be some variations, but for the most part, it was monotonous and predictable. While this could have been Marc Cherry's sly comment on the tedium that is suburban living for a housewife, somehow I doubt it.

The problem is, Desperate Housewives is paced more like a daytime soap than a primetime one. Compare its storylines to a season of Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place or Dawson's Creek. Even The O.C. (which has its own story arc pacing problems) keeps things moving in a fashion more befitting a weekly series.

Another edge all those soaps have is that their main characters actually interact with one another, stirring up conflict and drama. The closest we've seen to that with Desperate Housewives is backstage at a Vanity Fair shoot.
Another edge all those soaps have over Desperate Housewives is that their main characters actually interact with one another, stirring up conflict and drama. The closest we've seen to that with Desperate Housewives is backstage at a Vanity Fair shoot. Otherwise, the Housewives' stories stay neatly in their own yards. Not that I want the show to devolve each week into a sexist catfight, but even the best of friends have their differences (the women on Sex and the City had tiffs all the time).

Lynette got upset with Bree for spanking her son, but that was an easily resolved exception that proved the rule. There've been other seeds that hinted at dissent, but ultimately never bore fruit. Bree knows her son put Gabrielle's mother-in-law in a coma. Susan discovers Gabrielle's mowing the lawn boy. Susan discovers Bree's son is mowing the (other) lawn boy. Imagine how Bree would've reacted if Susan had told her that her son was gay. She would've lashed out at Susan, only to come begging for forgiveness later on when she found out the truth. Alas, none of that happened because the boy just came out on his own, alleviating Susan of any role in Bree's life.

Nathan: OK, OK, we agree that it is exceptionally well-cast, and I will concede there are problems with the overall plot — the main thrust of the story was a bit repetitious.

Personally, however, the show's main joy wasn't its overall plot structure; it was the smaller moments within each episode that illuminated characters, cemented relationships or were just plain funny. Each episode had at least one of these moments (and often had two or three), which, for me, justified the hour.

Like when Susan's precocious daughter Julie asks her about the last time she had sex. Susan stops, stunned. "Are you mad that I asked?" Julie says — No, Susan replies sadly. She's just trying to remember.

Or when Bree and the family visit Gabrielle and Carlos after Mama Solis is hospitalized, and Carlos waxes rhapsodic about children. Gabrielle snaps. They made a deal — no children. "Deals were meant to be renegotiated," Carlos says. "Well, we're not negotiating my uterus," Gabrielle replies.

My favorite single moment from season one of Desperate Housewives, which I will now reproduce in full, when Bree finally agrees to join her husband Rex in his sadomasochistic fantasies:

REX: If things do get too rough, we'll have a control word. If one of us says it, the other backs off immediately.
BREE: Okay. So what's our control word?
REX: Well, lately I've been using "Philadelphia". What's wrong?
BREE: Well, it's just that my Aunt Fern lives in Philadelphia, and I don't want to be thinking about her while I'm spanking you with a leather strap.
REX: OK. Fine. You pick a control word.
BREE: How about "Boise"?
REX: "Boise"?
BREE: What's the matter with "Boise"?
REX: We're going to be doing psychological role playing here, Bree, and a funny word like "Boise" would ruin the mood. We need something that sounds serious.
BREE: Oh. How about "Palestine"?
REX: "Boise" will be just fine.

I firmly believe that small moments like these are enough to string a show together. Shows have been strung together on less.

And, come to think of it, I don't know any show I've watched where the overall plot of a season was more important to me than individual character-centered moments in each show. Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel — two of the most ingeniously plotted television shows of the last 10 years — are often remembered more for their smaller moments than their larger arcs.

Aaron Sorkin — who I know we both revere — was famous for abandoning whole chunks of plot and focusing instead on smaller bits of interaction — dialogue exchanges, meaningful looks, long speeches. These are what made Sports Night good. These are what made The West Wing good. These are what make Desperate Housewives good.

"Shows have been strung together on less."

Not exactly what I would call a ringing endorsement. I'll concede that those moments you cited are funny. And there are usually one or two of those in every hour. But that's not enough for me. Not when shows like Arrested Development or Gilmore Girls consistently pack in a good 20 per half-hour. Even "dramas" like The West Wing or The O.C. or Nip/Tuck or Veronica Mars typically have more, smarter laughs per episode than Desperate Housewives.

Perhaps this is where my irrational bitterness comes in. I resent the fact that this series has been deemed a "comedy". I know this is a meaningless label used primarily for meaningless award show classification, but it also reflects how America views the show. As if the state of comedy on television weren't already in poor enough health, it's sad to me that this "two-laughs-per-hour" show passes for comedy.

And as for those meaningless award shows, I'm bitter about those too. There were many detractors when Ally McBeal became the first hour-long series to submit in the "comedy" categories, but I was not among them. That show was chockful of gags (most of them funny) from start to finish. Already Desperate Housewives has been scooping up nominations and wins at The Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the Television Critics Association Awards, and as someone who takes award shows way too seriously, I'm already dreading its impact at the Emmys. People might be decrying the death of the sitcom, but in my book, Arrested Development, Scrubs, Gilmore Girls, Malcolm in the Middle and even Entourage are all far funnier and better crafted than Desperate Housewives.

It's not just as a comedy that Desperate Housewives falls short, either. It's never worked as a sustained mystery either. Some of that lies in the fundamental flaw of its first season riddle: "Why did Mary Alice kill herself?" There just isn't that much suspense when you know who the killer is and there's no threat of them killing again. "Who shot J.R.?"; "Who killed Laura Palmer?"; "Who killed Lilly Kane?"; "Who killed Dr. Richard Kimble's wife?"; "Who shot Mr. Burns?" — even "What happened to Mulder's sister?" or "Where are the survivors of Flight 815?" — are all clear, iconic mysteries with solid, quantifiable, easy to explain solutions (well, probably not those last two). I tried explaining "Why Mary Alice killed herself" to a casual viewer, but it was complex, and ultimately boring.

And it wasn't just the audience who couldn't care less about the why. Neither could three out of four Housewives after a couple of episodes. Then there was Susan, who was like the worst detective ever! In the finale, when Zack asked "How stupid are you?!" it was the only point in the entire season when I actually cheered, because he was exactly right. She had contributed nothing to the characters' or the audience's solution of the central mystery. Nothing she did was ultimately of any consequence to the revelations of the finale. That's why we had to just hear about it from people (Paul, Mrs. Tilman) who already pretty much knew everything. No detective work necessary!

Compare Susan to Veronica Mars. Veronica spent the entire season doggedly pursuing "Who killed Lilly Kane?" (not to mention "Who raped Veronica Mars?" and "Where's my mommy?") whereas Susan could only be bothered to think about her dead friend whenever a clue happened to fall into her lap. Before you say that it's not fair to compare a housewife to a semi-professional private investigator, bear in mind that what enabled Veronica to solve the mystery that her wholly-competent Sheriff father couldn't was her intimate knowledge of both the victim and what it's like to be a teenage girl. The Desperate Housewives writers could've easily allowed Susan (along with any of the other Housewives) to use her familiarity with Mary Alice as well as her Housewife-senses to figure things out herself like a big girl. But chunks of yawn-inducing exposition from minor characters to other minor characters is another (probably Emmy-winning) way to go.

Every situation seemed artificially contrived, yes. But contrived in order to bring out specific attitudes and behaviors from each character.
I've never cottoned to the idea that Desperate Housewives was a mystery. It always seemed to me to be character study strung on the clothesline of mystery and soap opera intrigue. Every situation seemed artificially contrived, yes. But contrived in order to bring out specific attitudes and behaviors from each character.

The Golden Globes? Ridiculous. The Screen Actors Guild Award? Those people are serious. They've got game. And that they chose to honor Desperate Housewives with two awards should say something. It is a good show. No, it's not a good mystery and no, it is not a good soap opera, and no, it is not the same as Ally McBeal.

Don't expect it to be more than it is. It is a good Desperate Housewives. It is an hour of amazing actors buoyed by solid, sometimes brilliant writing. It is more than we, the pathetic and desperate television viewer, have come to expect from a typical show. And that is reason to celebrate.

You propose an interesting theory about it being a character study. However, I'm not sure how well it succeeds even by that criterion. Again, the series is kept from being a true crucible for these women by its repetitive storylines, avoidance of conflict and smallness of its scope.

Perhaps my expectations are too high, but is it wrong to desire that a TV show live up to its potential? That's what makes Desperate Housewives so frustrating for me (as opposed to, say, CSI, another highly popular series I don't get but can't imagine being much better than it is). All the ingredients are there for a great show. It simply needs some sharper, more visionary writers at its helm (it's worth noting that Marc Cherry has no experience with this type of storytelling, though his resume isn't so different from Joss Whedon's pre-Buffy).

So it's not a good mystery. It's not a good soap opera. I'd say it's no more than an average comedy at best. And despite Cherry's claim during his cameo on Arrested Development, I certainly don't see how "It's a satire." Saying it's "a good Desperate Housewives" sounds like the pop psychology that tells a C-student they're the best them they can be. That doesn't make them the valedictorian, and it doesn't make Desperate Housewives a good show.

No matter what you, the critics, the zeitgeist, the Hollywood Foreign Press, the Screen Actors Guild, the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences or 23.4 million Americans say.

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Return to Vol. 1, Episode 6.