Friday, May 06, 2005

Why is America so desperate for desperate housewives?

With only a couple more new episodes left in its first season of Desperate Housewives, I feel as though I have a pretty good grasp of what this show is about.

Five women, whose personality differences are un-effortlessly accentuated by their deliberate costumes, live in suburbia, with a lot of “drama on the high seas”.

For those of you who have not seen Desperate Housewives, the show revolves around the lives of five women who are all home makers and are all for the most part dissatisfied and frustrated with their lives. There’s Susan, portrayed by Teri Hatcher (formerly Lois Lane in Lois and Clark) a divorced mother of one, who would probably loose her head if it wasn’t attached to her shoulders, and is unable to venture out without a dramatic catastrophe of monumental proportions happening at every street corner (she loves the drama). Bree, portrayed by Marcia Cross, a conservative woman whose focus on being the best possible “home maker” she can be, makes Martha Stewart look like a hippie slacker with a couple hobbies. Gabrielle, portrayed by Eva Longoria, a former fashion model, spoiled gold digger type, who married for money, but is secretly sleeping with her teenage gardener. Lynette, portrayed by Felicity Huffman, mother of four rambunctious children, who gave up her high powered corporate career so that she could devote more time to her family and home. Last but not least, the “neighborhood slut” Edie, portrayed by Nicolette Sheridan, whose sole M.O. seems to be bedding men and strutting her stuff so that others can feel badly about themselves.

Not exactly the sort of people you’d want to be stranded on a life raft with in the middle of the ocean huh? What is it about this show that makes it one of the most watched, if not the most watched show on TV in any given week? How did it come to win a Golden Globe award for best comedy? More importantly, why am I transfixed to this show week after week, in spite of myself?

The answer to all these questions is difficult for me to determine. There is an elemental aspect of the show that is akin to daytime soap operas. Mysteries and scandals lurk behind the seemingly squeaky clean façade of well to do families. Forbidden loves run wild, while unrequited passions grow, ready at any moment to burst above the surface.

Kind of.

Call me an idiot for critiquing a prime time network show this way, but for me Desperate Housewives isn’t quite “fill in the blank” enough. It’s not dark enough, it’s not funny enough, it’s not irreverent enough, plain and simple its not smart enough. The characters, in my opinion, are with the exception of Felicity Huffman’s character, Lynnette, fairly despicable human beings, who can barely get their lives together, and are hard pressed to show a scrap of human decency at the most “desperate” of times. So the show doesn’t have relatable characters. Fine. Not every show should be Joan of Arcadia, Sopranos, a show about criminals and murderers, I feel more of an emotional connection that when I watch Desperate Housewives. Tony Soprano has done many a bad thing during the run of the series, yet there is a part of me that can still empathize with him, and has become greatly invested in his character. The characters on Sopranos have real depth and dimension. Not so with Desperate Housewives. When Gabrielle’s mother in law was in a hit and run accident, her obvious gloating came across as unrealistic and monstrous instead of funny or even disturbing – it was just ridiculous.

When Marc Cherry, the creator of Desperate Housewives accepted his Golden Globe award, he spoke about how he envisioned the show as a satire. Ok, cool, I dig satires. But something is missing from Desperate Housewives’ supposed “satirical” outlook. The show doesn’t paint suburbia as a dystopia wherein its inhabitants are blind to the horror of their banally shallow lives. It this show, suburbia is a gentrified utopia, where no one realizes how easy they really have it. It doesn’t push the envelope far enough so that the show actually critiques the lifestyle of the rich and unemployed women of the world. Nor, for the most part, does it make these women real enough so that we can emphasize with their difficulties and see how trapped they are.

One of the plot driven elements of the show is the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, the housewife who committed suicide unexpectedly, in the first episode. I always thought this was an interesting hook, but I couldn’t be less interested in the unfolding drama of the family she left behind, (a subdued mysterious husband, and a young teenage boy who acts out). All I have to say is that Mary Alice’s supremely dark past better be more intriguing than the fact that she fled another state with a child who’s mother was unfit and going to give him up anyways.

The entire story of the show is framed within the narrative of Mary Alice’s ghost. At the beginning and end of every episode, her disembodied voice tries to thematically tie together the episodes. Not only does the narration seem forced as it unsuccessfully strives to achieve a certain allegorical tone, but it reads more like Jack Handy’s Deep Thoughts than cohesive thematic thinking.

The following is a quote from the episode “Every Day a little Death” This is an exact excerpt of the narration dialogue.

"Death is inevitable. It’s a promise made to each of us at birth. But before that promise is kept, we all hope something will happen to us. Whether it is the thrill of romance... The joy of raising a family...Or the anguish of great loss...We all hope to experience something that makes our lives meaningful. But the sad fact is, not all lives have meaning. Some people spend their time on this planet just sitting on the sidelines...waiting for something to happen to them, before it’s too late."

Now call me crazy, but doesn’t that sound like a sampling from a self-help book rather than a witty satire? Especially when the imagery to go along with it is all on the nose, instead of being poignantly ironic.

What about this one?

"There is a widely read book that tells us everyone is a sinner. Of course, not everyone feels guilt over the bad things they do. In contrast, there are those who assume more than their share of the blame. There are others, who sooth their consciences with small acts of kindness. Or by telling themselves their sins were justified. Finally, there are the ones who simply vow to do better next time, and pray for forgiveness. Sometimes, their prayers are answered."

“In Contrast”? No one would uses that phrase except a Lit professor, or a stumped student trying to B.S. his way through an essay. That is just not the sort of colloquialism one throws into everyday banter. Also the entire thing makes little to no sense. It’s just sloppy and clunky. For shame…

I could rattle off a million things that drive me crazy about the show. That Susan/Teri Hatcher’s relationship with the plumber/hit man Mike Delfino, felt rushed, insincere, and unrealistic. That the subplot of Mike Delfino on Wisteria Lane to search for a missing long lost love gets lost in fray, resulting in muddy under developed story line. That the character of Edie Brit (played by Nicolette Sheridan) is often given nothing to do, and hangs around the neighborhood more like a lawn ornament than anything else. That I actually hate all of the women’s characters except for the former career woman Lynette Scavo (probably not a coincidence there).

So why do I turn back every week? Is it because I love to hate the show? Am I really hooked into its mediocre plot lines? Is it out of a sense of obligation? Do I feel that everyone else is doing it, so I should too? Is it because I’ve begun to allow my TiVo to spoonfeed me things out of laziness?

The answer is, maybe a little bit of all of these things put together. I do feel as though I have invested a lot of time into it, and that it would be a bit of a waste for me to give up know without getting any closure. I also think there is a part of me that believes this show could actually be very good, and hopes that maybe they’ll finally take advantage of the good performances, and high production value that they have to do something more unique and smart.

As for why America keeps tuning in, I can’t be sure. I am certain some others love to hate it, and some just view it as frothy pastime entertainment. But there is part of me that wonders if a lot of the women in America watch the show in awe of what their lives could be. Just in the way that many a young woman idolized Carrie Bradshaw and her three friends from Sex in the City, Manolo Blahniks and all, I wonder if there is another set who just dreams of being the Desperate Housewife with perfect muffin pans, and a manicured emerald lawn; gossiping the day away with gal pals about strange neighbors. One could argue that one ideology is no better than the other. Both Sex in the City and Desperate Housewives exhibit characters who are materialistic, practice sexual infidelity, and more than occasional irresponsibility. The difference is the former was driven by characters that were real and had been breathed to life, whereas the women in the latter might as well be cartoon characters, they are so 2-dimensional. Oh that, and the writing was ten times better on Sex in the City. Hey, if I’m gonna watch women be catty, I’d rather watch a witty one than a dumb one.


Blogger Elliot said...

I watch a little bit of DH every week for two reasons.
1) It happens to be on in between two shows I watch on different networks.
2) I really fancy the latino lady whose name I can't recall (the one who's shagging the lawn boy).
I would also like to comment on the fact that she was supposedly a catwalk model.
This seems unlikely as she is about 3 and a half centimetres tall, or at least not even remotely tall enough to be strutting her stuff on the catwalk.

4:38 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

I know, its positively ludicrous! She is the shortest of all the other women on the show, and its totally distracting. She is undeniably quite glamorous looking despite the fact I can't abide her character.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Mr. DNA said...

Try turning the TV off sometimes.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

And in fact even the name is stupid.
It should be "Neurotic Housewives" or "Disagreeable Housewives" or "Stupid Housewives".
None of them seem desperate.
They all have stacks of money and pert breasts.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I feel the same way about "Lost" as you do about "Desperate Housewives," - I've invested all this time, even though the show isn't really as good as it should be. But every week, I will make time for it, just to finish out the season.

12:38 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, Lost has its ups and downs, but overall I'm just a bigger fan of the genre and show its trying to be. They get an A for effort in my lil grade book. (p.s. I think we're dreaming if we think we're gonna get any resolution by the end of this season though...)

12:54 PM  

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