The preview of the new ABC series "Desperate Housewives" in the Oct. 3 Arts section incorrectly reported the time the show airs; it is broadcast at 9 p.m. Sundays. In addition, the character who has a tryst with her young gardener was misidentified. She is Gabrielle Solis, played by Eva Longoria. And the street where the characters live, Wisteria Lane, was misspelled. (Published 10/6/04)
Naturally, ABC describes "Desperate Housewives" as "darkly comic." Hey, come on, can't anything be brightly comic anymore? Kids get bright comedy stuff on their cable channels -- "SpongeBob SquarePants" and "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," though even there, dark currents may swirl. One "SpongeBob" included the detonation of a nuclear bomb. Jimmy Neutron accidentally turned his teacher into a towering giant who threatened to take over the world.
But we adults like things with not just a twist of lemon, apparently, but two or three lemons cut up and tossed into the brew. HBO basically set the trend in motion, and broadcast networks have had a hard time keeping in step because they aren't allowed the wide latitudes of language and nudity that HBO explores; if one single episode of "Deadwood" aired on ABC uncut, the number of forbidden words used would earn ABC at least $3 million in fines, according to an idiotic and unconstitutional new system set up by Michael Powell, pea-brained chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
This brings us, a bit belatedly, back to the dark comedy of "Desperate Housewives," the deliciously pernicious new ABC series premiering at 10 tonight on Channel 7. It was said at the time of "Twin Peaks" that, in the hoary cliche, TV "would never be the same." Well it was the same, and "Twin Peaks" had at best minor effects. "Desperate Housewives" may, when its time is up, leave television the same, too, but it's certainly not burdened by sameness.
In visual style, witty language, borderline surrealism and overall mad attitude, "Desperate Housewives" stands on a mountaintop all its own, the best new drama of the season and perhaps the best new comedy, too. It's the story of what happens in a small, tidy, immaculately manicured suburban enclave in the wake of a tragedy that had seemed unthinkable: the suicide of one of the town's more envied and adored women. Or maybe she just appeared to be envied and adored, since what people say and what people think around here don't always, or even often, intersect -- except when the wiser women hunker down for a real how-now powwow.
Are they Stepford Wives? No, they're more complex than the march-in-Stepford women, and "Desperate Housewives" is not a simplistic allegory or fable. Nor is it mere feminist tract, because we've all been dragged around so many feminist tracts by now that the thought of one more is enough to make our knees buckle.
Feminism seemed like a pretty good idea, but it was women as much as men who killed it -- wiggling their fannies as pole dancers in strip clubs, flouncing around in their undies on commercials and promotions for Victoria's Secret, merrily participating in happily reactionary throwbacks on TV like "The Man Show," and so on and on. All that bull about fancy gowns on red carpets hasn't helped either; don't these women realize how perfectly shamefully shallow and ridiculous they sound? It's the damn '50s, with blank-eyed Laura Bush making Mamie Eisenhower look like Eleanor Roosevelt, and always with that ghastly Welcome-to-my-Tupperware-party grin.
Some of the women in "Desperate Housewives" are very knowing and wise, and the knowinger they are, the more they are likely to long for escape from this unnamed town somewhere near a big and so-far unnamed city (the street is named, though; for the record, it's Wysteria Lane). The town, incidentally, seems just this side, or maybe just that side, of your typical Backlot Village, something constructed entirely on studio property the way spotless neighborhoods were for years on TV shows like "Leave It to Beaver" and "My Three Sons," yet not really looking the way those shows did, even allowing for the requisite updating.
There's an element of something off-balance, off-kilter, more than just offbeat about Wysteria Lane. Producers Marc Cherry and Larry Shaw, among others, working with production designer Thomas A. Walsh and cinematographer David Franco, have made this sort of the last stop before the Twilight Zone, the kind of place that manages to be a little bit spooky even while basking in a torrent of daylight.
A super-splendid cast brings the story to life starting, of course, with its pivotal death. Brenda Strong, as that darling little honey-pie Mary Alice Young, blows out her brains in one of the first scenes but hangs around, amusingly enough, to narrate the story that follows -- a borrow as opposed to a steal from the immortal Billy Wilder, who dared to have "Sunset Boulevard" narrated by corpse William Holden, floating face-down in a swimming pool after a few shots from Gloria Swanson's gun.
Even though narration has become the most overused technique in prime-time television (needed, perhaps, to help move the narrative along quickly now that hour-length shows have shrunk to as little as 41 minutes plus commercials), the producers of "Desperate Housewives" use it well, and Strong's uncomplaining perkiness adds yet another layer of irony to the enterprise.
Teri Hatcher, making a welcome return to episodic television, plays Susan Meyer, perhaps the wisest and most knowing of the smarter desperate women in town; she's reminiscent of the smart, tough character played by Susan Sarandon in "Thelma and Louise." As bad luck would have it, she finds herself pitted against a "predatory divorcee" named Edie, played with a head of scraggly blond spaghetti by Nicollette Sheridan, whose every appearance is a gift from the gods.
Arguably getting the most laughs -- dark laughs, of course, and perhaps even tragic laughs -- is Marcia Cross as Bree Van De Kamp, the town's version of a Martha Stewart gone wacko, obsessed with the way napkins are folded and closets organized and flowers arranged in their vases just so. She's determined with all her heart to be Perfect Mom, which leads to such dinner table discussions as this one:
Bree: "So, how's the osso bucco?"
Bree (overcome with horror): "Ohhh-kay?!?!?!"
She looks like Phyllis Kirk just before Vincent Price was about to pour boiling hot wax all over her body in the 3-D masterpiece (of its kind) "House of Wax." It's apple-pie apoplexy, a magnificently poised expression of petrified panic.
Bree is hardly the only desperate housewife earning laughs. Hatcher's Susan becomes the enemy of Sheridan's Edie when a hunky plumber mysteriously moves into the neighborhood -- mysteriously since every house is a big oafish kind of thing large enough to accommodate Mom, Dad and 3.2 children, plus pets and maybe a live-in nanny. The two women, both single now, could hardly care less why he's there; they just want him to come over, vying so blatantly for his attentions that Sheridan gets to utter the already familiar bit of dialogue (from all those promos ABC's been airing), "Do you think you could stop by later tonight and take a look at my pipes?"
Note: Innuendo is all right with the FCC. That's part of the tiny-minded hypocrisy of the whole stupid farce -- the whole darkly comic farce, as it were.
Edie has been branded, not too subtly, a "slut" by some of the other women. In her boredom, she has been known to give her eager teenage gardener quite a bit of indoor work. It seems there's plenty of pruning to be done in the bedroom. In one sequence that's wittier than most of what passes for humor on episodic television, the gardener hoes his row to the tune of Ravel's "Bolero," first as rendered by solo guitar, later by an orchestra. It was the composition whose eroticism was popularized, of course, by Blake Edwards when he used it for an assignation between Bo Derek and Dudley Moore in "10."
In essence, "Desperate Housewives" has a script that never sleeps, and it's not the kind of show you can watch with your eyes at half-mast or a magazine on your lap. There's a sleek, sly, sardonic quality to the production that's maintained down to the teeniest detail, and the happiest example of a female ensemble clicking and quipping since "Sex and the City." There'll be a temptation to call this "Sex and the Suburbs," but there's more going on than the search for the perfect bedmate.
Indeed, there is a mystery to be solved -- not only why our faithful narrator blew her brains out, but whether, in fact, this really was a suicide and not a homicide (we don't see it happen on the screen, I hope you will be happy to learn). That hunky plumber isn't really a plumber, unless maybe in the Nixonian sense, and though what meets the eye is very comic or very dark or both, there's clearly more going on for these "Desperate Housewives" than that. Even the use of the term "Housewives" is obviously meant to carry some irony with it.
The happy-looking little lane, with its fastidiously maintained yards and houses that always look freshly painted, is almost -- almost -- as unreal as the village at the bottom of the mountain in Tim Burton's "Edward Scissorhands." There are other Burtonesque qualities to the show -- Burton's faithful composer, Danny Elfman, a giant in his trade, wrote the main title music -- but it never drifts into preciousness or outright Funny Fable. One might be tempted to compare this to a collaboration by Burton and David Lynch, but there's really not all that much contrast there. Who knows but that those two scamps might actually be the same person?
Serialized dramas have almost always been highly resistible to me. I don't like the obligation of having to attend a meeting every week. In fact, I think it's an imposition. It's rude. But "Desperate Housewives" piqued my curiosity to a huge degree, and it piqued other things that I'm not even sure I can identify. One of the last shots in the premiere is a clue to the mystery that is so far in the background, a lavender letter to poor dead Mary Alice that reads, "I know what you did." It's not easy at first encounter to know precisely what the filmmakers behind "Desperate Housewives" are doing, but whatever it is, they're doing it very well, and darkly well, too, of course -- so very, very darkly well that I can't wait to find out what happens next, and if you happen to know, please -- don't tell me.