Pop Culture

‘Desperate’ is thenew ‘Sex’

Since its October 2004 premiere, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” has consistently ranked as the number one new show on television. The one-hour dramedy, with its black humor and captivating characters, offers a welcome break from the glut of reality TV and crime shows. Happily for us gals, “Desperate Housewives” also fills the void left by HBO’s series, “Sex and the City,” providing gossip-worthy story lines as well as an all-female lead cast dripping with Golden Globe nominations.

Each Sunday night we sneak a peek into the twisted, but well-manicured lives of the women of Wisteria Lane. Eerily narrated by cheerful — and recently deceased — neighbor Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), “Housewives” reveals the secrets of Susan (Teri Hatcher), Bree (Marcia Cross), Lynette (Felicity Huffman), and Gabrielle (Eva Longoria). On the surface, Susan, the only “available” (i.e. divorced) housewife, is the character with whom we the viewers are meant to identify. But as Mary Alice reminds us weekly from beyond the grave, things aren’t always as they seem.

The dirt so far
The first episode of “Desperate Housewives” began with a bang — literally. After spending an average day in suburbia, seeing off her husband and son, completing her chores, and opening the mail, Mary Alice commits suicide using a gun hidden in the top shelf of her closet. Nosy neighbor Martha Huber (Christine Estabrook), who uses the ruse of returning a blender to investigate the gunshot, discovers the body. Returning to her own home to call 911, Martha blithely rips Mary Alice’s nametag from the blender now that it’s hers to keep. (Karma pays Martha a visit several episodes later, delivering a deadly message about the downside of ill-gotten blenders.)

Now Mary Alice isn’t just resting in peace, she’s spilling the beans on her corporeal friends while failing to mention what inspired her own early exit. Of course, if she did, there wouldn’t be a show. As the surviving housewives come together to investigate the mystery, Mary Alice’s death slips into the background. It’s the surviving women’s stories viewers are e-mailing each other about Monday morning.

Susan Mayer, the single mom mothered by her teenage daughter, digs the mysterious “plumber” who just moved in across the street. Martha Stewart-wannabe Bree Van De Kamp struggles to keep her family life looking flawless, despite her ambivalent husband and sociopathic spawn. Former high-powered executive Lynette Scavo is the mom with the martyr complex. Overwhelmed by her brood of hellions, she resorts to taking her children’s ADD medication. Gabrielle Solis is the ex-model married to a shady businessman and carrying on an on-again off-again affair with the teenage gardener.

Our housewives, ourselvesLike her “Sex and the City” counterpart Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), Susan and her romantic bumbling play to our own insecurities and aspirations. Who doesn’t want to be the rail-thin divorcee with an overly responsible teenage daughter, and a budding romance with the hunky neighborhood handyman? Whether she’s (oops!) tumbling naked into her shrubbery, accidentally burning down the house of her romantic rival, or discovering her would-be lover’s cash stash (before falling through his bathroom floor), Hatcher portrays Susan with giggly effervescence.

While we may be risky or goofy, how many of us actually woo the hot mystery man across the street? The average viewer is more likely to be wrestling the kids into the SUV while attempting to maintain a thin thread of sanity à la Lynette. Huffman delivers the perma-frazzled Lynette in an all too believable way. Her boys decide that Mary Alice’s wake is the perfect occasion for a swim, and moments later Lynette’s waist-deep in the pool. When she finally decides to hire a Mary Poppins-esque nanny, viewers discover that the only thing more stressful than her burden-bound life is having to witness someone else handle it better.

Much the opposite of Lynette, Marcia Cross's Bree appears to handle family life effortlessly. But looks can be deceiving. Many of us would love to pull off the perfection incarnate act as well as Mrs. Van De Kamp, but we also love to see those Stepford types take a tumble. Bree’s life tumbles plenty, what with a soon to be ex-spouse and a son she fears may be soulless. But no matter how bad things get she never loses her façade — or that just-so flip do. Her announcement to dinner guests that her husband has a habit of crying after orgasm came off as naturally as passing the salt, in a scene expertly executed by Cross.

Hanging on to the sexy and irresponsible days of youth is a common desire, but Gabrielle takes it a bit further by hanging on to someone else’s youth, as well. Her affair with a minor notwithstanding, she seems to love husband Carlos, or at least all the shiny things he buys her. Protecting those things was her first priority when the feds sent her husband to jail. To Longoria’s credit she’s able to make a character that shouldn’t be likable (Gabrielle was relieved when her mother-in-law was hit by a car!) seem downright charming. 

And the award goes to…Add doses of murder, mayhem, and mystery and you begin to see what makes this show so addicting, and worthy of Golden Globe nominations. But it’s not just the plot points, the reason the often-unfathomable storylines work is in the acting.

No doubt one of the “housewives” will take home a Golden Globe Jan. 16 for best actress in a comedy series. Hatcher, Cross, and Huffman are all contenders.

The smart money is on Felicity Huffman. Given the intense dramatic story arc that award bestowers so love, she hit it out of the park. She portrayed the harried mother of four driven to pill popping, closing with a gut-wrenching scene where she confessed to friends her sense of utter failure as a mother and a woman. It almost hurt to watch and left you wanting to give her something. A tissue? A hug? A Golden Globe? Just something. Her toughest competition comes in the form of Marcia Cross, the scene-stealer who’s quickly becoming a fan favorite.

In other Golden Globe news, the show itself was nominated for best comedy series, and Nicollette Sheridan got a nod for best supporting actress for her role as Edie Britt. While Britt isn’t part of Mary Alice’s pack of friends she does make a good comic foil for Susan — two sexy divorcees in one subdivision is one too many. Sheridan also managed to raise a few eyebrows outside the show with her towel dropping hijinks in an intro to Monday Night Football in November 2004.

When “Sex and the City” went off the air many of us feared that Sunday night would no longer be girls’ night. No one expected salvation to come so quickly in the form of “Desperate Housewives,” replacing single life in New York with married life in the suburbs, and giving us a whole new quartet of women to get to know.

Each of our leading ladies portrays a type that we identify with — even when it's being blown up to cartoonish proportions, like the perfectionist that is Bree. While we may not be committing acts of arson, taking our kids meds, or frolicking with the lawn boy, we know these women because in some ways we are these women.

So we’re left with not so much one character to identify with but the sum of all the characters, and that’s good television. How better to hook us on the scandals and intrigue of neighborhood naughtiness than to have us feel invested in every one of these ladies.

Ultimately, though we may see facets of ourselves in each of our four leads, we're more like the show’s short-lived busy body Martha Huber. Hopefully we lack her malicious intentions (not to mention untimely death-by-blender), but while we’re watching the show we're just the neighborhood snoop that wants to know everyone's business on Wisteria Lane.

Ree Hines lives in Tampa, Florida, and is a contributor to MSNBC.com.

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