Warning: This article contains numerous spoilers for the "Desperate Housewives" season finale, so if you've recorded it and are saving for later, stop reading now.
It makes sense. Both shows are new this season on ABC, both are hour-long dramas with large ensemble casts. Both feature familiar actors from long-running series past. Both have been crititized for sending their momentum screeching to a halt by taking time out for numerous reruns.
And most importantly, both have tangled plotlines that weave in and out each week, taking viewers up and down a roller-coaster of emotions, and making it almost impossible for them not to tune in again to see what happens.
Yet one of the major differences between the way the two shoes handle these plotlines seems even clearer after Sunday's "Desperate Housewives" finale. "Desperate Housewives" is willing to answer some of its mysterious questions and give readers a little bit of closure. "Lost," heading into its own two-hour finale this Wednesday, is still dangling a dozen carrots in front of impatient viewers.
Mary Alice revealed"Desperate Housewives" began with a bang: Literally. In the pilot, housewife Mary Alice put a gun to her head and commited suicide, leaving behind a seemingly not-altogether-nice husband, Paul, and a son, Zach, who's so full of secrets that not even his name is really his.
Why did she kill herself? What was up with the mysterious note proclaiming "I know what you did"? And it turned out that Mary Alice wasn't the only housewife on her idyllic suburban street, Wisteria Lane, who had secrets. Gorgeous ex-model Gabrielle, frustrated stay-at-home mom Lynette, lonely divorcee Susan, preppie perfectionist Bree, every single one of Mary Alice's poker pals would face major life-shaking woes as the season marched on.
These secrets were major, too. They included infidelity, lying, and statuatory rape, just to get started. They may not have been along the lines of the secrets of "Lost" (secret powers, polar bears and monsters, miraculously cured paralysis, life-changing numbers, a baby who could be an antichrist or a saviour), but they weren't exactly as simple as a secret cookie recipe, either.
But on "Lost," the secrets have continued to build all season. Sure, character flashbacks have filled in some of the holes about the castaways' lives and their reasons for taking the doomed flight. But on "Housewives," especially on the finale, the writers have decided that secrets are meant to be revealed.
Early on, "Housewives" teased viewers with the revelation that Mary Alice and Paul may have had another child, Dana, and their son, Zach, may have killed her. That had viewers talking for a week or so. Then the show shifted course, just in time for viewers to begin speculating on the fact that "Dana" was a unisex first name, and indeed, that played out: Zach used to be named Dana. There were many ways the writers could have gone with this. Had Zach been a girl, and undergone sex-change surgery? Bizarre, sure, but it wouldn't have been the weirdest plot that's ever been done on primetime TV.
The show could have left viewers still buzzing about the Zach/Dana transition, much as "Lost" has done with its mysterious numbers, or indeed with the entire reason the castaways are on the island. (Are they dead? In purgatory? In comas? Part of a government experiment?) But instead, the writers kept advancing the plots, bit by bit putting flesh on the bones of the Zach/Dana secret and many others.
A few weeks back, viewers learned that Mary Alice had changed her name from Angela and fled Utah, where she'd met a drug addict with a baby son. It soon became clear: Young Zach (who'd always been a boy) was that baby, his name change an attempt to hide the fact that he hadn't been legally adopted. Paul Young at first told different stories about the skeleton found in Zach's old toy chest, lying to his son that a social worker had come to take him back.
Oh Mary Alice, what have you done?
But in the finale, with Paul facing possible death at the hands of Mike Delfino, he came clean with what appears to be the true story: Deirdre, Mike's trouble onetime lover, was Zach's birth mother. She came for him and fought with Mary Alice and Paul. Deirdre whacked Paul with a poker, a frightened Mary Alice stabbed Deirdre with a knife, and suddenly ... one dead birth mother, one terrified couple, and one solemn-eyed toddler, sneaking down the stairs and seeing his own mother's dead body.
Viewers saw all this as a flashback via Paul, but they have no reason to doubt its veracity at this point. Sure, Paul's lied about these circumstances before, but everything revealed makes sense with the shreds of plot leaked before. Viewers who are wary of shows that feint one way and then take their plot another may still be suspicious, but for now at least, it looks as if "Desperate Housewives" has fulfilled the promise of its pilot: It actually has explained why Mary Alice shot herself in that very first episode. And it has done so with a satisfying, complex explanation that wound in numerous major characters.
That didn't happen in other shows. Season after season, "The X-Files" just kept on teasing viewers with the explanation of what happened to Agent Fox Mulder's sister. In "Twin Peaks," Laura Palmer's murder kept getting more and more complicated — some viewers gave up on watching the show before its tangled denouement.
It's possible "Lost" will tie up some of its unexplained stories on Wednesday's finale, but it seems just as likely that show is willing to keep teasing viewers, leaving them to speculate and chat and start Web pages dissecting the mysterious numbers, the origins of the island, the powers and backstories of its inhabitants. This is a show that has yet to explain why Hurley goes by "Hurley" instead of the real name he's confessed is "Hugo Reyes."
Two very different showsAnd that's not to say that's wrong. This fan adores "Lost" for many of those same reasons. It is possible to endlessly speculate about what's going on. It's also tough to be proven wrong in friendly debates, because honestly, anything could and might happen on Mystery Island. It can be nice to have a show that doesn't give you answers to everything, a show that stretches your mind and makes you think.
But "Housewives" is no straightforward story, either. There are still numerous unanswered questions, a juicy pack of plots that were left dangling by the season finale. Will Zach kill Mike, while a trapped Susan watches? (Unlikely.) Will a devastated Bree find out that creepy pharmacist George was behind Rex's fatal pill switch? (Probably, but not right away.) Will Gabrielle's baby daddy be husband Carlos or teen gardener John? (Could be either, and nine months is a long time to speculate.) Will Lynette love going back to work, and will Tom be a satisfied Mr. Mom? (Maybe for a while on both parts, but here's betting that other problems will crop up.)
"Housewives" is many things — sometimes a comedy, sometimes a drama, sometimes a mystery. But it's overall a big, fat, juicy soap opera, taking lives that kind of look like ours on the outside, and stretching them to accommodate the deadly sins that make soaps so addictive. Sure, viewers might have marital woes, but few can trace them to finding out your husband has gone to the neighborhood madam for domination, as Bree learned Rex had done. And some might have unplanned pregnancies, but those are rarely caused by a selfish husband tampering with a wife's birth-control pills.
By allowing some of its plots to remain tantalizing mysteries, yet offering up the satisfaction of explaining others, "Desperate Housewives" has smartly set things up for its audience to return for its new season next fall.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Television Editor.