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‘Housewives’ desperately needs a makeover

The first-season finale of “Desperate Housewives” was a model of perfection. All of the storylines that had developed throughout 23 episodes came together and were resolved, except for one.

Ending with both resolution and a minor cliffhanger let the season finale offer both satisfaction and anticipation, unlike its ABC counterpart “Lost,” which cheated its way through its season finale.

When the second season of “Desperate Housewives” debuted, the lingering plotline was resolved when Mike rescued Susan and Zach ran away. And then the series choked on its own conceit, revealing that, on Wisteria Lane, our attraction to the series may have always been as fake as the grass in front of the flawless phony facades.

With Mary Alice’s storyline all but finished, her narration now makes little sense. Instead of telling her story, she’s just eavesdropping on her neighbors and friends, and her advice has been revealed to be clichéd thoughts that belong on Successories, not in a show that was presumed to be witty and smart.

This season, Lynette is still relentlessly stunted by her out-of-control children, even though she’s working full-time. At her new job, she has another child to deal with: her boss, who’s more of a caricature of an overblown stereotype than an actual character. New playmates for Lynette’s twin boys offered hope for relief, but of course, that ended before it even began.

Gabrielle is still playing the spoiled, childish vixen, and she continues to toy with Carlos even though he’s in jail. She’s pregnant (or is she, after this week’s fall?) and allegedly getting bigger, but neither her body nor her behavior indicates that she’ll be a mother in a half a year or so. Trying to fit into a dress, she enlisted her new gardeners’ help. All three actors valiantly pretended to struggle to get the dress onto her all-too-perfect frame, but not even they believed it. Later, talking to Bree, Gabrielle insisted that she’s grown, but Gabi spoke for the audience when she said, “I’ve changed, and I honestly don’t know how.” Neither do we, because the show’s given us nothing by way of growth or development.

Likewise, Susan acts increasingly immaturely and irrationally.

Her daughter Julie has more intelligence and maturity than most of the adults on Wisteria Lane combined, but she has been tragically absent for most of this season. After finding her mother and father in bed, she admonished Susan, “You slept with him the same night he broke up with” neighbor Edie. Susan responded yet again with another annoying, whimpering confession of her stupidity: “Well, I said it was a good explanation, not a great one.”

Perhaps the only character who truly evolved is Bree, who’s both literally and metaphorically let her hair down, relaxing her tight grip on her imperfect world. But with her children absent, she’s only interacting with (and being pulled down by) George, the pharmacist who probably killed her husband. This week, he proposed marriage. Bree was dumbstruck. “George, Rex hasn’t even been dead for two months,” she said. But then, seconds later, she bafflingly and meekly said “okay” to his proposal. This is not the Bree we know; this is a Bree who has nothing better to do, so she just agrees to get married to a creepy psychopath who later effortlessly murdered her psychiatrist while the music on the soundtrack chirped merrily away.

This season’s murder mystery
Although there are tiny threads from last season that still linger, this season’s central mystery involves new neighbor Betty Applewhite, her too-close-for-comfort son Matthew, and her apparent other son, Caleb, a seeming fugitive who was locked in the basement until the most recent episode. Before his escape, he told his mother that Melanie, the dead girl they left behind in Chicago, “was a bad person. She deserved it.” His mother disagreed, but undoubtedly, he’ll be telling the truth, and perhaps Melanie’s story will connect with one of the existing characters. But that revelation will come way too late.

Now, we’re one quarter of the way through the new season, and the writers have yet to make any of the main characters connect to this storyline or any others in anything but the most superficial ways. The main characters barely interact with each other. Caleb’s escape led him to Gabrielle’s house, but all we got out of that encounter was a regrettable image of a large black man looming in silhouette over a helpless, pregnant woman.

Thus, all we have are fragments, and that exposes last season’s thin premise and shaky foundation. A stronger, character-driven drama would be able to function without a gimmick, as “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” and other series have demonstrated.

Despite the hype, “Desperate Housewives” has never approached that level of televised drama, nor has it tried. The series created its own niche, a sort of dramatic fairy tale.

But the series took itself too seriously and got swept up in the mystery of Mary Alice’s unexpected suicide. All that did, it now seems, was distract from the fact that not much was going on.

Viewers caught up in the mystery never became aware of the absence of depth, because the mystery was fun to watch.

This season, without the cover of Mary Alice’s story, the show’s Botox is starting to wear off, and what’s really there are just characters running on treadmills in front of moving backgrounds, trying to convince us that they’re covering significant distances.

“Desperate Housewives” creator and writer Marc Cherry worked as a writer on the NBC sitcom “The Golden Girls,” which debuted 20 years ago. Despite its age, the sitcom has flourished on Lifetime, watched in college dorm rooms perhaps more than in nursing homes. The series has survived because its plotlines were superficial, serving as excuses to set up hysterical but forgettable jokes. The only other thing that mattered was the interaction between Dorothy, Blanche, Rose, and Sophia, as it provided the foundation for the series’ acerbic humor and wit.

Especially since ABC let “Desperate Housewives” compete as a comedy series in the Emmys, Cherry needs to look to his sitcom past. Standalone episodes that allow his main characters to interact around quick, resolvable, throwaway stories will draw on the series’ two major strengths: its main characters and the actors who portray them. “Desperate Housewives” is desperately seeking a rescue from its purgatory, and for that happy ending, it needs a new beginning.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.

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