A few weeks ago, “Desperate Housewives” ended its second hit season with murder, attempted murder, adultery, a love child, a murderer exposed and cut down by a cop, and — oh, heck, you probably saw the finale for yourself.
Or heard about it, anyway. “Desperate Housewives” is still a mainstay of water coolers and chat rooms.
But how much longer? As the episodes repeated this summer reaffirm (airing 9 p.m. EDT Sundays on ABC), “Desperate Housewives” is awfully desperate.
It didn’t start that way. Early in its first year, the show seemed to be charting irresistible new landscape on leafy Wisteria Lane. Here was a manicured suburban melodrama blooming with sin, intrigue, satire, absurdity and, of course, hot women who were, alternately, pals and archenemies.
And, of course, here was the mystery of Mary Alice Young, a suicidally desperate housewife weighing in from the grave with her macabre narration.
But juggling so many diverse elements — well, that’s a hefty challenge. All too quickly, the reach of the producers exceeded their show’s grasp.
The futile task of Mary Alice (played by a mostly off-screen Brenda Strong) is to correlate the mismatched pieces of each episode by means of her intermittent comments, such as when she instructs us that the secret to life is “to let go of the fear and the regret that slow us down, and keep us from enjoying a journey that will be over too soon.” (Is that the secret to sitting through “Desperate Housewives”?)
The promise of a mesmerizing plot twist is always in the air, as voiced by the spectral Mary Alice. But that promise is routinely betrayed.
One reason? A fatal misconception the show continues to rely on. Merely installing each housewife and her family in a home along Wisteria Lane doesn’t guarantee community — not when the characters have so little in common and remarkably little to do with one another. (The sense of place and mutual entanglement that bound the residents on “Melrose Place” or “Knots Landing” is missing here.)
The four central women are not so much desperate housewives as disparate cliches: overwrought career woman and weary mom Lynette (Felicity Huffman); sexy, spoiled Latina Gaby (Eva Longoria); bumbling bubble-head Susan (Teri Hatcher); and wired-too-tight homemaker Bree (Marcia Cross).
Of these, Bree — who at first seemed the reigning caricature — has since displayed the most dimension, maybe because of her unrelieved streak of tragedies and the acting skill of Cross, who manages to push beyond the show’s constrictive gimmickry.
When the series premiered in fall 2004, it was an instant critical and popular success. A year ago, Cross and co-stars Hatcher and Huffman all seized best comedy actress nominations. Huffman won the prize.
But when this season’s nominations were announced last week, the show was left with a supporting-actress nod for Alfre Woodard. This fine actress did her best playing newcomer Betty, a misconceived character who, to make matters worse, was kept at an awkward remove from the other women. For Woodard, it was a noble exercise in wasted motion.
And a dismissive way for Emmy to recognize a show that once was its darling. But if Emmy is seeing the light, can the audience be far behind?
Sex without sexinessIf nothing else, when will viewers wake up to the fact that, for all the prattle about its sexiness, “Desperate Housewives” is one of the least sexy shows on the air?
Individually, Gaby and her husband Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) have their sex appeal. But together they couldn’t make a spark in a fireworks factory.
And let’s not forget the two hunks who wrangle over Susan — her hot-and-cold ex, Karl (Richard Burgi), and her hot-and-cold boyfriend, Mike (James Denton). Sadly, neither actor can generate any heat with Hatcher, nor do much else besides macho posturing.
Then there’s Edie (Nicollette Sheridan), Wisteria Lane’s unapologetic hussy. By design or happenstance (it isn’t clear), she’s less a sexpot than comic relief — a bleach-blond temptress who seems a throwback to a 1960s Rona Jaffe novel.
Bottom line: There isn’t enough steam rising from this crowd to fog a mirror. By contrast, ponder the electricity between “Bones” co-stars Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz, or between lovelorn wage slaves Pam and Jim on “The Office” — or between any given pair of the libidinous medics on “Grey’s Anatomy.”
The denizens of “Desperate Housewives” live in isolation, occupying divergent worlds from one another as well as from the audience. Meanwhile, each cockamamie mystery plays itself out as a desperate smoke screen clouding the absence of a coherent narrative.
Speaking of smoke, there’s an easy way to fix the problem. In the first season, Susan accidentally burned down Edie’s house. Last season, Edie burned down Susan’s house. Next season, why not call for the producers to torch Wisteria Lane from one end to the other, and just be done with it?