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‘Housewives’ is at a third-season crossroads

The first season of "Desperate Housewives" was hailed as fresh and original, somewhere between a sitcom and an hour-long drama. In the same episode, the show mixed romance, "Three Stooges" style pratfalls (Susan), realistic working mother issues (Lynette) and one-liners, wrapping it all neatly around a season-long murder mystery involving the suicide of the show's narrator, Mary Alice Young.Viewer
/ Source: msnbc.com

The first season of "Desperate Housewives" was hailed as fresh and original, somewhere between a sitcom and an hour-long drama. In the same episode, the show mixed romance, "Three Stooges" style pratfalls (Susan), realistic working mother issues (Lynette) and one-liners, wrapping it all neatly around a season-long murder mystery involving the suicide of the show's narrator, Mary Alice Young.

Viewers and critics alike were unsure as to how the show would handle a second season. And as it turned out, so were the show's writers. Trying for another mystery, and perhaps some much-needed diversity, the show moved a new family, the Applewhites, onto Wisteria Lane. If you have trouble racking your brain for their names and storyline at this point, you're not alone. Mom Betty, ably played by Alfre Woodard, kept one son in a basement dungeon, but it turned out that perhaps the wrong son was locked up. That plotline got a little interesting when older son Matthew started dating Bree's daughter, Danielle, but that was too little, too late to save the storyline, or the season. Season two was almost universally criticized, even by "Housewives" diehards.

The conundrum, then, for season three, was how to re-combine the elements that made the show fresh when it began without recycling them word-for-word. Not that "Housewives" didn't try its share of recycling. In earlier seasons, Bree dated George, an outwardly good guy with a creepy hidden side. In season three, Bree dated Orson, an outwardly good guy with a creepy hidden side. In season one, an unidentified body (Deirdre) was found and eventually tied into a Wisteria Lane family. In season three, an unidentified body (Monique) was found and eventually tied into a Wisteria Lane family. In season two, a new teen hunk (Matthew) showed up, made the teen girls swoon, and turned out to be a bit of a mess. In season three, a new teen hunk (Austin) showed up, made the teen girls swoon, and turned out to be a bit of a mess.

All of the above doesn't take into account how many "Housewives" characters were left to run on the same character treadmill for episodes on end. Susan and Mike are together! Now they're not! Now they are! Not! Gaby doesn't want a baby! Now she does! Adoption! Miscarriage! Surrogacy! Now she doesn't again! Lynette and Tom are quarreling about their jobs! Now about their kids! Now about different jobs! The treadmills ran on and on.

Season three remembered

It's not that season three didn't have some original plots. Orson's secret past turned out to be not quite the same as George's. The Nora-Kayla plotline showed promise, and a supermarket shooting took out one annoying character (Nora) and one interesting one (Carolyn) in one fell swoop. Edie Britt, a long-neglected character, had a resurgence, even though Carlos-Gaby fans don't like seeing Edie in a romance with Carlos. The Scavos moved their work squabbling to their own pizzeria. And Bree's daughter, Danielle, turned up pregnant, though that storyline went nowhere thanks in part to Marcia Cross leaving the show on maternity leave.

But season three lacked much of what made the show a hit from the beginning. Not everything viewers clamor for is best for the show (how boring would it be for Susan and Mike to live happily ever after?), but here's some of what might make a fourth season richer.

More scenes with all the housewives interacting

Whatever happened to the women's weekly poker parties? The characters are the most fun when they play off each other, gossip about whoever's out of the room, and dish on neighborhood happenings. Fights are always good, too — the return of Bree should help in this area. Her prim and proper attitude made for entertaining clashes with her less-formal friends.

Don't forget the 'Desperate Husbands'

The wives may steal the show's title, but there are some talented men in the cast, from Lynette's beleaguered Tom to Gaby/Edie's clever Carlos. Remember, this is a show where fans still haunt bulletin boards claiming that Rex, Bree's first husband, never died. Susan's ex Karl has an important role to play in the show, too, as Julie's dad and someone who never quite got over his klutzy ex. And where's Paul Young, Mary Alice's troubled widower?

The 'Desperate Teenagers' have a role to play, too

The show can't fall into the trap of letting teen stories run the show, as many daytime soaps do with their summer scripts, but the teens have promise. Bree's son Andrew was developed as a blood-chilling psychopath, then for some reason was cleaned up into the saintly sibling. Does he still harbor evil plans for his mother? Julie, Susan's daughter, has always been saintly, which is why seeing her sneaking around with Austin was so interesting. And Danielle's pregnancy promises a whole host of issues, especially where her mother's perfect image is concerned.

Quit changing partners

The show began with three married couples and two single women, Susan and Edie. Now there's only one original married couple — Lynette and Tom. Gaby and Carlos have split, and Bree's husband Rex was murdered (and she married Orson). Obviously, romantic change is vital to a show like this, but don't underestimate the fun of seeing a longtime couple endure challenges and triumphs and come through them together. Gaby and Carlos were especially good together, and Susan and Karl showed promise, if only to break up her constant pining for Mike.

Remember, the viewers aren't stupid

Leaving the constant Susan-Mike back-and-forth alone for a while, the show occasionally pushes the fans' patience. Mrs. McCluskey keeps her dead husband in a freezer for 10 years, fradulently collecting money from the government, and nothing really happens? Lynette, a mother of many, is threatened by a pedophile and just lets him go? Sharp-eyed Gaby can't tell that her mayor boyfriend is somewhat of a creep? Young Kayla notices that Lynette and Chef Rick are interested in each other well before Tom does? Some of these plots should never have made it out of the writers' room.

Susan-Mike, Susan-Ian, Mike-Edie, Susan-Mike

I've written before about how Susan's appeal escapes me. As a book illustrator, a home-owner, a mom of a well-adjusted teenager, she should have it together more than to abandon her teen and go chasing up a mountain after a man who she'd already rejected umpteen times. There's no question that she has a fan base, but would those fans really be destroyed if Susan's klutziness turned into an endearing occasional quality rather than the be-all, end-all of her character's existence?

Perhaps the problem with the third season is that it was unwilling to commit to a major, promising, season-long plot. In season one, Mary Alice Young's murder mystery not only included a main character who was known by all the Wisteria Lane residents, it seemed well thought-out, deep enough to last an entire season.

The main problem with the second-season Applewhite murder mystery was that the family was new to the street, and no one knew or cared about the murder victim. Granted, no one knew who Deirdre, the first-season victim, was either, but her identity was tied into that of Mary Alice, Paul and Zach Young, as well as Mike Delfino. The "Housewives" writers worked for it, but they made viewers care.

"Housewives" loves a murder, but Monique was not someone the viewers knew or cared about, nor was Orson. Her murder plot deservedly fizzled. If a murder is what the writers want, how about someone the show has let viewers get to know? Mrs. McCluskey might be a potential victim, or even one of the “Desperate” Husbands — imagine the effect on Susan and Julie if Karl were to end up murdered — or if he became a murderer. And it would be easy for Andrew, with his street-hustling past, to be confronted by someone from those days and end up begging his mother to hide a murder he committed.

You could argue that "Desperate Housewives" doesn't need one big plot, that it's more of a soap opera than a murder mystery — and that's a good point. "Housewives" would be nothing without its gleeful soapiness. But with no one thread running throughout the episodes, it's easier for viewers to tune out, especially when the show gets into one of its runs of constant reruns. A strong, season-long plot held the acclaimed first season together, and a weak one brought the second season much criticism. The third season has just been drifting between the two extremes, and with one episode to go, it's unlikely to right itself. But for season four, hope springs eternal. Fans aren't quite "Desperate" yet.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's TV Editor.

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