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Now that’s a ‘Desperate’ housewife

New neighbor Betty Applewhite has a real secret. By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
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In the first season of "Desperate Housewives," Wisteria Lane revealed that its residents hold plenty of ugly secrets behind their pristine facade.

Some of them were personal, the kind of problems that lurk behind the doors of many American homes. Gabrielle was having an affair. Lynette hated her life as a stay-at-home mom. Susan was desperate for love. hid a marriage that was cracking apart.

Others had larger problems. Mary Alice killed herself because of a confusing tangle of problems that involved her raising a child who wasn't legally hers and eventually murdering her son's mother and hiding the body. Say what you will about Bree's husband's penchant for handcuffs and stiletto heels, but there was no way her complicated life woes rose to the level of murder.

Perhaps the overwhelming success of the first season of "Desperate Housewives" led its writers to believe they'd hit upon a winning formula. Give one housewife a truly major, disturbing, criminal secret, let the others have smaller problems, and tangle the whole shebang together in the end.

The formula worked with Mary Alice (whose secret is still sending out reverberations -- where is son Zach, anyway?). And "Housewives" got off to a fast, and creepy, start in its second season, with a new housewife and a new horrible secret.

Cellar dwellerNew housewife Betty Applewhite (Alfre Woodard) brought a spark of diversity when she moved onto Wisteria Lane -- she's the first African-American main character. Her appearance on the first season's finale was brief but promising. When nosy neighbor Edie tried to welcome the family to town, Betty and son Matthew were less than thrilled about the Wisteria Lane Welcome Wagon. They'd purchased their house sight unseen but were already guarding it carefully. Edie wanted to be asked inside, but the Applewhites carefully kept her outside.

It was in the final scene of the second-season premiere that viewers learned why.Earlier in the episode, Matthew was scolded by his mother for lying to new widow Bree and her daughter Danielle, telling them he had also lost his dad. He apologized, saying that he only wanted to continue to support their "cover story."

It's not clear yet what exactly the cover story is, but that final scene took Wisteria Lane into another dark direction. Matthew was seen preparing a dinner tray that would be suitable at a fancy restaurant, complete with rosebud in a vase. His mother took the tray, ordering him to "take the gun." And so he did, tucking the weapon in the back of his pants and following his mother down into a suitably creepy cellar. The two deposited the tray and went back upstairs, after which viewers saw a well-bound and cuffed hand reach out for the food.

Forget Lynette's career stress, Gabrielle's baby daddy drama, and even Bree's new widowhood: This story has legs, and apparently arms. Who is the person in the Applewhite basement? An obvious answer would be Matthew's father, the one he earlier lied about. But could it be that simple? An earlier scene showed Betty caressing her "son" with a lingering hand that shouldn't belong to any mother touching her son outside of a V.C. Andrews book.

The touch, as well as an odd remark about Matthew being "raised right," will surely lead many viewers to speculate that Betty and Matthew are not really mother and son. With all the secrets on this block, a couple pretending to be mother and child is strange, but perhaps slightly less strange than an incest storyline.

If the prisoner isn't Betty's husband/Matthew's father, the options are almost endless. Many are assuming the arm was male, but that can't be ascertained yet. It could be another adult child, a relative, a boss who somehow ran afoul of the family. Viewers learned that Betty is a concert pianist, perhaps the prisoner is another musician who dared challenge her for a job.

Whoever the mystery person is, the revelation has made it clear that "Housewives" remains willing to push the envelope, to not rest on its one murder story. The show's stellar ratings last season made it clear that it had a broad appeal. The writers have to know that introducing such a creepy storyline is bound to turn some viewers off. The fact that they're willing to take that chance bodes well for the show's willingness to keep things fresh, if a little freaky.

Changes for the Fab FourBetty Applewhite has yet to establish herself as a true denizen of Wisteria Lane, but the Fab Four who make up the main "Housewives" storylines are facing their own new demons. (Try as she might, Edie just hasn't been developed as thoroughly as the others have.)

Of the four main women, Bree's storyline has changed the most, as she . She had an agonizing breakdown in the season finale, but in season two's premiere, she was all business. The only scene that came close to showing her raw emotions was when she sat, cordless phone at hand, waiting carefully for the clock to tick over to 9 o'clock, which apparently she considered an acceptable time to begin calling friends and sharing her bad news.

Most of the rest of Bree's scenes were spent sparring with Rex's blowsy mother, Phyllis, over such Bree-centric issues as the choice of Rex's burial tie. Her children, too, seemed to have responded to the loss of their father with almost no emotion. Perhaps the family is still in shock, or perhaps the writers mean to demonstrate that there truly was no love lost between Bree and Rex. Upcoming episodes might make that more clear.

Gabrielle and Lynette seem to be filling the comic roles among the Fab Four. Gabrielle didn't want to be pregnant, but now that she is, she seems almost indifferent. She's back to her old ways, ordering lover John around, chiding convicted husband Carlos, and playing most of the world for fools.

Lynette represents a character with whom many women can identify. Torn between her children and her career, trying to juggle family roles with her husband, her problems are fairly universal. Yet she too is often played for laughs, as a bit of a career woman as buffoon, her children screamers straight out of Dennis the Menace. In the premiere, she butted up against a lingerie-clad businesswoman who had chosen career over children and seemed willing to torment Lynette for making the opposite choice.

Klutzy Susan, so often saddled with the comic relief of the show, had a sad and serious premiere. Although both she and Mike escaped Zach's gun without injury, Susan especially seemed mentally changed by the experience. In a plotline that viewers figured out midway through last season, Mike now believes he is Zach's father. And since Susan and her daughter Julie have both had disturbing experiences with Zach, she's now willing to give up her relationship with the plumber and let him move on -- or so she says.

Unlike ABC counterpart "Lost," "Desperate Housewives" has shown it is a show willing to tie up some loose ends and move on. Zach's parentage seems explained, as does Mary Alice's suicide and the mystery of the body in the toy chest. Even minor secrets that, on true soap operas, would be drawn out for months are explained: Gabrielle didn't take long to figure out that Carlos had tampered with her birth control.

Yet some secrets live on -- will pharmacist George be exposed for switching Rex's meds? Will Lynette learn about husband Tom's own questionable past? If the show can manage to artfully blend those continuing secrets with new secrets both small and large, viewers will keep coming back, to learn both what skeletons are in the closets and who the prisoner is in the basement.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is's Television Editor.