Remember Desperate Housewives? Those were the days. Back in 2004, pre-Glee, pre–Ugly Betty, the show provided a splash of shameless color to the network schedule. It launched side by side with Lost and the two ABC series promptly ate up all available buzz. (Arrested Development, which was then in its final meta-stumble toward cancellation, had a hilarious riff on the phenomenon, with poor Gob muttering, “Oh look it: There! One of the Desperate Housewives, so … desperate.”)
Like Lost, Desperate Housewives mashed up genres. But instead of working from geek narratives, it built a cunning Frankenstein monster out of girly culture, merging the camp sensibility of show-runner Marc Cherry (who titled every episode after a Sondheim song) with romantic comedy, daytime soap, nighttime soap, Lifetime TV, self-help, Sex and the City, and even mommy blogging. The plots echoed other TV hits and magazine trend pieces: There were a Gilmore Girls–ish mom and teen daughter, some Ally McBeal–ish stumbling into bushes, Gabrielle’s Dawson’s Creek–esque affair with the pool boy, your Lifetime dark-secret crime element, a stay-at-home-mom-going-mad plot, and Bree, a hilarious parody of Martha Stewart. If Twilight had been a hit back then, Bree would surely have been a vampire.
Keeping this scrapbooked storytelling style glued together was the show’s appealingly dry-humored voice-over, a then-novel development on dramatic TV. (Like the mockumentary craze on sitcoms, the omniscient voice-over seemed to be influenced, at least in part, by the knowing ones then in vogue on reality television. Although the classic film Sunset Boulevard surely played a role.)
Like women’s magazines, Housewives had some retrograde sexual politics and serious patches of insanity. But it was women’s culture incarnate — not as original as Sex and the City, but it passed the Bechdel Test and featured a collect-’em-all set of stylized, larger-than-life, middle-aged heroines.
Of course, I’m writing as if Desperate Housewives was canceled years ago, instead of doing what it’s actually doing, which is stumbling around, an undead zombie not on AMC. There’s something fascinating in watching a show like this unravel, find its feet, lose them again, repeating old themes in increasingly threadbare forms, popping in cartoonish characters from other shows (hello, Vanessa Williams from Ugly Betty) and generally mutating under the radiation of too many renewals. At least, unlike some other zombies I could name (Brothers & Sisters, for instance), it still has a sense of humor.
In 2008, the series took a five-year leap forward. Like that voice-over, it was a fashionable experiment, something writers were trying everywhere from Lost to One Tree Hill to Mad Men. (My theory: It was an unconscious reaction to DVRs, which made television time come unstuck like Billy Pilgrim.) Cherry has been quoted as saying that this time jump “revitalized” his show, but from my point of view, this is true only in the sense that a haunted pet cemetery revitalizes Fido.
Since then, the show has gone on a cascade of increasingly nutso plot twists: faked pregnancies, surrogate pregnancies, switched-at-birth pregnancies, Carlos Gone Blind, Dead Edie (with requisite backstage lawsuit), an entire season devoted to a failed pizzeria, cancer, tornadoes, the Perils of Orson, a plane crash, the Fairview Strangler, a truly problematic alternate-reality episode involving the high-school graduation of the disabled twin that Lynette miscarried, and the transformation of Gabby from an entertainingly vain ex-model to a mother whose judgment rivals Betty Draper. (Lately, she’s been ignoring her fat daughter in favor of her rediscovered biological pretty girl daughter — the two girls were switched at birth. Meanwhile, Lynette’s mother-in-law has dementia. Bree is dating rough trade, in competition with the drag-queenish Williams. The gay husbands broke up. And murderer Paul Young is back in town, with his virgin wife in tow.)
If this were Little House on the Prairie, which had a similar late-season descent, Susan would be about to get raped by a mime.
It’s pointless to complain about any of this, or about the fact that I still worry slightly about the fate of that stripper’s daughter briefly adopted by Gabby, not to mention the black baby that her Chinese maid had a few seasons back after the wrong embryo was implanted. “I tried to give you the benefit of the doubt!” screamed Susan on Sunday night, as she attacked Paul Young with a baseball bat (he’s been blackmailing her for appearing on a pornographic housewife-fetish site. ) “You’re evil!”
Desperate Housewives is not evil. It’s just had a very high fever, for years. And it’s clearly intent on eating my brain. I’m obviously too intimate with it to do the right thing: pick up my TiVo remote, and shoot the damn series in the head.