Saturday, December 03, 2005

Thank You

This piece on Slate is a bit old--from the end of last season--but it does an excellent job of picking apart the horrible pretentiousness of Desperate Housewives. The only thing I don't get is why it took someone so sharp and perceptive a whole season to be annoyed by the things that were already terrible in the pilot.

Desperate Housewives was set up for the letdown by the pretensions of its creator. Marc Cherry seems to think he's doing cutting-edge social satire, but his big satirical point—that nostalgified suburbia is really a hive of hypocrisy and perversion—is old and obvious enough to support its own brand of nostalgia (i.e., The Stepford Wives, American Beauty). For the first half of the season, Cherry's inspired staging and some deft comic acting—especially by Longoria and, surprisingly, Teri Hatcher—provided a welcome distraction from the show's deeper, and lamer, pretensions. But then his chatty narrator kept bringing the big, dumb underlying themes to the surface, talking openly about issues it would have been better for everyone just to repress...

Mary Alice narrates with the full-throatedness of a very tall woman with a very high voice, and very slowly. It's like listening to someone who is either really dull-witted or thinks you're really dull-witted. Suspicion of the former is bolstered by the fact that what she says is rarely illuminating and always delivered in the deliberate cadence of a junior-high book report. Mary Alice can also be downright cryptic and sometimes—not to put too fine a point on it—obviously wrong.

At both the start and the end of most episodes, the narrator offers up general thematic observations on that week's action. "The search for power begins when we're quite young," the narrator intones. (I mean really intones. Lots of intonation. She's virtually singing.) "As children, we're taught that the power of good triumphs over the power of evil." Yes, of course, you think, lulled by the dulcet voice. Then you emerge from hypnosis and realize, Wait a minute! Those are two totally different things! At the conclusion of another episode she tells us, "Death is inevitable. It's a promise made to each of us at birth, but before that promise is kept, we all hope something will happen to us, whether it's the thrill of romance, the joy of raising a family, or the anguish of great loss." Extra credit to whoever can tell me which of these three items we all desperately hope won't happen to us. And at the end of the Valentine's Day episode, the narrator says, "It's impossible to grasp just how powerful love is." Then, after applying the theme of love's power to several characters who mostly aren't motivated by love, she concludes, "And long after we're gone, love remains, burned into our memories." What is the sound of one hand reaching for the remote?...

Maybe I'm wrong, but I like to think Cherry had Dadaist ambitions for the Mary Alice character. That's preferable, anyway, to another tendency increasingly evident in the Desperate Housewives narration—an unseemly snideness that, for most of its first season, Cherry managed to suppress or sublimate. This new tone is signaled by a subtle change in terminology. Usually, the narrator referred to the show's setting as, simply, "Wisteria Lane." This helps sustain the illusion that the show takes place in some TV Utopia, like Gilligan's Island, and that none of this huffing and puffing about bourgeois hypocrisy and repression is terribly serious. This is good, because I'd hate to find out that the creators of this show I was enjoying so much are as cluelessly self-important as part of me thinks they might be. But then, a recent episode begins with the narrator telling us, "Each new morning in suburbia brings with it a new set of lies." Another begins, sarcastically, "Suburbia is filled with responsible people." This makes me realize that all that trite stuff about buried secrets probably isn't just meant for the joke-world of Wisteria Lane. At season's end, I have to concede that, ugh, Cherry and his writers really do think they're telling us something important about suburban life, which means they really are that far behind the curve they think they're out in front of.

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