Thursday, 3 April 2008

Desperate Housewives: Smiles of a Summer Night

Marc Cherry must be one of the most insecure network writers out there. He’s populated his programme with watchable characters, gifted them some smart dialogue, and thrown in plenty of lingerie. But still he thinks people will only watch for the mysteries. This was understandable for the first season, when pitching a show about middle-aged women being neighbours to the Lost-commissioning ABC must have seemed a daunting prospect. Even then, people tuned in because of the hype and kept watching because of the characters and writing. I don’t think anyone’s cared about why the narrator killed herself, let alone what dark secret is harboured by each season’s new family. The irony of the characters promising each other no more secrets in the previous episode was nice, but I would have traded that for an equivalent promise from the writers.
By now, Desperate Housewives should be comfortably in its stride. This season has enough compelling stories to keep it going: a strong woman and her family struggling against cancer, a neurotic woman’s pregnancy and new marriage, a manipulative woman keeping a man with the threat of suicide, and so on. It’s even fun to watch Kyle MacLachlan being sincerely bland. Admittedly, none of those stories are compelling on their own, but they work sewn together into a tapestry and embroidered with wit.
Watching credible characters deal with recognisable problems in mostly good humour is good television drama. Drama is watching characters make decisions and live with the consequences. There’s a place for surprise in that, as Six Feet Under uses sparingly and effectively. But mystery doesn’t do much; even for shows like Heroes, preoccupied by mystery more than character, the twists and turns will always disappoint TV-literate viewers whose minds will take the stories in individual directions not enslaved by network convention.
For one comparison, there’s the most recent episode of Mad Men, 5G. The viewer was led to expect that Don would kill his brother, but what actually happened made much more sense without destroying the character's ongoing plausibility. I still don’t care for the mystery of Don’s true identity too much, but I am mildly more interested in it than in the latest Wisteria Lane family’s secret (perhaps only because Mad Men, unlike Desperate Housewives, has no history of disappointing resolutions yet). Mad Men is also developing what could be an awesome cuckolding plot.
Anyway, for another comparison there’s the Sopranos. The Sopranos understood that suspense heightened drama, but it didn’t make drama; the drama was seeing Tony and the other characters live with what they did, and the suspense was knowing what they were capable of and hoping they wouldn’t do it. This was clearest in the bravura final seasons, which didn’t flinch from depicting Tony as he was and the logical repercussions of his choices.
Now, no one’s expecting Desperate Housewives to take such dark paths, despite its willingness to plunge the depths (Marc Cherry must be sensitive to Family Guy barbs that the show’s just about old women, or common criticism of the twee unifying voiceover). Suburban live naturally has its darkness – cancer, loveless marriage, etc. – and Desperate Housewives has the intelligence and warmth to deal with this subtly, with dignity and with integrity. It undermines these qualities with the brash murders and abductions, without adding anything to these issues in its own voice. I’m sure the show’s writers could eek some comedy out of the abnormal horror, but they seem to think to do so would detract from their drama. But if it’s good drama they want, they should focus on the kitchen rather than the basement.

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Read Wikipedia's notes
Buy now:
Mad Men
Buy now:
The Sopranos: Complete HBO Seasons 1-6 Box Set [1999]
Buy now:
Desperate Housewives - Series 1 - 3 [19dvd]

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