Suburbia has been the playground of television at least since the days of “Leave It to Beaver.” Now, ABC (yes, that ABC) has scored itself a critical and ratings hit with “Desperate Housewives,” a nasty shredding of the myth of suburbia in post-Martha America.
The spirit of Martha Stewart looms large over “Desperate Housewives,” a black comedy/drama in which every wife and mother seems to be “running for the mayor of Stepford” (to quote one of the show's wittier lines). Like Martha, however, these domestic divas hide a nastier side. In a nice bit of timing, the show premiered just as Martha was getting hauled off to prison for lying in court during an insider trading case. That's pretty much “Desperate Housewives” in a nutshell.
The show boasts an impressive roster of TV talent. Terri Hatcher (“Lois & Clark”) is Susan Mayer, a recently divorced mother trying to hold her crumbling suburban lifestyle together. Felicity Huffman (“Sports Night”) is Lynette Scavo, a high-powered executive who gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mother (and now finds herself unhappily saddled with four heedless brats). Marcia Cross (“Melrose Place”) is Bree Van De Camp, a seemingly perfect housewife whose gourmet dinners and flawlessly arranged centerpieces do little more than annoy her eternally uncomfortable family. Eva Longoria (“L.A. Dragnet”) is Gabrielle Solis, a hot-to-trot trophy wife happily married to a rich power broker and happily screwing around with her teenage gardener.
The most important member of the cast ensemble, however, is Brenda Strong (“Nip/Tuck”) who plays Mary Alice Young. Mary Alice kicks off the show by putting a gun to her head and killing herself. She then proceeds to narrate the entire show, Sunset Boulevard-style, from beyond the grave. There are advantages to being dead: honesty, for example. Dead and buried, Mary Alice can now spill all the nasty secrets of her friends and neighbors; and, believe you me, there are a lot of them.
Seems everyone in this suburb is in the process of sleeping around, getting divorced, burning down their friends' houses or otherwise acting in an entirely unneighborly manner. But the biggest secret of all seems to be the reason behind Mary Alice's untimely suicide. What “family secret” was she covering up? Why did her husband dig up the backyard pool with a pickax after her death? And why is that handsome new plumber in town packing a gun?
The show replicates the atmosphere of a nighttime soap, then more or less turns it all on its ear. Occasionally, the show goes over the bounds, sacrificing reality for the sake of a good joke. Still, the scripts have a nasty sense of wit about them. (“I can't believe you tried to kill me,” gasps one dumbfounded hubby. “Yes, well, I feel badly about that,” replies his straightfaced wife.) The show's tone veers between drama and camp, tragedy and comedy, at breakneck speed. Whether mainstream America sticks with it past the premiere remains to be seen. Here's hoping they do. “Desperate Housewives” is a brilliant combination of comfortably familiar and amusingly edgy. The suburbs may never be the same.