by: Phil Siegel
Like a bullet to the brain after some light dusting, Desperate Housewives jolted America out of its procedural-induced slumber in 2004. And on May 13, it’s time to say goodbye. While the show has dwindled in the ratings and in quality from its first season, I have been a faithful viewer, and I have always been entertained. Networks have been, well, desperate, to find a replacement or copy its success – especially ABC – but it can’t be done. There will never be a show like Desperate Housewives again.
To call the show a hit is an understatement. Out of the gate, Desperate Housewives was the highest-rated show on television. Together with Lost, which premiered ten days before, the series saved ABC and the broadcast television landscape. It’s hard to imagine now, but in 2004, CSIs and Law & Orders were king. Friends, Frasier, and Sex and the City went off the air, prompting Entertainment Weekly to ask “Are sitcoms dead?” Desperate Housewives and Lost were two massive breaths of fresh air, the most successful duo since Friends and ER premiered a decade earlier. The fact that Desperate Housewives made it to the air is a miracle. Creator Marc Cherry was an unemployed, washed-up, over-40 writer buried in debt and living with his mom. Most TV pilot scripts are commissioned by a specific network. DH, however, was written on spec, and the script floated through Hollywood for months before landing at ABC. (Read the book Desperate Networks for the full, unbelievable story.) The series premiere pulled in 20 million viewers, and by May, the season finale got 33 million – one-tenth of the country! America couldn’t get enough of the housewives. The promise of Housewives-related segments on Good Morning America helped that program close the ratings gap with Today.
Desperate Housewives had a tone unlike anything else on TV. It mixed physical comedy, dark comedy, soapiness, mystery and serious drama. The opening scene of the pilot showed “perfect” housewife Mary Alice cleaning her house and running errands before committing suicide. When her neighbor Martha Huber found her, she called 911 and then stole the dead woman’s blender. What other network show would have a line like this: “Well, ever since he beat me and threw me down the stairs, we don’t keep in touch like we should.” It was a huge deviation from the other laugh track comedies on the air like Everybody Loves Raymond.
More importantly, Mary Alice’s death elicited an “I’ve been there” reaction from women. DH tapped into, and laughed at, the hidden anxieties facing modern women. Not the stereotypical “I’m in dating/relationship hell” problems that “Must-See-TV” comedies had explored to death. These women already found a husband and were now living their happily ever afters, except life wasn’t that happy.
We remember the outlandish storylines: Mary Alice’s death, a retarded boy chained in the basement, tornadoes and plane crashes hitting the lane. The stories that hooked viewers touched on the struggles, the desperation, of wives and mothers. Sure, the writers wrapped them up in humorous plots, but there was a dark truth lying in the center. Susan, Lynette, Bree and Gaby did everything society told them to, lived “perfect” lives in the suburbs but were plagued with profound unhappiness and frustration. Lynette, the corporate whiz who traded it to be a doting mother, was so worn down by her kids that she succumbed to popping Ritalin. Bree worked overtime to be Supermom to her family, even though her kids hated her and her husband wanted a divorce. Gaby said it best in the premiere while talking to the teenage gardener she was sleeping with.
John: You know what I don’t get?
John: Why you married Mr. Solis.
Gaby: Well, he promised to give me everything I’ve ever wanted.
John: Well, did he?
John: Then why aren’t you happy?
Gaby: Turns out I wanted all the wrong things.
TV had harried housewives before, but none ever spoke like this. These were women who grew up on 70s and 80s sitcoms, who aspired to be Carol Brady and Maggie Seaver. And once they got there, they realized it wasn’t how they imagined.
The series also shed light on the dark underbelly of suburbia, the lingering creepiness. How well did you really know your neighbors? What secrets were hiding behind those manicured lawns? Suburbanites may not admit it, but there’s a subconscious feeling of distrust that tugs at them about their neighbors. Suburbs are different from where people lived in a century ago, tight-knit communities where everybody knew each other’s business. The appearance of happiness, of keeping up with and doing better than the Joneses, is tantamount. The nicer the cul-de-sac, the thicker the façade. No other show on television exposed the insecurities and fear of everyday American life in such an entertaining, accessible way.
Goodbye, Housewives! Like Mary Alice, you are leaving us too soon. And like her blender, you will be missed.
Philip Siegel grew up in New Jersey, just down the block from a veritable Real Housewife. He graduated from Northwestern University and promptly moved out to Los Angeles, where he became an NBC page. Phil likes to think that the character of Kenneth on 30 Rock is loosely based on his life rights. Currently, he works at a major Chicago advertising agency by day while he writes novels at night and during his commute sandwiched in between colorful characters on the El. His plays have been performed on stage and radio, and he has published articles about gay line dancing bars and the French box office, among other fundamental topics. Read his blog at philipsiegelwrites.blogspot.com and follow him on Twitter at @FillupSeagull.