Image A+ Sound A Extras B+
"Pilot," "Ah, But Underneath," "Pretty Little Picture," "Who's That Woman?," "Running to Stand Still," "Anything You Can Do," "Guilty," "Suspicious Minds," "Come Back to Me," "Move On," "Every Day a Little Death," "Your Fault," "Love Is in the Air," "Impossible," "If It's Brown, Flush It Down," "There Won't Be Trumpets," "Children Will Listen," "Live Alone and Like It," "Fear No More," "Sunday in the Park with George," "Goodbye for Now," "One Wonderful Day"
by Walter Chaw The writing on Marc Cherry's "Desperate Housewives" is astringent and bright for the first dozen episodes or so. For more than half the first season, the show works as an effervescent satire of evening potboilers like "Dallas" or "Falcon Crest": It understands the attraction/repulsion dynamic of venerable bodice-ripping soapers and boils them down to their base elements of women, houses, relationships, and desperation. Eventually, though, the series falls off the tightrope all satires walk between commentary and indulgence--it starts having too good a time pretending to be that which it disdains and, in so doing, reveals its true colours as a drag revue played by women, ultimately freeing it of irony. Just look to the reports of on-set strife and photo-shoot jealousy to see that the tabloid has overtaken the snark, with intelligence and purpose quick to follow.
The cast is good, playing it broad along their Almost-a-Golden Girl pigeonholes, but the fact that each of them is a little of the other makes it more difficult to settle into the comfortable moon-phase groove of virgin-into-mother-into-whore-into-crone that hustled that geriatric quartet into our cultural unconscious. Do their relatively protean personalities speak to a complexity (or confusion) in the writing, or to a new paradigm in our prime-time archetypes that demands each avatar contain disparate elements to reflect the new millennium's twisted, pantheistic paranoia? Hard to say, but I'm betting that it's probably just a matter of keeping options open in case the sword falls and the writers suddenly find their backs against the wall.
Meet Susan (Teri Hatcher), freshly-divorced single-mom of the "perfect kid" Julie (Andrea Bowen) and some kind of children's book illustrator who's hot for her new neighbour, plumber Mike (James Denton)--one of several occupants of the towering suburban castles dotting idyllic Wisteria Lane. Hatcher's scrunched-up features and famine-racked frame initially make her the perfect "virgin" effigy (she probably stopped menstruating last millennium), the show's running joke of having people fall out of their windows like nubile Caesarean sections thus finding her, naked as a lamb, in the bushes. It'll also locate high-school heartthrob John (Jesse Metcalfe) au naturale and deposited in naturale when he--pretending to be the gardener for sexpot "Gabby" Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) whilst actually trimming a few more personal hedges--is almost caught in the act by Gabrielle's jealous husband Carlos (Ricardo Chavira). Foolish to belabour the prelapsarian elements of the piece, perhaps, except that the opening credits sequence includes an animation of the "Adam and Eve" painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (we could talk about the other captures (the van Eyck, the Grant Wood, the Warhol, and the Robert Dales), but that would probably begin to creep into "spoiler" territory)--a meta-reference that not only draws certain types of visual art into the televisual art arena, but again highlights creator Cherry's dedication to watered-down John Waters kitsch.
Susan and Mike's "will they/won't they" flirtation is the cornerstone of "Desperate Housewives", this kind of sex in abeyance the cornerstone of too many shows and the weakest element here, dependent as it is on slapstick bouts of nervousness and developing some Virgin/Magdalene antipathy between Susan and neighbourhood strumpet Edie (Nicollette Sheridan, still playing "sure things"). Meanwhile, meet Bree (Marcia Cross), the Martha Stewart manqué with a failing marriage (to Rex (Steven Culp)) and two royally fucked-up children; and finally, meet Lynette (Felicity Huffman), former corporate raider/now stay-at-home mom to four nightmarish children. Lynette could be the mother figure (to Gabby's whore and Susan's virgin--leaving Bree to be the crone, I guess), but she's most definitely the series' centerpiece: the one who seems least like a prefabricated joke. (That level of gravity probably owed in no inconsiderable portion to Huffman's built-in sobriety.) The minor hue-and-cry that Huffman won the Emmy (and is there an award more devalued than the Emmy? Well, except for the Oscar, the Golden Globe, the Peoples' Choice, the Tony, and, snicker, the Grammy) over her cast-mates strikes me as proof positive that a lot of the folks watching this show watch it for the wrong reasons.
The mystery of the first season--the one that will take twenty-three episodes to solve (and let me say that at least they do solve it, unlike that gas trap "Lost")--is why fellow housewife Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) shot herself, widowing Paul (Mark Moses) and semi-orphaning creepy Zach (Cody Kasch). The better mystery is why Cherry and company thought that having the dead Mary Alice do a sardonic voiceover for every episodes was a good idea. The other terrible idea, implementing a Mrs. Kravitz-like busybody (Christine Estabrook), is taken care of in an exceedingly satisfying fashion, which gives the cozy feeling that no matter how far the series goes towards becoming that which it sought to skewer, Cherry will have the balls to shake things up now and then. (Unlike, for instance, "Lost", the most gutless show since "The X-Files" slunk off to die.) It's moments like these that make "Desperate Housewives" a difficult animal to train in the crosshairs. The first half of the season is so extreme that you believe it can only be a satire, but the second half (beginning round about the time Lynette grows jealous of her nanny, Lynette's kids start stealing from everyone in the neighbourhood, and Susan gets coated with human cremains)--particularly in the torturous Susan/Mike storyline--starts to show its hand as a show that maybe just wanted to be the bitchiest of "Dynasty" knock-offs after all. Its slickness and genre intelligence suggests a Scream treatment, but it's possible that what Cherry really intended was to be Halloween.
The lingering impression is that although it had the potential to be a neo-"Soap", it's now using the distance and freedom satire provides to slide back and forth from storylines it actually cares about resolving (will Susan find love, for instance; will mysterious Mike blow it?) to those it can use to push the envelope in terms of plausibility and internal logic. "Desperate Housewives" is playing both sides against the middlebrow: appeasing traditional viewers with the same stuff they've been slavering over since the dawn of serial soaps while teasing non-traditional viewers with the promise that every once in a while, something completely, delightfully godless is going to happen. A gay-bashing subplot is the key to where the creators are coming from; if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it's an attempt by the gay community to skewer the breeder community through caricature and sexual dysfunction, though figuring that out isn't exactly the Human Genome Project. Now, if I could just figure out if there's a reason beyond gay idolatry that all the episodes are named after Stephen Sondheim songs, I'd be happy.
The 6-disc DVD release of "Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season" comes packaged in a handsome, plastic slip-covered mylar gatefold fashioned to resemble linen--recalling that anecdote about farting through silk or something, and right in line with the attitudes and execution of the series. To make this a worthwhile purchase for a world suddenly awash in TiVo and other cheap recording mediums, Cherry and the boys have packed supplementary material onto an accomplished presentation of the show itself, whose 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image replicates to the extent that it can the quality of an HD feed. Couple this with roomy DD 5.1 audio and it can be said that "Desperate Housewives" looks and sounds absolutely fabulous. As for extras, start with Disc One and a deleted scene (1 min.) of a tense Gabby/John exchange cut because "the story could be told without it," according to optional Marc Cherry commentary.
"A Stroll Down Wisteria Lane" (12 mins.) has Meredith Viera (the least irritating of "The View" women--which is, to quote Larry Miller, a little like being the tallest guy in Japan) visiting the "Desperate Housewives" set to grill Cherry on such hard-hitting issues as "Why do you think this show is so great?", leading to Cherry's assertion that it's mainly because the show has a great title. Mmmmm. Careful not to watch this documentary before finishing the season for, in the course of maintaining he's got the whole thing planned out, Cherry spills the beans on the whole shooting match. (It's Rosebud, in the parlour, with a wrench.) Cherry returns with a show-length commentary for "Pilot" (preceded, in Buena Vista fashion, by a long disclaimer) that covers the technical aspects of a few of the shots, spots "firsts" that careful watchers will benefit from jotting down if they're playing Nancy Drew, and demonstrates a fun self-deprecating manner in wondering why he wrote certain things. Pick "Extended Episode" off the main menu and get a brief Cherry intro explaining what's been added to "Who's That Woman?" (1.4). The extended scenes total no more than a minute, but they do add depth to the otherwise meaningless character of Mrs. Kravi--er, Mrs. Huber. Upon insertion, the disc spews trailers for Flightplan, "Desperate Housewives", the fourth season of "Alias", and the Buena Vista "TV on DVD" reel.
Disc Two offers a blissful reprieve from the forced trailers--no such luck, alas, with useless supplementals. Case in point: "Desperate Housewives Around the World" (8 mins.), a whimsical look at the fans and fan-events that have sprouted up around this show as a sort of chick equivalent of "Star Trek". Clips demonstrating how it's dubbed into different languages are hilarious, of course (nothing quite as side-splitting as foreign languages!), while the cast chimes in now and again to express their amazement that foreigners like this show as much as Yankees do. A separate "Multi-Language Sequence" (2 mins.) is essentially the foreign language sampler from the disc's doc. Optional, worthless Cherry commentary meanwhile accompanies couple of deleted scenes (one 15 seconds long that features Sheridan in pink bra and panties, the other a minute-long extended bit with Gabby and her mother-in-law). Cherry returns for a pair of commentary tracks, teaming with director Larry Shaw on "Anything You Can Do" (1.7) and flying solo on "Guilty" (1.8), wherein he reveals that this was the highest-rated episode besides the finale because the teaser revealed that a major character was to be killed. On the former, you get the standard "Oh, this was an accident!" and "I really like this shot" time-passers mixed with a few cast anecdotes and the standard lament that scenes were cut, albeit restored on the platter's "Extended Episode" and essentially just heightening Rex's undermining of his kids' relationship with Bree.
Sidle on over to Disc Three to find a deleted scene (1 mins.) that sees Gabby strutting down a fashion-show runway. Remind me how a woman who looks like she's five-three in heels was a high-fashion model again? Oh yes--it's satire or something. Optional Cherry commentary is empty of content. "Dressing Wisteria Lane" (13 mins.) discusses the set-design philosophy ("iconic") with some vaguely interesting insight into the process, beginning with lengthy homework for Cherry to provide complex backstories for all the characters. Cate Adair, costume designer, chimes in with more on what you'd expect about how the clothes make the man--and man-eaters. A breakdown of the pigeonholes they're hoping to screw these women into, however, provides a little insight into how right--and wrong--I am in trying to do the same. Maybe it's natural. An extended edition of "Every Day A Little Death" (1.12) finds Cherry again describing what was cut/restored; watching it this way reveals depths to the Carlos character that make his looming cosmic comeuppance less delicious. Cherry doesn't admit that this is why this material hit the floor, but I wonder if there wasn't a flagging of courage.
Disc Four's deleted scenes include one (2 mins.) with more bitchiness from the Chinese housekeeper (they give her a moment in the sun, but it's racist and, more, it's the kind of pedestrian meanness I don't really care to discuss anymore) and one (1 mins.) that has Edie the real estate agent investigating Gabby's estate. Cherry mentions something about Edie's racism I found sort of interesting only because Edie's racist when she says something about Gabby's sense of style--but Cherry's not racist when he sketches an Asian Dragon Lady caricature as the only Far Eastern representative on his show. Cherry provides another largely useless, if information-packed, commentary for episode "Impossible" (1.15), joined once more by Shaw on what Cherry calls "one of the best episodes of season one!" Tales of last-second teasers, self-aggrandizing anecdotes that verge on arrogance, and a decline in bonhomie starts to speak subtly to me of a realization that the seams are starting to show by this point in the project. That could be wishful thinking, I guess--truth is, I could barely handle the little "we were a big hit at this point, of course"-style back-pats, and so my mind wandered more than usual. Extended episode this time around for "Impossible" with more conversations--crucial ones, especially one raising the possibilities that Mike might be a murderer and Zach might be crazy. The connection between Zach, Mike, Susan, and Julie becomes pretty clear by the end, of course.
And then, Disc Five: a deleted scene (2 mins.) cut not for time but because it didn't work. It's Rex and Bree in the principal's office, where Cherry realizes that his regulars are being upstaged and that this isn't the proper way to run a boat. Excellent commentary, excellent deleted scene: both instructive of the creative process in a way that the other deleted scenes haven't been thus far. "The Ladies' Favorite Scenes" is the commentary function on this disc with each of the primary housewives providing commentary over, natch, their favourite scenes (two apiece). Longoria remembers spraining her ankle in a ravishing dress--and then offers play-by-play of mowing the lawn at four in the morning in heels. Huffman waxes philosophical about how pleased she is that her character gets to explore the dark side of parenthood, thus raising the conversation much in the manner that she raises the series' profile. Marcia Cross talks over her attempt to seduce her onscreen husband, claiming modesty and terror (and acting embarrassed) when a few quotes I've heard from her in the media tell me that she's either acting there or here. Sheridan does what you'd expect for the scene where she douses Hatcher's character with ashes and, finally, Hatcher steals the show in her weepy way with a commentary that is surprisingly free of play-by-play. It's a vulnerable track, in other words, as Hatcher explores her character's hurt as motivation for her in the scenes that she plays. Boy am I sick of Hatcher being vulnerable.
Finally, Disc Six--and I should mention at this point that each of the discs is attractively silk-screened, that an interminable animation opens each of the menus (and really, honestly, left me wondering at the beginning of the first disc if I'd even bother watching any of this show), and that there's a packet inserted in the gatefold containing episode descriptions. Deleted Scenes this time around include the holy grail (8 mins.) for "Housewives" diehards as Oprah Winfrey appears as the new neighbour on the lane. It's a joke, I think, and were I to conduct the tiniest bit of research, I'd probably discover that this is something the big O commissioned for broadcast on her little funhouse TV program for the fawning adoration of her zombie nation. Full of in-jokes ("So, you're from Chicago," and, "Oh, I know how book clubs work, believe me!") for the dead-eyed Oprah faithful, it's like an SNL skit without a punchline or pacing (i.e. all of them), and generally exists as a shower nozzle masturbation fantasy for Oprah and her admirers. Without her legions' canned laughter, the sketch is left orphaned and, if not for her billions, reveals the empress dowager as unclothed. I wish I could scrub this thing from my head.
"Deleted Scenes" includes another shot cut for time of the four girls (sans Edie) doing a Ms. Marple and talking out what they know of the mystery thus far. I did appreciate Cherry confessing that he was bugged by the restless camera work. A 5-minute "Blooper Reel" sees the girls hamming it up in "Charlie's Angels" poses while dropping lines, missing cues, and misplaying props. Chief offender? Longoria. I'm shocked. Aren't you shocked? I'm shocked. All in all, though, they seem like an affable bunch--can you believe they tried to scratch each other's eyes out at that VANITY FAIR shoot? "Secrets of Wisteria Lane" (11 mins.) is an extended teaser for the second season (which, four episodes in, I'm finding to be fun again now that I've given up all hope that it's edifying in any way)--threatening to expose new plot threads when all it ends up doing is highlighting favourite moments with the cast...again.
"Behind the Scenes of Desperate Housewives" (25 mins.) exhumes Viera as talking head, guiding us through the same pounded ground that, if you've gotten here by proper means, you've spent 23 episodes pounding yourself. Nothing new here, just Vieira acting like an investigative journalist in an endeavour I suspect was broadcast as a late-season teaser on a network never too moral to hack together an ad magnet with chewing gum and slobber. Remember "The Star Wars Holiday Special"? Yeah. This is nothing like that, but the idea is the same. Cherry and Shaw provide episode commentary for the season finale, and they've both sort of gone around the bend with their success. A key moment arrives when Cherry intones "Don't make the same mistakes 'Twin Peaks' made." If there's something I'll say to defend this show, it's that no matter how stupid it gets, it gets somewhere. That's, believe it or not, pretty important. Cherry does here, as he does often, mention that a lot of this stuff is based on his mother. Oh boy. There are two extended episodes this time, both superior to the originals, with one predicting the possibilities of an evil pharmacist's nefarious plan to dispatch with a romantic rival and the other deepening the feeling of betrayal that Lynette's husband experiences once he discovers that she's essentially sabotaged his career. Originally published: October 24, 2005.