s a dude, I want to be totally honest about why I tuned in to Desperate Housewives, ABC’s allegedly steamy new drama, for the first time two Sundays ago. I did so because I watched Monday Night Football last week and saw the pre-game promo in which desperate housewife Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan) — wearing only a towel over her very hot, possibly plasticized little bod — propositions a big, black, muscle-bound wide receiver named Terrell Owens in the locker room, then drops her towel.
Thanks to the racist moral watchdogs on cable TV, I actually got to see this segment 2,735 times over the next five days. As a result, I developed the very pleasant fantasy that the series might actually feature hot, interracial sex between the housewives and various huge, black athletes, all of whom would, naturally, fuck the housewives silly, causing them to shriek hysterically, claw the wainscoting and speak in tongues.
This fantasy appealed to me because I am a wimpy white male who never gets propositioned, let alone by a desperate housewife in a locker room, and because my sexual prowess rarely (actually, technically, never) causes women to speak in tongues. I am sorry to report, however, that Desperate Housewives has no interracial sex at all. The sole African-American on the show is some creepy private detective, which I suppose qualifies him as a black dick, but not the kind likely to wind up inside any of the name talent.
The first episode I saw included only one scene that could be construed as sexual. It featured Gabrielle Solis (the vaguely Latin and entirely hot Eva Longoria) rolling around with her teenage gardener. Two immediate problems:
1) She was wearing her underwear.
2) His breasts were discernibly larger than hers.
So from the interracial sex perspective, the show was something of a wash.
My pal, the Big Ruskie, concurred. After about half an hour, he got up from his chair and said, “I’m sorry, folks. I don’t really get the appeal.” On the other hand, his wife (the Little Ruskette) was totally absorbed. And I must admit that, despite the absence of Terrell Owens, I, too, was moderately absorbed.
The show is basically Dallas from the female perspective, with a dash of American Beauty pseudo-insight thrown in, just to keep things respectable. Like any successful soap opera, the plot takes the form of a prolonged, emotional handjob. The viewer is stroked from one cliffhanger to the next, but never quite allowed release. The basic setup runs like so: a suburban housewife on Wisteria Lane has offed herself for unknown reasons and her surviving gal pals have to solve the mystery, while also getting themselves embroiled in various silly-but-involving subplots.
Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) is a divorced single mom with one of those precocious teenage daughters about whom one hears so much these days; she also has a crush on her new hunkalicious neighbor. Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) is an überhausfrau whose family is falling apart under her nose. Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) is a former career woman brought low by maternal duties. Solis is a rich, bored slut. Britt is the show’s beta slut.
None of these women, as you might have noticed, are characters. They are focus-group composites, pitched to represent various female demographics and desires. As could go without saying, all the housewives have dirty little secrets (which again, sadly, do not seem to include big, black lovers). Instead, we’ve got the standard soap tropes: Van De Kamp tries to poison her hubby so he can’t leave her. Scavo pops pills to keep pace with her domestic duties. And so on.
The one thing Housewives has going for it is that it does portray, however primitively, a gynocentric world. It’s the women who drive the action in this series (read: who conduct affairs and lie and cheat and blackmail) and it’s their roiling domestic dramas and insecurities that take center stage. For this alone, the show deserves partial credit. It’s why the Little Ruskette — despite a well-above-average IQ — was openly captivated by Housewives. As far-fetched as the plot twists were, they resonated with her in the same primal way a Top Forty song might.
Watching a strung-out Scavo chug Ritalin to keep up with her housework, the Little Ruskette mused, “It’s true. As a woman, when you leave the work world, you still have that competitive drive, it just comes out at home. I know I shouldn’t, but if I don’t keep up, I feel slovenly.”
After watching Bree Van De Kamp dump her children’s possessions on the front lawn as punishment for siding with their father in marital dispute, the Ruskette found herself nodding. “Okay, she went overboard. But you can imagine how she must feel. I mean, the woman always gets screwed in a divorce. She gives up her career for a family, and then what does she have when the family falls apart?”
It was at this point that the Big Ruskie retreated to kitchen for another vodka-and-Orangina.
Still, it’s clear that the show has tapped into a basic crisis of identity. American women are compelled to compete with men in the work world, but once they choose to raise children and tend house, their considerable labors are often overlooked. Desperate Housewives manages to take these very real grievances and recast them as high-gloss, escapist camp. The producers of the show, after all, don’t want women thinking too deeply about their own angst. Instead, they’ve created a super-annuated suburban fantasy world full of hysterical mommies whose attitudes (and lawn design) are straight out of the ’50s. Wisteria Lane is the kind of place where the book club meets to discuss Madame Bovary, but no actual discussion ensues because the gals are too busy clucking over the latest scandal.
This sort of calculated superficiality allows fans like the Little Ruskette to root for the gals in a playful, you-go-girl way without feeling guilty, to indulge in their transgressions while also feeling morally superior to them. This is the deal we make with melodrama: a chance to advocate for iniquity and mayhem (our own ids, in essence) from the safety of our timid living rooms.
It should be noted that our desperate housewives rarely, if ever, experience the joys of marriage and motherhood. They do not make love to their husbands or cuddle with their children. Instead, they spend most of their time gossiping with each other. And this, I think, is the second seductive aspect of the show. Like Sex in the City, Housewives offers the illusion of a close-knit gal posse who remain, above all, loyal to each other. In this era of profound loneliness and exurban atomization, there’s something oddly comforting about a friend who will stick by you after your second murder attempt.
As for whether Housewives stands a chance of catching on with men – I truly doubt that. In the wake of the brilliantly executed MNF flap (prurient controversy + media shark feed = endless free advertising) there will be plenty of dude rubberneckers, such as myself. But once they figure out that the show doesn’t actually feature much sex, and is, worse, a glorified soap, they’re not going to stick around. It’s not that men don’t dig prolonged handjobs. They just don’t want said handjobs to be emotional.
As the Big Ruskie put it, “It’s pretty basic, really: this is what women are going to watch so they don’t have to suffer through sunday night football.” The current success of Housewives speaks, in large part, to the creative poverty of our current TV landscape, with its endless reality schlock and high-tech necrophilia. But in the end, a TV series endures because it develops genuine characters, to whom the audience bonds. This season’s guilty pleasure is next year’s DVD.
Which is not to say that show won’t enjoy a nice little run. The Little Ruskette admitted, a tad sheepishly, that she would probably watch again next week. “The only thing I’m worried about is this,” she mused, as the credits rolled. “Does watching this show make me a desperate housewife?”
No, my dear, it makes you an American. n°
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©2004 Steve Almond and Nerve.com.