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A breakdown in the 'burbs

Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEW

Though well acted, the cartoonish 'Desperate Housewives' fails to get its message across.

October 01, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Desperate Housewives," which premieres Sunday on ABC, has been generating buzz for months on the basis of its John Waters-y title alone -- a buzz made louder by the return to series television of Teri Hatcher (of "Lois and Clark," long ago), though some of us are just as excited by the return of Felicity Huffman ("Sports Night"). A black comedy of suburbia, it wants to live somewhere between "American Beauty" and "Blue Velvet." Like the former, it is narrated by a dead person; like the latter, it involves a dark mystery; and like both, it asserts that all is not as it seems across the sun-dappled, well-manicured lawns and behind the screen door. You've got your loveless marriages, killing boredom, child-induced hysteria, sexual adventuring. But, I mean, ho-hum. So what else is new?

"I performed my chores, I completed my projects, I ran my errands

Filmed on what looks very much like the back lot at Universal, because it is, and with a score that could have been ripped whole from a Disney film, "Desperate Housewives" seems not so much a comment on the way people live in the ordinary real world as it is a rebuke to the spotless unreality of "Father Knows Best" and other suburban or small-town idylls of old-school television and film -- which were, on the whole, at least as true life as is "Desperate Housewives."

Created by Marc Cherry, whose background is in sitcoms, specifically sitcoms about groups of women ("The Golden Girls," "The Five Mrs. Buchanans"), and developed with Charles Pratt Jr., who has worked on many well-known soap operas of both the a.m. and p.m. variety, it's a difficult show to get a handle on. It delivers mixed signals. Because the language is elevated, the production assured and the acting fine, it can feel that something important is happening. But perhaps there is less here than meets the eye; maybe it's just a tricked-up mystery show. It comes on like satire, but it's too scattershot, too inconsistent, too over the top to make any significant points.

One cannot help but notice the complete absence of domestic help (apart from a gardener for Gabrielle to sleep with) in this decidedly upper-middle-class neighborhood. It is strange also that, having accidentally set a neighbor's house on fire, Susan leaves without alerting the resident. It is odd that Gabrielle commits adultery in front of a window open to the street, and that Bree's family of four occupies only three sides of the dining room table, in order that a more formal composition might be obtained for the camera. And where does the baby go when Lynette's husband drags her into the bedroom for a quickie? And why would Bree, a woman pathologically enslaved to social graces, remind a grieving widower to return her muffin baskets when he's eaten the muffins? These things are accomplished for the sake of a shot, or a joke, but they undermine the consistency and plausibility that even a cartoon requires.

Though "Desperate Housewives" is produced, written and directed by men, presumably the women who act in it find it sufficiently accurate as to their lot. Not being female myself, I wouldn't beg to differ, but in spite of the fine particulars of each performance, it doesn't quite ring true. It feels like a rigged game, a stacked deck. The men are all either insufferable or long-suffering or up to some as-yet-unspecified skulduggery (the late Mary Alice's husband is literally digging, at the bottom of their empty pool), the women are all in thrall to imagined perfection and liable to go stupid at any moment. ("Mike can't like Edie better than me!" cries Susan, who has a crush on the new bachelor on the block, a calendar-ready plumber who is not what he seems. "He just can't!") Everyone is unhappy. There is no countervailing sense that the 'burbs might be a place where beauty may be created, or happiness achieved, or pleasure taken in ordinary things.

Ultimately, it is a cartoon. But whether it's "The Simpsons" or just "Scooby-Doo" I can't yet tell.

*

'Desperate Housewives'

Where: ABC

When: 9 to 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PG-D,L,S,V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, suggestive dialogue, sex and violence)

Teri Hatcher...Susan Mayer

Felicity Huffman...Lynette Scavo

Marcia Cross...Bree Van De Kamp

Eva Longoria...Gabrielle Solis

James Denton...Mike Delfino

Nicollette Sheridan...Edie Britt

Steven Culp...Rex Van De Camp

Mark Moses...Paul Young

Ricardo Antonio Chavira...Carlos Solis

Doug Savant...Tom Scavo

Christine Estabrook...Mrs. Huber

Cody Kasch...Zach Young

Andrea Bowen...Julie Mayer

Zane Huette...Parker Scavo

Brent Kinsman...Preston Scavo

Shane Kinsman...Porter Scavo

Jesse Metcalfe...John

Brenda Strong...Mary Alice Young

Shawn Pyfrom...Andrew Van De Kamp

Joy Lauren...Danielle Van De Kamp

Executive producers Marc Cherry, Michael Edelstein, Tom Spezialy. Creator Marc Cherry. Director Charles McDougall. Writer (pilot) Marc Cherry.

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