The air of desperation that saturates Wisteria Lane has permeated the real world this television season as fans have been wondering if the series that launched as an instant phenomenon last year was starting to lose its mojo.
Critics have piped in that the second season of "Desperate Housewives" seems a little stale and have conjectured that it could be because creator Marc Cherry hasn't written any scripts himself. Fans on the Internet have flat-out complained that they are bored. And everyone has been lamenting that the four leading actresses have not appeared on screen together since the season premiere.
Sunday night's episode -- which delivered on humor (Gabrielle started a prison riot), outrage (Andrew told the creepy pharmacist how Bree moans during sex), self-indulgence (Susan gave Zach money to leave town) and heartache (Lynette sobbed after she got rid of her son's imaginary friend) -- left fans who posted their thoughts on the Internet feeling less fraught. There was even one brief scene with three of the housewives: Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), Susan (Teri Hatcher) and Bree (Marcia Cross). But with no central mystery seemingly connecting the four women this season, questions remain about what direction the show is taking.
Cherry, who created the show largely from his experiences with his mother and is largely responsible for "Housewives' " sometimes outrageous blend of comedy and tragedy, tried to address some of the fans' concerns in an e-mail to The Times for this story.
"Yes, we're trying some new stuff," he wrote on Friday. "Some of it might work. Some of it might not. This, of course, is the nature of episodic television. They can't all be gems. But, rest assured, I'm paying attention to my audience's response and am trying my darndest to please them. And I will continue to do so as long as I've got that executive producer credit above my name."
While Cherry has not penned any of the episodes that have aired this season, he assured in the e-mail that "I am as involved in the writing process as I've ever been. I help come up with the story lines, I give notes, and, indeed, I rewrite things constantly. I take the credit and the blame for everything that goes on the screen."
The attachment of viewers to characters on TV creates different expectations for television audiences than it does for moviegoers, said Stuart Fischoff, a media psychologist at Cal State L.A.
"It's not so much what's going on that is the problem," Fischoff said. "It's the comparison to last year. If this was the first season, people wouldn't have a reference point, a cognitive map or emotional map to compare it to. But it's the second season, so you can say it's unfolding differently as last year and I don't like it. That's why you might be getting what appears to be premature frustration."
After the whirlwind of the first season, which included winning Golden Globe awards, the People's Choice award, Emmy Awards, set visits by Oprah and Diane Sawyer, and the selection of Cherry as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people, Cherry realized something had to give. He took only four days off between Christmas and May, writing 80% of the scripts himself, and fell ill three times. The former sitcom writer, who had been unemployed for several years and almost went bankrupt, also realized he had control issues and vowed to let his well-seasoned writing staff share more of the load.
"This show has a very specific tone, and the tone is best when I write it," Cherry told The Times in May. "Now, the other writers can approximate it pretty darn well, or they have learned to. But at the beginning our writers were taking shots at scenes and they just didn't write it like I wanted it written."
A ratings juggernaut since it premiered last year, "Desperate Housewives" is the No. 2 show on television this year. About 26 million people tuned in Sunday. But Cherry and other producers in the business caring about viewer response on the Internet is a sign that Nielsen ratings are no longer the only barometer of success for television, Fischoff added. The producers of ABC's Emmy-winning drama "Lost" also have admitted that they consider what fans post on blogs and message boards when they are breaking stories.
"That's becoming a more important source of information," Fischoff said. "The fact that fans can give their opinions instantly now is very valuable. When you're doing a show like this, you plant seeds. It's a slow development thing. But this show does feel more fragmented, and that's a change they may come back to rue. If people like the ensemble and the dynamics of the interplay between the women but then they separate them out as they have, you're missing the rhythm and the chemistry that lit the show up."