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Wisteria Lane gets a boost

'Desperate Housewives' has a balance of whimsy and trauma not seen on the show since its first season.

April 13, 2008|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

Just before "Desperate Housewives" went on strike hiatus in January, there was a housecleaning, literally. A tornado ripped through Wisteria Lane, leveling some homes, ruining others and taking a good deal of bad karma with it.

The gruesome metal fountain sculpture that had become a flash point for conversations about conformity? Gone. The mayor, Victor Lang (John Slattery), new husband to Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria Parker), who was still dabbling with her ex, Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira)? Dead. A rapprochement between prim perfectionist Bree (Marcia Cross) and ascendant neighborhood disrupter Katherine (Dana Delany)? A frightening possibility.

As narrative strategy, the tornado was much like the fourth season of "Housewives" itself, which resumes tonight (ABC, 9) -- clearing out the deadwood and allowing new things to be discovered, or hidden. After two meandering seasons that prioritized spectacle over honest drama -- apologies to Alfre Woodard, who did what she could with awkward subject matter -- "Housewives" now feels as vital as it did during its first season. In its match of whimsy and trauma, there is no equal on network television.

Much of the thanks for this resurgence can be given to Delany's Katherine Mayfair, who's moved back to Wisteria after leaving several years before under dubious circumstances. Delany is sharp, vibrant and, most crucially, emotional, even if her character is meant to be essentially emotionless. Her hair, her eyes, her teeth -- every part of her comes together to connote terror lurking just beneath the surface. At her most sinister, she recalls Linda Fiorentino in "The Last Seduction," a sort of evil grace that not even Longoria or Nicollette Sheridan, as Edie, have ever hit.

Her addition to the cast has provided new opportunities for Bree, who bristles at the idea that someone on the block is better at hiding secrets than she is. (As Bree's husband, dentist Orson Hodge, Kyle MacLachlan draws upon his career-making role as Dale Cooper on David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" but seems to reimagine it through the lens of Whit Stillman.) At the beginning of the season, Bree saw Katherine as a target but has since positioned herself as a confidant. They'll be going into business together in the coming weeks.

With Bree and Katherine teamed, Wisteria's kinder souls should be looking over their shoulders. Bree's house was damaged in the tornado, and while it's being repaired, she and her family have moved in with the tragically kind Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher). With her housecleaning and cooking, Bree has slowly seeped into Susan's family life, but Susan has other problems. Through a series of failed good deeds, she earned the ire of the new gay couple on the block, Bob (Tuc Watkins) and Lee (Kevin Rahm).

Up the block, Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) has beaten her cancer, but being the good wife is thankless work on "Housewives."

Her cancer rendered Lynette a bit one-dimensional -- "cancer bitch" is how she described it to her husband, Tom (Doug Savant). As Bree and Katherine revel in their complex codependency, the other women of Wisteria run the risk of being marginalized.

For example, of the central characters, only Edie has truly suffered this season, whether from story-writing neglect or character exhaust. Her affair with Carlos, inexplicable from the get-go, concluded as he attempted to reconnect with Gabrielle. And can you blame him? The rest of the housewives shade their cruelty with flashes of genuineness (or vice versa), but Edie has become merely evil. Unlike everyone else on the block, it feels as if she's got absolutely nothing to hide. And on Wisteria, when that happens, it's time to go.

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