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Fall '04: "Desperate Housewives"

For reasons far too irrelevant to go into during a TV show review, one of the few albums my parents let us listen to on family car rides was Glen Campbell’s Witchita Lineman. It’s not a bad album, but one song on there, “The Dreams of the Everyday Housewife,” was the kind of prepubescent consciousness-raising tool Free to Be … You And Me could only wish it were.

The song starts off clocking the everyday housewife’s physical deterioration:

She looks in the mirror and stares at the wrinkles
That weren’t there yesterday

then swings through verses detailing how the housewife makes it through the day: by pretending her apron is the ball gown she wore in her swinging single days, and by obsessively flipping through the scrapbooks she compiled back when she enjoyed her life. These verses are punctuated with the chorus:

Oh, such are the dreams of the everyday housewife
You see everywhere any time of the day
An everyday housewife
Who gave up the good life for me

That album ought to have come with its own copy of The Feminist Mystique. Whatever the intended effect of the song, I came away from it determined not to spend my adulthood segregated from other grownups and reduced to poring over old photo albums lest I be tempted to gargle with Pine-Sol.

Despite later evidence that housewives were not, in fact, confined to the house, I still never shook my ambivalence about housewifery in general. A lot of people evidently listened to Glen Campbell or arrived at their uneasy regard of stay-at-home wives and mothers by other means: a survey of articles in major publications over the last 18 months shows everyone from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal to the Atlantic Monthly discussing what my mother used to call “domestic engineering” — why people choose it, whether they’re happy with it, how it affects the economy, whether it should even be a choice at all.

Putting aside the usual claptrap wherein people whine about the awful burden of being able to choose how to conduct their family life, the same innately obvious idea gets trotted out again and again in these whither-housewives pieces: stay-at-home moms are thinking, feeling people too, just like people with jobs. They have inner lives! Isn’t that surprising? They remained people even after ceasing to draw a paycheck!

Such is the radical premise behind Desperate Housewives. Sometimes, women don’t like staying home! It makes them crazy! Because they have brains and emotions too! So don’t underestimate that nice-looking lady standing behind you at Ralph’s!

If the preceding statements are genuinely surprising, you’ll probably enjoy Desperate Housewives as a sharp-edged new kind of show.

For the rest of us, however, a show satirizing the supposed duplicity of placid suburbia and its emotionally turbulent underbelly is kind of played out. David Lynch did it first in Twin Peaks and Alan Ball does it in … well, everything. And commenting on the quaint idea that men and women occupy different frames of reference because they occupy different spheres is … well, we live in a country where 72.2% of households with children have both parents working outside the home (as of 2002, statistic courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of Labor). Is the housewife-stocked suburban enclave really all that typical, or is it merely another lifestyle niche? And if it’s the latter, does it really need to be satirized?

To its credit, Desperate Housewives is self-aware enough to at least be aware of these questions, even if it doesn’t bother to address them. The pilot — which is one of the most deftly executed inaugural episodes I’ve seen — is up front about the moneyed bubble in which its women float. These housewives aren’t desperate the way a young mother forced to feed a family of four on an E-2 salary might be. They’re pinned by their own anomie.

In other words, this show is shaping up to be the Aughties version of the primetime soap: a peek at the lives of people upon whom we wish plenty of juicy problems, served with a neat twist of self-conscious irony. We saw it last year with The O.C., we’re seeing it now on Wisteria Lane. These people have everything. Let them suffer.

Desperate Housewives plays up our darker desires to feel better at the expense of other people’s personal trainwrecks by giving us desperate divorcee Susan (Teri Hatcher), disgruntled trophy wife Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), manic Martha manque Bree (Marcia Cross) and trapped fertility goddess Lynnie (Felicity Huffman). They’re all put-upon to some degree or another. They’re all constrained by the kind of social pressure that hazing fratboys would find oppressive. Now throw in the mystery — why did their pal Mary Alice off herself? — and go. You’ve got a premise that may actually take you through a season.

Like its predecessor in surreal suburbia, Twin Peaks, a lot of the show’s appeal comes from its brilliant, comprehensive aesthetic. The houses and gardens were lifted straight from the pages of a women’s magazine, but coated with a toxic sheen suggesting that nobody could possibly thrive in such a pristinely perfect environment. The acting is highly stylized — Marcia Cross’s tightly wound performance is a hoot, and Felicity Huffman is practically playing two characters with the way she manages to display both her seething inner despair and her outward attempts to appear normal. The dialogue is as goofily arch as Twin Peaks or Sex in the City — the occasional zinger, slilding like a stiletto into patter so silly, real people would smirk as they said it.

And, like Twin Peaks, the show relies on the terrarium premise to sustain its characters’ claustrophobia: it never occurs to anyone that they don’t have to confine their lives to their local geography. Again, in an era where relocation and rootlessness are rampant, the near-agoraphobic premise of housewives pinned into place more or less debunks the idea that this a show in which the masses will find themselves reflected.

(The commercials, however, are another story: Crock Pot Classics, Talbots’ clothing and vacuum cleaners galore. Clearly, the advertisers aren’t worried that anyone watching this show is going to question why they should bother buying into suburban conformity. That should be a clue about exactly how subversive this show is.)

So the show’s basically a soap. It’s far from perfect — for one thing, all the characters are threatening to fall into the same obsessive navel-gazing about appropriate life choices that has driven the nation’s editors to assign pieces on the state of the American housewife. All that ambivalence gets old: I would have loved to see someone who thumbed her nose at the discomfort all the other women feel by cheerfully admitting she’s a housewife because ferrying around the kids in exchange for the hubster underwriting her scrapbooking hobby is a sweeter deal than anything she could have pulled while working. Someone who unrepentantly embraced housewifery — or roundly and unapologetically rejected it — would go a long way toward cutting the Prufrockian discontent in which the other women marinate.

But ultimately my biggest problem with the show is this: it tries to have its cake and eat it too, and it fails. There’s a genre in mystery publishing called “cozies,” wherein murder and mayhem are balanced by cookie-baking heroines or people whose talking cats solve crimes. This is the cozy of the suburban satire genre: it’s attempting to make us think about women’s roles in society, but it’s managed to completely eliminate larger society from the equation. Which is, in the end, kind of weird, given that the same women being shown bouncing around their airtight bubble are the ones who, in reality, drive the economy of this country, people the grass-roots movements that politicians respond to and — when they have time — raise the next generation of voters.

Just as actual Orange County citizens aren’t present anywhere in The O.C., so it goes with real housewives on Wisteria Lane. However, I’m already anticipating the first pundit piece in which it’s argued that Desperate Housewives demonstrates all the ways in which feminism has failed women by making their lives harder. The pundit will have missed the point on two counts: too many choices is still better than no choices at all, and if anything, Desperate Housewives is a look at the everyday housewife as someone who’s never held the job thinks she exists. She doesn’t have to dance around the living room anymore. All she has to do it turn on the television.


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