Wine can often get better with age, so is it possible that various forms of entertainment can as well? I do think films and television shows can age well, but even some of the best can suffer from being too topical or rough continuity errors. You have some sitcoms like THE GOLDEN GIRLS, which is still highly beloved by many in syndication (and I adore it too), but the truth is, the show was also one of the worst in terms maintaining continuity between the characters’ backstories on several levels while also relying a lot on pop culture references of the time that most certainly lose their luster when you have to think about something such as, “Wait…who is Susan Anton?”.
One of the main writers of the later seasons of THE GOLDEN GIRLS was a man by the name of Marc Cherry, who would go on to create one of the biggest successes of primetime TV during the 2000s: DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.
As someone who has always had a guilty pleasure of the soap opera formula, I was intrigued by this show that was being marketed as a hybrid between shows like KNOTS LANDING, TWIN PEAKS, SEX & THE CITY, and the 1999 film AMERICAN BEAUTY. The main core of the show would begin with the suicide of a housewife and the downfall and mystery it causes in the neighborhood…which linked into a style similar to the previously mentioned TWIN PEAKS as that series started around the question: Who Killed Laura Palmer?
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was one of the rare TV series of that era that I was obsessed with, although in retrospect, I think I didn’t think of it or any of the network series on the same level as those produced by the premium cable channels, which at the time, most of the biggest successes came from HBO: THE SOPRANOS, OZ, SIX FEET UNDER, and THE WIRE to name a few. It also managed to feel unique in a way in that it continued the quirky genre hybrid form that shows like TWIN PEAKS or NORTHERN EXPOSURE perfected over a decade before.
Even though the series competed in the Comedy/Musical categories at the Emmys and Golden Globes, it was certainly not in the same comedic boat of its then biggest rivals: THE OFFICE, WILL & GRACE, 30 ROCK, and ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
The first season of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a huge critical and ratings success and was one of the key shows (along with LOST and later GREY’S ANATOMY) that helped bring ABC out of the ratings doldrums. A couple of years ago, I went back to rewatch the first season and while I still enjoyed it, I found myself not super invested having already known the secrets and the style of the series. Why did I feel this way? Why can I go back to watch shows like THE OFFICE or even TWIN PEAKS several times but my fandom for a show like this dimmed almost completely?
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES basically repeated itself over and over again. If it found a successful trope, it stuck with it relentlessly year after year. Before I go further with that, I will set up the cast of characters and their original arcs:
Susan Meyer, played by Teri Hatcher, is a quirky clumsy divorcee raising a teenager daughter named Julie and she takes a liking to a new neighbor named Mike Delfino.
Bree van de Kamp, played by Marcia Cross, is an uptight and conservative housewife who insists on perfection and it is now taking its toll on her husband Rex and their two teenaged kids: Andrew and Danielle.
Lynette Scavo, played by Felicity Huffman, is a former corporate executive who ends up becoming a stay at home mom when she first becomes pregnant and the tally of kids has now increased to 4. Her husband frequently travels for work which leaves her constantly tending to the kids by herself.
Gabrielle Solis, played by Eva Longoria, is a young former model who married for the wrong things and is shacking up with her teenaged gardener John.
The series is set off by the suicide of their neighbor Mary Alice Young. When cleaning out her closet, the ladies discover a note she received that says: “I know what you did. It makes me sick. I am going to tell”…and the series and mystery is off and running.
This post will become incredibly lengthy if I go into every little detail so I will to talk about this in the best way I can in describing what made the show become incredibly tiresome.
After the first season, hype was immense for season 2 and the mystery of Mary Alice was solved (SPOILER ALERT: she and her husband agreed to take the child of a drug addict out of fear that she wasn’t worthy to take care of him; when she almost dies of a drug overdose, the Youngs…or the Forrests as they were known at the time, left town. The actual mother finds them a couple of years later after she sobered up and in a lapse of judgement, Mary Alice kills the mother and they bury her under their soon to be built swimming pool).
Right off the bat, season 2 begins with two big events: the aftermath of the death of Bree’s husband Rex and the arrival of new neighbors (a black family): Betty Applewhite (AlfreWoodard) and her son…but they appear to have someone chained up in their basement. So, we basically see right off the bat that the show is going to be continuing the mystery angle and they are doing so in a questionable way. Betty Applewhite felt more separated from the other wives and it also felt weird that they were actually having a black family chaining someone up in their basement. It just seemed a little too cold.
The show definitely suffered a sophomore slump that year, but it did manage to bounce back with the work/arc of Marcia Cross as Bree and also setting up an intriguing cliffhanger in which a new character Orson (played by Kyle MacLachlan) runs down Mike Delfino as he appears to be on his way to propose to Susan and then the next morning, he shows up at Bree’s seeming to be wooing her. You wonder what his motives are and it makes you intrigued for the next season even if it seems like they are setting up a mystery angle yet again.
Season 3 is an improvement over season 2, but it also started a brand new gimmick that would end up plaguing the show more as it progressed: the November Sweeps Disaster Episode. A character played by Laurie Metcalf holds several customers at her husband’s grocery store hostage when she realizes he is having an affair and it puts the lives main characters Lynette, Julie, Edie, and recurring character Nora, in jeopardy and eventually causes the latter’s death. It is an episode that is very dark but also humorous at times and while some of the points it hits are very on the nose, it was a pretty successful episode…which therefore means, Marc Cherry never let the gimmick die. The biggest thing that saved Season 3 was Marcia Cross’ real-life pregnancy as she was directly connected to the season mystery via Orson.
With Orson actually becoming a popular character, Cherry and his writers altered the mystery which originally had made Orson a true villain and made him into a misunderstood hero of sorts. With that mentality in place, he was able to remain and marry Bree…and then mid-season, with Cross about to give birth, they solve the mystery and allow Bree and Orson to go on a honeymoon. While they are gone, the show spends the remaining several episodes basically just existing and it worked splendidly well. They do try to throw in a mini-mystery (Karen McClusky has her dead husband in the freezer) that is a bit much and bombastic but it gets resolved in a couple of episodes. Still, these episodes just sort of coasted on neighborhood dynamics and while some bemoaned at the time that the show could falter, it was actually quite wonderful in hindsight.
The sad thing is that after having these 7 episodes that felt so more inviting than the show had ever been in some ways, they reach the end of the season and with the cliffhanger approaching, they set up a couple of crazy plotlines for Season 4 (such as Edie potentially killing herself because she didn’t want to have a baby with Carlos), but unlike they did with season 2 or 3, they leave the mystery to fully begin within season 4.
Season 4 introduces yet another nice housewife, but this one was actually a lady who lived in the neighborhood several years before and now she is coming back with a new husband and a teenage daughter in tow that a couple of the wives remember but the daughter Dylan doesn’t seem to. Is it due to age or something else? We also seem to have a very dark dynamic forming between this new housewife, Katherine and her new younger husband Adam. For November Sweeps this season, we got a tornado which destroyed the neighborhood and managed to kill a couple of recurring cast members to boot. One other thing saved this season too: the 2007 Writers Guild Strike, which reduced the season’s episodes down to around 17 episodes as opposed to 23. It forced the mystery to be wrapped up in a quicker pace without it becoming stale. Truthfully, it wasn’t that involved a mystery (Katherine’s daughter died in a freak accident as a young child and her mother convinced her that authorities would not believe her story so she adopted a girl who bore a striking resemblance to Dylan and posed her as the actual child) but thankfully, the actress (Dana Delaney) was great in the role and the show felt fairly nimble still with the season episode shortage. However, Marc Cherry felt like things needed to be shaken up so at the end of season 4, he introduces what will be a five year jump in the storylines.
Season 5 begins with Mike and Susan being divorced due to their embattled grief in being involved in a major car accident that killed a young mother and child while Bree takes Orson back after he turns himself in from trying to kill Mike back in season 2 and he has served a brief sentence. We also have Edie Britt, played by Nicolette Sheridan, who was the neighborhood’s resident vixen and after leaving the neighborhood at the end of season 4, seeming to not plan a return, she DOES show up after the five year jump with a new husband in tow and they move into her old house…and her husband seems intent on revenge.
This is where the show truly starts to go wrong.
I remember reading online forums at the time and by the second episode, many people called the mystery by then: that Edie’s husband Dave is actually the man whose wife and child were accidentally killed in the crash by Susan and Mike. We also get yet another disaster episode that involves a fire at the pizzeria owned by Lynette’s husband Tom. One thing that does stand out with the season is the decision to kill of Edie Britt in the final third of the season, but it also sort of leaves us with less desire to even see what happens to Dave and his supposed revenge.
Season 6 is where the show lost me.
The track record of mysterious people moving to this neighborhood is nothing short of astonishing. We have yet another new housewife (and yes, she is desperate), but she is a new breed: a tough talking Italian New Yorker played by Drea de Matteo, who had recently come off a fantastic and tragic run on THE SOPRANOS. While her demeanor is very blunt and off-putting to the series’ style at first, she does bring new life to the show…it is just too bad she has to be bogged down by a slow moving mystery that isn’t that complex so they try to stretch it out over several episodes. And once we get to the big DISASTER EPISODE, you are left wondering “What the hell happened to this show?” During a block party, a bickering couple with whom the show has never introduced before, are taking off on a flight in which they end up crashing their small plane right onto Wisteria Lane conveniently enough and killing off some characters like clockwork.
I never returned to the series full-time after this. I did come back to watch the season 7 premiere with the debut of a character played by Vanessa Williams and I also returned for a few of the episodes in season 8 that revolved around the death of Mike and then the final episodes, but the series just lost its appeal for me.
In many ways, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a prime example of how plot-driven shows may be great at first glance but were just filled with gimmicks and cheap thrills in the grand scheme.
The whole show was driven by the mysteries and the disasters and while certain characters did grow and change to some extent, everything felt driven by Cherry’s desire to be salacious and surprising the viewer at every turn.
One story I remember hearing at the time just shortly after season 1 wrapped and received several Emmy nominations was that Marc Cherry was angry that the Globes or SAGs or Emmys chose not to nominate Eva Longoria. The truth is, she just simply wasn’t that remarkable in the part (she would eventually improve, especially in the comedic department) and her character was just fairly unlikable and not in a “love to hate” way…and she paled next to Teri Hatcher and especially Marcia Cross and Felicity Huffman.
Marc Cherry was appalled at this occurrence and he said he would devise some scenes that would be written to showcase her and therefore give her baity material to submit for her Emmy consideration episodes. What occurred from this? Gabrielle is pregnant in early season 2 despite not wanting a child at first but for the sake of dramatic effect, she grows to want the child and ends up having an episode that involves her letting go of emotional grief, having a miscarriage, and then they end up adopting a child from a young mother who doesn’t want it…but then the true colors of Cherry’s debauchery rears its head. Towards the end of the second season, almost out of nowhere, the birth mother just decides that she wants the child back and basically just gives that as her reason. There isn’t any kind of emotional believability on the actress’ part and it just seems like a chance for the horror that is about to occur.
Longoria is not exactly good at high drama, and it shows in this scene. This scene could’ve had the potential to be very powerful but you cringe at the line deliveries (“She’s our baby!” still rings in my mind and I went back to watch the clip on YouTube to see if my memory was faulty but it was still the same shriek I kept hearing in my head even though I hadn’t seen the moment in probably 10 years or more).
DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES was a show about secrets hiding beneath the surface but the truth is that nearly everything about it was superficial. Is it still entertaining? Yes, I’d say there is enough of that left to it but I have found myself having little desire to even sit down to watch it again. The promotional materials often featured an apple motif and used words like “juicy”…it fit. The show was maybe too juicy for its own good; you get caught up in the tangy atmosphere and then after the experience is over, the high comes down and you aren’t really left with much of anything.