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The International Writers Magazine: Desperate Housewives

After the storm
– or how to kill a TV series
Gabriela Davies

I guess it can only mean a few things. The cast has fallen out. The budget has dried up. The creator has a mental block. The producers have found something better.

In my television-watching experience (twenty odd years), I have had many letdowns. When the plot of Dawson’s Creek started filtering away from the principal foursome and giving relatives and new friends main roles, I was heartbroken because I wanted to watch Joey, Pacey, Dawson and Jen, the characters in the opening credits. Thanks to the wonders of home entertainment all I had to do was change the channel, which eventually I did – and then Capeside was long gone and in came Orange County.

A few years before that and I remember sitting in the living room at the age of eleven watching Harold Bishop magically disappear off a cliff in an episode of Neighbours. The character extermination was random enough, but even more so when, at the age of nineteen, I watched Harold walk right back in to Ramsey Street as if nothing had happened. So I changed the channel, once again.

So when Marc Cherry, creator of Desperate Housewives, threw Wisteria Lane into hysterics with an earthquake (aired in the UK last week), disappointment hit once more. It’s like reaching a proverbial dead end. What better ways to kill off some characters and shake up the plot a bit? Now Carlos Solis is blind and Bree has nowhere to live. You can almost see Cherry scrunching up notes as the ideas just fail to come.

Let’s escape from contemporary escapism and travel back to the classic case study of Dallas, the hit TV series from the 1980s. The actor Patrick Duffy, who was killed off in 1985, came back as Bobby Ewing in a shower scene in 1986, and suddenly it had all been a figment of Pat Ewing’s imagination. I wonder if David Jacobs, creator of the show, knows that sociology students actually cover Dallas as a case study for the understanding of media and audiences. Does it bring out the real in surrealism, as audiences start get the gist of behind the scenes? Are shows getting dumber or are we getting smarter?

Suddenly even soap operas are reality TV. We realise that Patrick Duffy must have fallen out with the producers, as he left so suddenly. And we picked upon the fact that, a year later, Dallas’ ratings must have gone down, as he appeared before us in the famous shower scene. Did we figure out that things weren’t going that well in The O.C, when Mischa Barton became more famous than her co-stars and started hanging out with the Hilton sisters, and then Marissa (her character) suddenly died in a car accident? Or did we more or less get the hint, when Harold Bishop walks back in to Ramsey Street in 2005, after having died in 1997, that Ian Smith (the actor) had maybe run out of money?

The truth is, it is no longer easy to fool an audience. University may have taught me about reception theory and the reciprocal causality of how an audience is positioned, but I could have figured that out myself – in easier words. The audience is an active, pensive element. We can figure things out. And, more importantly, we can change the channel. Which might explain the resurrection of some characters, or the sudden death of others. It is, ultimately, our opinion that will make or break the show.

We can blame it on the tabloids, which tell us so much about Eva Longoria Parker’s personal life that her character Gabrielle turns slightly boring in comparison. We can go further back, and blame it on the dramatist Bertolt Brecht for breaking the conceptual fourth wall that divides audience from performance. Even Aristophanes killed it for us in the Greek comedy Peace, when the hero Trygaeus, who is being ‘magically’ elevated on stage, tells the crane-handler to be more careful. Talk about suspension of disbelief.

Meanwhile, American is bringing us more and more reality TV. And we are becoming more and more obsessed with celebrities and their personal lives. Whether Marc Cherry had a plot premonition or got his timing terribly wrong, the truth is that last week’s earthquake in Wisteria Lane was a sour reminder of the horrific tragedy still going on in Sichuan as we speak. Maybe it is not such a good idea to play with the concepts of earthquakes, car crashes etc. Maybe we should be watching the news instead.
© Gabriela Davies June 2008
gabrieladavies at

Gabriela graduated from Portsmouth University in 2007 and now works in publishing

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