The International Writers Magazine
:On Teaching Desperate Housewives

Desperately Seeking Students
Sam North

t’s Monday, 9am – Screenwriting Seminar Level 2, a ten credit unit that runs three times a week and is allegedly popular (because like most TV executives, students think writing scripts is a doddle and wouldn’t require much effort). Indeed someone in my department compared screenwriting to hairdressing and that sort of sets the tone.

9.15am. I am still alone. 10 am some drift in nursing hangovers, excuses, indifference – whatever. This is modern higher education, you take a register but there’s not much time left to discuss technique or character development. Since most are studying film or media I am constantly amazed at how few of them go to the cinema or read reviews or have an interest in the subject at hand. (I have it on good authority that is a universal trait nationwide).

It’s not the Monday that is to blame; the same thing is repeated on a Tuesday at 4pm, which clashes with lunchtime hangovers. (I reflect on Blair’s decision for 24 hour drinking all over the UK and wonder if this sends the right ‘signal’ to students.) Friday the class starts at 9am, which is a pity as it clashes with the previous night 6 pints for the price of one at the Union and the Tropical Beach Party that follows.

Of course you could say that it makes my life easier to have empty classrooms, but now they pay three grand to come here, there is pressure to get them through the course or we can start looking elsewhere for a job. Failure is no longer an option. So what to do to make screenwriting more attractive? Sometimes I know lecturers take the view that well at least they are being paid, if the students don’t pitch up it’s their lookout, but no longer. That pressure to pass them means that you have to employ press-gangs to get them in or devise something so seductive they will voluntarily pop in from time to time.

So what does a desperate bloke do in the depth of winter to make his 79 students engage with his credit unit? Invoke the power of Desperate Housewives (devised by Marc Cherry). Surely this will get them interested?

We are talking February 2005. The American TV show is hot; everyone is talking about it and by sheer coincidence I am teaching about the thriller all semester. In theory, a comic, sexy thriller should be a winner to grab them by the scruff of the throat. The prize, they get to write a ten-minute script in the style of…and get credits for it. Bliss. (This seminar series is supposed to prepare them for a unit in the third year where students have the option of writing a 60-minute TV drama or screenplay for 40 credits).

So do they flock in, filled with ideas and concepts? Well er…no. It seems Desperate Housewives clashes with half-price double shots at the ‘Get Wasted’ night at the Union.
If they can’t watch real time, how about video? Too much of a fag. Either way I show an episode in class to somewhat trashed 19 year olds who can barely lift their heads off their chests.

There is, of course, a presumption on my part that if you are studying film or media that learning something about screenwriting would be useful; especially for those planning to make a short film in the third year. I point out that all I require them to do at the end of term is write a ten-minute thriller in the style of Desperate Housewives complete with synopsis, scene and character breakdown.
All they have to do is watch the show a couple of times; they’ll get the feel for it, right? It’s not ‘rocket science’ as they say, but neither is rocket science I hear these days.

Of course once we have actually all seen an episode, we can discuss it. There is an immediate response. Males won’t watch the show because of the word ‘housewife’. Desperate is OK, it implies fear, terror, pain, that sort of thing they will watch, housewife, not ok, it seems that if they admit to watching the show somehow their manhood would be threatened. (Young 19-year-old males are so insecure these days – perhaps Eva Longoria who plays Gabriella is too strong for them – now there’s a debate).

The females show some interest and for one brief glorious moment we can legitimately discuss the importance of Gabrielle’s underwear for the success of the show. Make no mistake, from repeated viewings of the entire series, it must be stated in her contract that she has to strip down to her underwear in every episode or viewers will simply switch off. Even Bree strips down from time to time and clearly the show is structured around clothing, on or off the female form.

My own particular favourite housewife, the cheating, bitchy but utterly sexy Gabrielle isn’t quite connecting with the females in the same way. They seem to identify with Lynette, the ex-advertising executive mother of twins so awful, drowning them would be too good for them. They even bond with Bree Van de Kamp the anally retentive Stepford wife whose husband can only get it up if he is er… whipped by the lady down the road doing a spot of Belle De Jour. Try discussing sexual perversions in your next higher education seminar, you’d be surprised how squeamish students can be. Betrayal is, of course, an excellent premise for a revenge thriller, but this doesn’t seem to cut much ice.

We discuss in class that everyone (except for the blokes) identifies with a different female in the show. It’s quite uncanny how calculating the show is in sweeping up all the different types and synthesising them into just a few women. Susan (Teri Hatcher) the klutz, who still believes in love at 40 and is very particular about her coffee. Bree who desperately wants perfection. Gabrielle who desperately wants sex with anyone but her husband, and others who crave affection or attention or like Lynette respect. The males in the show are all flawed in so many ways and are there solely to be used or abused.

Of course, it is said that TV audiences are dominated by females in most households so ‘strong but imperfect’ women are considered good, all men must be ‘weak and vulnerable, certainly flawed’. I am sure someone has done a paper on this, but for now this is a general observation. Robert Cottingham, a Portsmouth graduate specialising in Woody Allen commented in that before this show came on air .. ‘it was thought that nobody wanted to watch women older than their bra sizes, and nobody wanted to see the American dream condemned as a lie.’ Desperate Housewives proved that premise wrong. Shows about singles were passé. Now American housewives could be sexy. Of course fifteen years ago we had Twin Peaks by David Lynch that shook TV out of its complacency, but it was defeated by its own whimsy. Can Desperate Housewives stay the course?

I am not teaching Desperate Housewives out of the goodness of my heart. I am hoping they’ll decode the programme and gain some understanding of what really popular TV drama could be if they were writing it. (As opposed to the usual UK tosh they watch such as the dire Hollyoaks or the squalid Murder Investigation Team, which both display the qualities that make up 90 percent of English drama, hostility, squabbling, class issues, stupidity and massive quantities of alcohol intakes. Which is why you don’t see them on American TV).

One hopes that other units taught here will arm the students of an understanding of the subtext in societal substrata’s. But I am not so sure they are doing the reading.

What do my students see in Desperate Housewives? Do they understand the ironic tone; do they see that this is set-up for a perfect iconic representation of American suburban life? Wisteria Lane is for everyone a representation of ‘success’ in American culture. Businessmen, advertising executives, bored rich housewives, others clinging on to the dream despite divorce, seemingly perfect kids who have everything they want and more. The lawns are manicured, the garden boys are male-pins ups and objects of lust, and everyone knows each others name and they even socialise with each other. (Something that would considered surreal in the UK upscale neighbourhood I think).

Do my students see below the surface? Do they understand why the show is popular? Or why it is so subversive? Or do they take it at face value?

Certainly they are slow to pick up on the show’s premise, that under the veneer of social and financial security lies a writhing demon of deceit and deception. The show is centred around a suicide and the dead housewife Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) is the weekly narrator. She is the supposedly perfect wife who suddenly, without warning, killed herself. What it is about her creepy husband Paul and creepier son that make neighbours’ flesh crawl. Anything to do with the baby they dug out from under the swimming pool perhaps? Anything to do with blackmail note she received the day before she died?

Gabrielle’s underwear is on show to almost anyone other than her husband Carlos; (never waste a good-looking garden boy is her motto). Susan the hopeless dreamer lusts after Mike Delfino (James Denton) who, we discover, is an ex-con, cop killer, drug dealer, plumber, who is, nevertheless charming and carrying a big secret. Mrs Huber is a blackmailer who will get her comeuppance. Another woman, Edie (Nicollette Sheridan) is a sex crazed real estate agent who rivals Susan for the attention of Mike the plumber. She also finds it hard to be accepted by the street because she isn’t married. (And is an exhibitionist). Let’s not forget the children who flirt with drugs and homosexuality and one son who cares nothing when he kills in a hit and run accident. Bree (Marcia Cross) realises she has raised a monster – despite all her good intentions. Or what about the pharmacist who is trying to poison Bree’s husband. Are there no good people at all? Behind every curtain this is the real America seething with discontent. Have a nice day declared between clenched teeth. The show is loved because no one is allowed to be happy in paradise – it satisfies a need to know that they too share our disappointment with retail therapy and sexual promises. Life, despite 50 years of Disneyfication, didn’t turn out to be a fairy story after all.

It’s possible the roots of Desperate Housewives lie in a long forgotten long running soap called Peyton Place (author Grace Metalious). 40 years ago it was considered risqué and shocked a nation that men ran off with others wives. It began as a novel (considered trash by many, but read by more), became a film in 1957, then inevitably a TV Soap series in 1964. Ryan O’ Neal and Mia Farrow got their starts there.

When you get the big house in the suburbs you are supposed to be happy, not murdering your neighbours to keep them quiet. Certainly not creeping around their homes when they are out and accidentally setting fire to them as Susan does in Desperate Housewives. Each week the show has a new revelation, a new level of unhappiness or confrontation, but interlevened with a nice level of wit and self-mockery.

The task I set my students was to take an element from the show and make their own thriller, using this iconic inversion. The woman who trusts too much, the husband trying to catch out the cheating spouse, the secrets behind a perfect family based on a lie, or the sexual deviant exposed. All of which is weekly fare in Desperate Housewives.

Just to make sure they got the message, we watched a boat load of ten minute films, discussed pace, structure, how quickly you have to get a story up and running and present fully formed characters. We even checked out Thelma and Louise, which are a pair of really desperate housewives (even though only one is actually married).

My concept is that in a thriller - something must happen, someone probably gets a little bit scared and with luck we care enough to be worried about their fate. Of course if Thelma hadn’t taken that gun with her she would have been raped and the story would have ended in the car park. At best it would have been a film about recovering from trauma. But she did take the gun and Louise used it. From that moment on they were doomed.
It the same in most thrillers when you are told not to go through the secret door…don’t go, you know the truth is out to get you. (If you want a lesson in really good screenwriting rent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang - the best smartest screenplay in years).

Before students are allowed to write the script they have to pitch the idea to their peers and get their approval. Did Desperate Housewives have any effect? Did they clue into the idea that it was supposed to be an incident in the lives of, rather than war and peace, hardly. Does successful TV impact on student minds at all? Can they learn from success? It doesn’t seem so.

Seventy odd scripts later we have stories about drug deals going wrong, drinking binges, mission impossible rip-offs, ghost stories, a superhero with er no powers…and girls on shopping sprees. Like many staff at the end of a semester, one wonders if there is any point to higher education at all. There’s a sign outside my office ‘Bang your head here’.

Fortunately another season of Desperate Housewives has begun and already there is someone being held prisoner in the new neighbours basement and hopefully Gabriella will cling to her underwear until the baby shows. This year I’m plotting to show dark intense European films with lots of long philosophic conversations and many sub-titles, that’ll teach ‘em. Betty Blue 101 here we go.
© Sam North Jan 11th 2006

Sam North runs the MA in Creative Writing at University of Portsmouth
He is the author of Diamonds – The Rush of ’72
and The Curse of the Nibelung – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery
Amazon USA


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