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The International Writers Magazine
: Lifestyles on TV

Desperate Housewives
(known as Frustrerte fruer (Frustrated Wives) in Norway)
Created by Marc Cherry
C4 and ABC TV
Robert Cottingham

Desperate Housewives is set in Wisteria Lane, California, one of those perfect American streets where a hair out of place is sufficient reason to call the cops. Where lawns are manicured and your second car is a Jag.
The sitcom owes a small debt to Stepford Wives, which in some ways it resembles. Just as there was in the Truman Show, there's a real world lurking at the end of the road beyond the gleaming clapperboard houses, white picket fences and perfect lawns of Wisteria Lane.

This other world is a dark and frightening place, as Susan Mayer found out when she abruptly aborted her date with Officer Jim Thompson, jumped out of his car and set off to walk home. It was the dead of night and Susan soon found herself on a shadowy street. She approached a woman and told her she thought she was lost. 'You'd best be lost," came the reply. "This is my corner." Susan gulped

And it's fast becoming the most popular American sitcom of 2005. The stars of the show are everywhere - lusted over in the supermarket tabloids, analysed in the qualities, even on the cover of Newsweek. There is even a conference this summer at London Metropolitan University devoted to the show! (Accepting papers now)

The show has Hollywood in shock because it rides a coach and horses through the two preconceived notions that underpin American popular drama: that nobody wanted to watch women older than their bra sizes, and nobody wants to see the American dream condemned as a lie. Yet Desperate Housewives is drawing huge audiences and making lots of money doing both. I would go further. Until now high art has been a lonely voice questioning the American dream, but here popular TV culture has joined in. Twin Peaks and Six Feet Under are perhaps distanced by the weirdness of their communities, but Desperate Housewives is set behind the white picket fences and manicured lawns of precisely those who have found the American Dream, but found its rewards suicidally lacking. Yes there are shades of David Lynch, but it is lighter of touch, not so 'strange' and there is constant juxtaposition between farce and fear. Sex and death are mixed with extraordinary deft editing. The murder of one neighbour, Mrs Martha Hubber by Paul, the distressed husband of Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) who kills herself in the first episode and provides the shows off-screen voice from beyond, cross edited with Susan (Teri Hatcher) finally getting it on with Mike Delfino (James Denton - the plumber and mystery man) was simply simultaneously shocking and stunning. The previous week Bree Van der Kamp’s son runs over another neighbour’s mother-in-law whilst drunk and doesn’t care. This is Peyton Place for a new generation brought to us by Marc Cherry, who is no stranger to TV, as he also brought us The Golden Girls.

Perhaps it's also a sign of the times; after the horrors of September 11, women returned to their homes to be mothers and bake cakes and found it harder than the manual stated. Or maybe it's simply because housewives are sick of being misrepresented as lonely bores and are delighted that there is finally a show that sees them fucking and fighting as much as single girls. We are watching a young culture grow up with completely different values to Dick Van Dyke and Happy Days of the past. Is it any wonder, though, that this exquisitely stitched together patchwork of upfront humour and hidden horrors has woven its spell over an audience twice as big as the grossly overrated Sex And The City ever managed? Tune in catch up, be addicted.

© Robert E. Cottingham, March 2005
(with input from the editor)

Robert is a Final Year student at Portsmouth University

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