Desperate Housewives, the new ABC prime-time soap (Sundays, 9 p.m. ET), bites into the shiny red apple of American suburbia and finds a worm inside. Is anyone really surprised? After all, at least since Blue Velvet, Hollywood has been mining this territory: the contrast between the glossy, candy-colored surfaces of middle-class life and the fear, rage, and lust roiling beneath. But there’s at least one problem: The placid suburban lifestyle of shows like Desperate Housewives—a world in which whole communities of stay-at-home wives expect to be subsidized in grand style by the labor of their uncomplaining husbands, who in turn expect to come home to spotless mansions—doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the pure form depicted on this show. Why are we so, well, desperate to satirize a rapidly disappearing slice of American life? Is the recent wave of suburban snarkiness just suburban nostalgia in disguise?
This summer, two films—Frank Oz’s remake of The Stepford Wives and John Curran’s We Don’t Live Here Anymore—were also set in a strangely anachronistic world, one in which both male and female characters expected women to be homemakers and stay-at-home moms. Though both films are set in the present day, their views of gender difference and the household division of labor are from at least 30, if not 50, years ago. Indeed, The Stepford Wives’ message was simply confusing—don’t move to communities where your husband might have you implanted with a computer chip?— while We Don’t Live Here Anymore felt like a well-acted, well-scripted chamber piece with no sense of history or social context. Similarly, Desperate Housewives plunks us down on Wisteria Lane, a white-trellised cul-de-sac that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere: no state, no town, no regional affiliation. Of course, it could be argued that the setting is deliberately artificial, a laboratory experiment in domestic claustrophobia. But there’s something lazy about this show’s refusal to choose a target. It’s easy to feel feminist when you’re deploring the plight of ‘50s-style birds in a gilded cage. But why do we need to invoke this simplified formula to be interested in exploring women’s lives?
Mary Alice Young (played by Brenda Strong) spends the opening scene picking up her dry cleaning, folding her laundry, and adjusting the pictures on her mantelpiece just so, while she narrates the whole process in a soothing voice-over. Then she goes to her closet, pulls a revolver from a shoebox, and shoots herself in the head. Mary Alice will continue to narrate, Sunset Boulevard-style, from beyond the grave as we meet the four main characters who converge at her wake. There’s Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), a divorced single mother with the TV-friendly job of children’s book illustrator; Bree van de Kamp (Marcia Cross), a brittle Martha-Stewart-style control freak who’s driving her family insane; and Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the sex-starved trophy wife of a wealthy jerk; and Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), a former career woman who’s pretending to be happy as a stay-at-home mother of four. The four women attempt to unravel the mystery of Mary Alice’s suicide: Was she unhappier than she seemed? Is everybody unhappier than they seem? And why is their dead friend’s husband digging up something in the backyard swimming pool?
Desperate Housewives is clearly an attempt on ABC’s part to claw its way up from the position of fourth-place network with a “modern,” HBO-style drama that borrows from the dark comedy of Six Feet Under and the gynocentric plotlines of Sex and the City. (In fact, the show’s male characters are so interchangeable that, when one of them shows up toward the end of the episode mysteriously brandishing a gun, I had to rewind twice to remember who he was.) The programming chief at ABC has called the show “a really fun guilty pleasure and, I think, a real voice about what’s going on in America and the modern woman.” But for some viewers, the guilty pleasure may derive from how different the heroines’ lives are from anything in their own day-to-day experience. In her voice-over account of her last day on earth, the dead narrator tells us she spent it “Pretty much how I spent all my days—quietly polishing the routine of my day until it gleamed with perfection.” As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in her recent discussion of the new “wife-swapping” fad on reality TV, there’s a lot going on in working women’s lives these days. But quiet polishing and gleaming perfection are no longer high on the list.