After the opening credits roll on Desperate Housewives, the show’s omnipresent narrator moves in. “Marriage is a simple concept,” she tells us on a recent episode. “Basically, it’s a contract between two people to love, honor, and …” blah blah. You know the rest. And then, as housewife Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) throws a piece of pottery at her husband, the narrator unloads the big irony that’s been hiding behind all that banality: “But some contracts [emphatic pause] were made to be broken.” As was often the case on Desperate Housewives, which finished its first season Sunday night, the “irony” turned out to be more banal than the banality. A show that began last September as a wonderful guilty pleasure had by May turned into something strangely embarrassing.
Desperate Housewives was set up for the letdown by the pretensions of its creator. Marc Cherry seems to think he’s doing cutting-edge social satire, but his big satirical point—that nostalgified suburbia is really a hive of hypocrisy and perversion—is old and obvious enough to support its own brand of nostalgia (i.e., The Stepford Wives, American Beauty). For the first half of the season, Cherry’s inspired staging and some deft comic acting—especially by Longoria and, surprisingly, Teri Hatcher—provided a welcome distraction from the show’s deeper, and lamer, pretensions. But then his chatty narrator kept bringing the big, dumb underlying themes to the surface, talking openly about issues it would have been better for everyone just to repress.
The narrator’s name is Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), close friend to four other wives and moms on Wisteria Lane—Susan (Hatcher), Lynette (Felicity Huffman), Bree (Marcia Cross), and Gabrielle (Longoria). Mary Alice’s suicide in the first scene of the opening episode set the show’s plot in motion. This suicide was emblematic: She was being blackmailed by a nosy neighbor who had found out her terrible secret. It’s also a catalyst: As the housewives uncover little scraps of the mystery behind Mary Alice’s suicide, they end up face to face with their own buried secrets, their repressed hostilities, and … blah blah. You know the rest.
Mary Alice narrates with the full-throatedness of a very tall woman with a very high voice, and very slowly. It’s like listening to someone who is either really dull-witted or thinks you’re really dull-witted. Suspicion of the former is bolstered by the fact that what she says is rarely illuminating and always delivered in the deliberate cadence of a junior-high book report. Mary Alice can also be downright cryptic and sometimes—not to put too fine a point on it—obviously wrong.
At both the start and the end of most episodes, the narrator offers up general thematic observations on that week’s action. “The search for power begins when we’re quite young,” the narrator intones. (I mean really intones. Lots of intonation. She’s virtually singing.) “As children, we’re taught that the power of good triumphs over the power of evil.” Yes, of course, you think, lulled by the dulcet voice. Then you emerge from hypnosis and realize, Wait a minute! Those are two totally different things! At the conclusion of another episode she tells us, “Death is inevitable. It’s a promise made to each of us at birth, but before that promise is kept, we all hope something will happen to us, whether it’s the thrill of romance, the joy of raising a family, or the anguish of great loss.” Extra credit to whoever can tell me which of these three items we all desperately hope won’t happen to us. And at the end of the Valentine’s Day episode, the narrator says, “It’s impossible to grasp just how powerful love is.” Then, after applying the theme of love’s power to several characters who mostly aren’t motivated by love, she concludes, “And long after we’re gone, love remains, burned into our memories.” What is the sound of one hand reaching for the remote?
Recent episodes focused on Gabrielle’s dawning awareness that she’s pregnant (she’s barfing all the time), despite the fact that she’s on the pill and very much does not want children. We viewers, however, have seen her medieval, child-wanting husband Carlos (Ricardo Antonio) messing with her birth-control packet. At the end of a recent episode, when Gabrielle rushes to the bathroom and, grabbing her pills, sees that the packet has obviously been tampered with, her expression quickly changes to anger. Then, with the deliberateness of a geriatric nurse, the narrator butts in and tells us, “In that moment, while looking at the pills that had been so obviously tampered with, Gabrielle’s nausea was replaced with an even stronger sensation, rage.” This is something the audience should be pretty clear on because Eva Longoria is, like, an actress. Note, though, the melodramatic intensifier (“so obviously tampered with”) and the hand-holding apposition (“an even stronger sensation, rage”). Such teen-romance tics are in almost every sentence of narration.
In addition to making sure you’re sure you know that what you’ve just seen is exactly what you think you’ve just seen, the narrator also guides you through developments in Desperate Housewives’ season-long whodunit. Perhaps that’s another way of accounting for the show’s popularity: It creates an aura of pervasive mystery, but its actual mystery is one that nobody who’s not brain-damaged could possibly get lost in, even for a moment. The underlying secret is not uninteresting, as these thing go, but it’s extremely simple: A woman (who later committed suicide and then became the narrator of a television show) and her husband apparently stole a young boy and killed his mother, and then raised him as their own under the bland suburban camouflage of Wisteria Lane—where, Marc Cherry wants to say, you can get away with that kind of gothic mischief. That’s it. Twenty-three episodes to uncoil that brain-twister. Maybe this is another satirical meta-subtheme: Suburbia’s habits of evasion are so deeply set that a non-mystery can remain eerily mysterious, even with an embarrassment of clues and a dead narrator who won’t shut up about it.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I like to think Cherry had Dadaist ambitions for the Mary Alice character. That’s preferable, anyway, to another tendency increasingly evident in the Desperate Housewives narration—an unseemly snideness that, for most of its first season, Cherry managed to suppress or sublimate. This new tone is signaled by a subtle change in terminology. Usually, the narrator referred to the show’s setting as, simply, “Wisteria Lane.” This helps sustain the illusion that the show takes place in some TV Utopia, like Gilligan’s Island, and that none of this huffing and puffing about bourgeois hypocrisy and repression is terribly serious. This is good, because I’d hate to find out that the creators of this show I was enjoying so much are as cluelessly self-important as part of me thinks they might be. But then, a recent episode begins with the narrator telling us, “Each new morning in suburbia brings with it a new set of lies.” Another begins, sarcastically, “Suburbia is filled with responsible people.” This makes me realize that all that trite stuff about buried secrets probably isn’t just meant for the joke-world of Wisteria Lane. At season’s end, I have to concede that, ugh, Cherry and his writers really do think they’re telling us something important about suburban life, which means they really are that far behind the curve they think they’re out in front of.