Television

Mom Can’t Clean

Iron Chef meets Martha Stewart on Perfect Housewives.

Perfect Housewives. Click image to expand.
Anthea Turner hosts the BBC’s Perfect Housewives

Perfect Housewives (BBC America, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET) is a near-perfect title, suggestive of soap and sci-fi. One imagines a fiction set in a sun-dappled ‘burb blending Ira Levin’s Stepford and Marc Cherry’s Fairview while combining elements of the dreams hawked by Martha Stewart and Hugh Hefner. It chimes like Pavlov’s bell. The show itself naturally falls short of that mark, but that’s the direction in which its broomsticks and Champagne flutes are pointing. Not simply the latest TV exercise in improving one’s home and self—a merger of how-to tutorial and boot-camp flagellation— Perfect Housewives stands as a burlesque of the genre.

Cue the spring-green lawns of England and the flutter of gentle brass. Meet the hostess. “Nestled deep in the Surrey countryside is a house like no other,” said the female narrator at the top of the first episode. “Its mistress is the supremely ordered and ruthlessly efficient Anthea Turner.” While Turner’s credentials as an arbiter of housekeeping are flimsy—her previous gigs include hosting kids’ shows, workout videos, and Top of the Pops—she plays the part with aplomb. As we’re introduced to her, she is fluffing a pasha’s array of pillows, then arranging irises just so, and then attending to a framed photo of Her Majesty and the poor Spencer girl with a blinding blue feather duster.

The feathers rhyme with the Farrah Fawcett styling of Anthea’s hair. She favors pink shirts, white pants, polka-dotted aprons. She’s got a brittle chipperness, and her talent for indignation surpasses that of ABC’s Supernanny. The producers are deliberate about stressing the dominatrix quality of her presentation. At one point, having set her charges to the task of organizing her own closet, she delivers firm instructions for hanging a leather skirt.

Last week, Anthea’s job was to house train a pair of stay-at-home moms—both, according to the videotape, unfathomably huge slobs. These were Kate and Anne Marie. Kate’s house seemed as if a Stasi agent bucking for a promotion had gone through it searching for microfilm. Anne Marie, meanwhile, had two young children, both still somehow intact, their omnipresent toys lending a definite gaiety to the mess. Fuchsia castles, cardinal-red rain boots, Crayola-yellow whatever—I got a sense of what it would look like if I ever got my drunkest friends together to loot a Toys “R” Us.

“You actually don’t have excuses, really, do you?” Anthea asked her protégés. Her tone here was gentle and nurturing, which is rare. Anthea’s questions generally run to the rhetorical, the sarcastic, and the mock-Socratic. “What is the definition of a kitchen?” she asked Kate as they reviewed her living conditions, the reams of paper towering on her counters. “What do you do in a kitchen?”

“I don’t know,” joked Kate. “I only have one ‘cause it came with the house.” She smiled. Anthea did not.

We toured linen cabinets, bedroom closets, found out a thing or two about Melba toast. The narrator kept checking in to sneer at the habits and abilities of Kate and Anne Marie—who couldn’t have been as incompetent as they were made to seem—and to appreciate the skills of Anthea. The more restrained comments included, “Shield your eyes, ladies and gentlemen, because Anthea’s linen cupboard is a dazzling vision of crisp, white loveliness,” and “Ahhhhhhhhh!”

Kate and Anne Marie—unlike the ugly ducklings of so many makeover shows—remained sweet clowns glimpsed at a distance, mostly, and, in a rude approximation of a climax, each opened her home to Anthea for an inspection. Meanwhile, the hostess dispenses not wisdom—an hour of Perfect Housewives offers about three minutes of helpful hints—but personality, doing a family-friendly riff on that crudely named cultural figure of the moment, the MILF. She’s never indecent, but there’s something suggestive about her glossiness and her flirty accessories, something decadent about the retro graphics that conjure I Dream of Jeannie and the fact of her well-stocked Champagne cooler. It’s as if Anthea Turner is making a clumsy bid to do for duvet covers what Nigella Lawson has for chocolate cake. It’s silly. Nonetheless, I must express my gratitude that she taught me the proper way to fold a bath towel and my delight that she managed to echo the demand of an earlier camp goddess: no wire hangers.