The Nipples of Eastwick

The third adaptation of John Updike’s most anatomically baroque novel.

Lindsay Price, Rebecca Romijn, and Jamie Ray Newman in Eastwick

Published in 1984, The Witches of Eastwick is John Updike’s 11th novel. Stylistically, it is perhaps his ripest, luxuriant even by the prose master’s own sumptuous standards, as befits a story about sorcery. Correct me if I’m wrong—I never willed myself to finish either Villages (which features “dear little nipples like rabbit noses”) or Toward the End of Time (“honeysuckle-berry nipples”)—but it seems to have an edge on Couples (“her willing slipping tips”) as the Updike novel lavishing the greatest attention on mammillae. Given the author’s career-long passion for ornate description of intimate anatomy, this is not entirely a trivial distinction, tempting though it is to suppose it’s just a matter of probability. Adhering to paranormal lore, the novelist gives the foremost of his three heroines a supernumerary nipple—“a small pink rubbery bud” on her belly—thus expanding opportunities for paying lavish attention to nipples by a certain percentage.

The women’s “rose-tipped breasts” and the men’s “tiny warts” do point toward something resembling a theme. In its most peculiar take on women’s liberation, The Witches of Eastwick is a book about nourishment. Even as they grow involved with a devilish new man in town, these three weird sisters imagine themselves as nurturing the married men they go tramping around their small town with: “It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal—to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.” I don’t exactly know what to say to that, nor did the 1987 film adaptation starring Jack Nicholson, nor does the predictably bland and totally adequate Eastwick (ABC, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET), the third attempt to conjure a TV series from the tale. ABC, aiming to slop some poultice at the frustrations of women in their 30s, presents a sly devil of a companion, equal parts Edward Rochester, Mr. Big, and life coach.

In the opening moments of the series, three strange coins fall from the heavens and into the hands of three regular women—one blonde, one brunette, one redhead—during a family festival in a seaside town. Disdaining to consult a numismatist, they simultaneously flip their coins in a fountain, each wishing for a dramatic change in her life. The gals are soon forging a group friendship over drinks. (Much to their credit, they fill their martini glasses with actual martinis, as opposed to the pastel atrocities swilled on other chick-bonding shows.) Before they know it, they are a coven, and they have developed supernatural powers. Soon, an enigmatic zillionaire with an odd accent and questionable scruples buys the local newspaper. Rupert Murdoch? Close. As the fledgling witches share their hopes and dreams, we see one Darryl Van Horne (Paul Gross) leaving his apartment at 666 Central Park West and slouching toward Eastwick.

Of the three witches, Roxie (Rebecca Romijn) is the resident bohemian, as we know by wincing at her gypsy beads and gauzy blouses. She is the single mother of a teenage daughter, a casual girlfriend to an insubstantial younger dude, and, by profession, a sculptor. To be precise, Roxie is a sculptress, as indicated by the blouses and by the work itself—earth-mother statuettes indebted to the Venus of Willendorf and the Weebles of Hasbro—which, it happens, does not bring in as much money as she would like. Roxie’s supernatural gift is second sight. Does she know if Eastwick will get cancelled before or after this Halloween?

To judge by Roxie’s profession, she is the show’s analog of the novel’s Alexandra, also an artist. However, ABC’s Kat (Jaime Ray Newman) has picked up that character’s green thumb. Alexandra had a way with tomatoes—”Picking the watery orange-red orbs, Alexandra felt she was cupping a giant lover’s testicles”—and Kat similarly cultivates the fruit so that the orbs can be magically transformed into caprese salads. Given that Kat can support five children on a nurse’s salary, it stands to reason that she has been practicing the dark arts for quite some time. Her husband is surely no help, having been drunkenly loafing about the house since getting laid off from the candle factory. Lamenting his downsizing, the husband gets the pilot’s one genuinely funny line, a Brando-esque moan about emasculation: “I was in charga wicks.” Kat wants someone to take care of her for a change!

The third of the witches, equivalent to Updike’s Sukie, is Joanna, a journalist. We know that Joanna is the wallflower type because she wears glasses and keeps her hair in a bun. She wishes she were more assertive, and Van Horne hissily insists that she has a supernatural ability to control men’s desires: “Give voice to what you want.” It should go without saying that Joanna can only access this power if she lets her hair down and removes her eyeglasses. The actress in the part, Lindsay Price, actually looks better with her hair up, but certain conventions must be observed at all costs.

Because network television still has a few shreds of decency, we will not be seeing anything on the order of the elaborate four-way sex scene Updike rendered at the climax of the first chapter of his book. (“Sukie’s breasts were … rounded cones whose tips had been dipped in a deeper pink without there being any aggressive jut of buttonlike nipple.”) In its stead, we get a scene where Van Horne serves the ladies what he claims to be enchanted well water and they react as if having swallowed San Pellegrino spiked with MDMA. The witches go giggling into the town fountain—splash, splash!—encouraging the audience to suckle at the teat of wish fulfillment.