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Desperate Housewives: Shallow Characters a Recipe for Staleness

Oct 26, 2005

Last year, I adored Desperate Housewives. In a year, full of dreadful TV shows (mostly reality-based), Desperate Housewives stood out, stood apart, and reaffirmed my belief in TV entertainment. I was hooked from the daring pilot that breezily introduced us to four suburban women unlike any other we had ever seen before. It all started with such a dramatic bang-- a ghastly suicide of a beloved mother and wife. And yet, mystery aside, the show was also funny and well-written, and truly original in both content and tone. It was a soap opera AND a comedy AND a thriller AND a cultural commentary all wrapped into one. It somehow took all these different ingredients and mixed them just right into a perfectly delicious and decadent dessert. And I couldn't get enough.

That was last year. This year, I'm feeling a little fed up with the empty calories the show has been delivering. I know that in Hollywood that the powers at be don't like to mess with what works. And why would they? Desperate Housewives has ridiculous ratings and continues to be the 2nd highest rated show week after week. It has a large and adoring fan base.

And you might assume that delivering more of the same would satisfy that audience. Unfortunately, that means that we get lazy writers, rehashed storylines, and lots of cold, and tasteless leftovers.

The basic problem with season two of Desperate Housewives, as I see it, is that the show is serving up the same dish week after week. We now know that each episode, each of our four housewives will find themselves in a "desperate" or humiliating circumstance. But the situations do not add to our understanding of the characters, nor do they add up to anything other than the writers patting themselves on the back for being creative. Last year's water cooler moments, like Gabrielle mowing the grass in her evening gown, were outrageous, yet also telling about the character. This year, water cooler moments, like Lynette getting up and gyrating sexily on a bar, seem completely out of character. These “meant to shock moments” only make the writers seem desperate.

Stale Characters Means Time for a Shake-Up

Stale Characters Means Time for a Shake-Up

Meanwhile, the characters are now way past desperate; they're pathetic.

The worse part is that the women we once loved have been reduced to rather simple, one-dimensional characters. Gabrielle is the spoiled one. Lynette is the haggard one. Susan is the clumsy one. And Bree is the cold fish. There isn't a likeable character in the bunch. In fact, they all have become tiresomely despicable. Rather than allowing the characters to grow naturally in its second year, by revealing more layers and deeper motivations, the writers seem content to remind us that nope, these ladies are not complex. They have become cardboard and predictable, always reacting the way we'd expect a one-dimensional character to react. I realize that even heroes have negative traits. However, I'm wondering why our heroines don't possess anything but negative traits.

Perhaps, I ignored these glaring errors in the quick-moving first season. But since this year is giving us more of the same, it only emphasizes the weaknesses in series structure and reminds us that these characters are not evolving. Honestly, I now sense that Bree, Lynette, Susan, and Gabrielle do not represent four different female archetypes. Rather, they all seem to be the same woman – a spoiled, soul-less, self-centered, child who is simplistically motivated by her own narcissistic needs. Sadly, the heroines don’t behave much differently than Wisteria Lane’s villain and vamp, Edie.

And so, I'm quickly losing interest in the fates of the women of Wisteria Lane. What's to hold my interest or my concern? What do I care what happens to such unlikable human beings? Last year, it was refreshing to see women struggling with motherhood, marriage, and suburban life, even if it were an exaggerated suburbia. This year, the situations have become a bit too cartoonish. Even Wisteria Lane seems like a cartoon to me, since it is always sunny, and nobody owns a sweater or a coat, and well, it just looks like a studio backlot, and not a real neighborhood. There's also lot's of continuity issues, especially with time, where the women’s storylines aren’t always in synch.

While I realize that Wisteria Lane is fictitious, it would be nice if everything wasn’t so blatantly fake and unbelievable. I’ll swallow bizarre plotlines and twists, but there should be some basis for reality in the show. How does Gabrielle convince her husband that she got paternity test results back in one day -- especially WITHOUT a DNA sample? Why would a woman like Bree, so concerned with etiquette, already be involved with George, so soon after her husband's death? How does Lynette get a job interview and a job in just 24 hours time? Okay, I know Susan is allegedly an illustrator of children’s books, but since we rarely see her working, I find it hard to believe that she could actually support herself with this job, let alone afford the property taxes on Wisteria Lane.

Despite the outrageous moments last year, it was the quieter, more realistic moments that actually resonated with me – such as when Lynetter finally cracked under the pressure of motherhood, or when Bree took out her silverware to polish it, despite the friction in her marriage. Scenes like these had me believe that Marc Cherry and his writers magically understood women. This year, I feel as if the writers despise women – or at least the women they created on Wisteria Lane. What else would explain the fact that all the female characters are consumed with getting what they want when they want it without regard to anyone else? I miss the poker games, dinners, and the female friendship that fueled the first year. And I'm tired of the rivalries and catfights that seem to be the focus of this season. Edie vs. Susan. Bree vs.Rex's mom. Lynette vs. Nina (the boss from hell). Gabrielle vs. Everyone. On Wisteria Lane everyone hates everyone and nobody is trustworthy. This dynamic gives us lots of opportunities for bitchy putdowns and zesty zingers -- but not much else.

And so I’m asking Marc Cherry and his fine writers to take the recipe for Desperate Housewives and shake it up. Throw out last year’s ingredients, and add completely different spices. Instead of sticking by your recipe, it’s time to admit that what was fresh and invigorating last year, has simply become stale and moldy this year.

Lizbeth Finn-Arnold is a mother, freelance writer, and independent filmmaker who lives and works in suburban New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The Independent (Film & Video Monthly), Brain, Child, Pregnancy Magazine, Welcome Home, and Nurturing Magazine.


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