Desperately Seething Susans

Perhaps there's a hole in the fabric of the space-time continuum that I didn't know about, but what could possibly account for a show like Desperate Housewives (Sundays at 9 p.m., ABC), desperate to lampoon the evils of what scarcely exists anymore -- a plastic-perfect suburbia?

As films ranging from Blue Velvet to the remade Stepford Wives attest, the mock apple-pie version of the American Dream spells instant social satire to scriptwriters. American Beauty -- a story of the festering rage, lust, and longing lurking underneath impeccable, upper-middle-class American neighborhoods -- is the prime example. American Beauty was the film of the moment, the perfect expression of Hollywood's yawn-worthy conviction that something's rotten in the state of suburbia. Don't the Desperate Housewives know they're behind the times? Suburban anomie -- that's so 1999.

So what's behind the urge to find the decay behind this dream of picture-perfect life? This Technicolor world where lovely women are ensconced in their lovely homes, waiting for their handsome men to bring home the bacon? And where is this place anyway? Most families I know don't have photo-shoot homes run by a woman who spends her time “quietly polishing the routine of my life until it gleamed with perfection,” as Desperate Housewives' Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) does. So why should we really care -- other than for the sake of finding out her dirty secrets -- when Mary Alice takes out a gun and blows her brains out, leaving a nasty stain on her polished, hardwood floors?

Perhaps this show is yet another burp from our cultural unconscious as we digest our current social reality: that most women work out of necessity but still do the lioness' share of the housework, that there are more frozen dinners appearing on the table than soups made with basil puree. We don't have that gleaming perfection anymore (if indeed we ever did) so perhaps we have to mock it before we can move on to making images that reflect the reality of our lives now. Desperate Housewives sets up a nice straw man with its ersatz suburbia -- a straw Martha, if you will, after the former überdoyenne of domestic perfection. But even she's in prison these days, so what pretty images of home life can we knock over, what can contain our ambivalence and fears of social and domestic change?

Desperate Housewives is eager to fill that gap. The show owes more than a bit to that other laboratory for shifting gender roles, Sex and the City. The producers even seem to be angling for that same SATC social buzz; they've set up an Evite link on the Housewives homepage, in the hopes that viewers will start hosting viewing parties for their show. The cast has the same girlfriend-foursome factor, except this time, the quartet of Slutty, Crazy, Cranky, and Smurfy (Samantha, Carrie, Miranda, and Charlotte, respectively) has been replaced by a Martha Stewart-style housewife-bot (Marcia Cross as the excellently named Bree Van De Kamp); a Latina former model (Eva Longoria) furious at her rich ass of a husband; a dateless divorcee (Teri Hatcher); and a corporate woman turned unhappy brood mare (Felicity Huffman). Or Icy, Spicy, Horny, and Mommy.

Housewives has no problem with its stereotypical set-up. It even indulges a tacky habit of playing salsa music or flamenco guitars -- cue picante! -- whenever Gabrielle, the Latina character, is on-screen. The women all have their pre-fab dilemmas: Mrs. Scary Superfrau has alienated her whole family with her frosty domestic arts, Gabrielle is boffing her gardener, Susan clogged her drain with popsicle sticks to get the cute new plumber on the block to come over, and mom-to-four-hellions Lynette is seconds away from giving her husband a vasectomy with a kitchen knife.

The show does have a certain arch knowingness. I cackled when Susan's rival, the resident man-eating divorcee, showed up at the cute plumber's house with a casserole of sausage puttanesca (sausage “whore-style”), and when Bree's son accused her of auditioning for the part of the “mayor of Stepford.” The in-jokes flatter me, even though I know that all I want to do is dig around in Mary Alice's dirty laundry to find out why she killed herself -- I'm a sucker for a good plot hook, and will keep watching iffy shows because my life will end unless I know what happens next. I confess that I also want to see Marcia Cross, last celebrated for her role as psycho Dr. Kimberly on Melrose Place, go completely batshit as only she knows how, those plucked brows arching with the queasy beauty of an insect's legs, nostrils flaring -- for what's behind the control freak's freaky ways but uncontrollable rage?

So yes, I'll tune in to Desperate Housewives a while longer. But no matter how much ABC may want its show to be a racy, bubblegum look at the nausea-inducing state of American families and the modern woman, I won't be watching to excorcise my primordial fears over the loss of an Edenic suburbian utopia, over the changing shape and make-up of American families and gender roles. After all, the best moment of Desperate Housewives came not during the show, but during a commercial for what a friend calls “square fish” -- some frozen fish patties made by Van De Kamp's. A delicious irony: that name appended to frozen-fish sticks and Bree's insane, housewifely perfection in the same hour. Because as Bree's family makes clear, they'd rather she serve up frozen fish sticks with love than osso bucco with no warmth at all.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.

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