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    Tuesday, January 17, 2006

    Desperate Housewives: The Most Radical Show on Network TV


    The name of the show immediately intrigued me, but I've only started watching it the past month, via DVD and iTunes. Though The L Word was hailed as the new Sex and the City, Desperate Housewives is a better fit for that bill. While the style of The L Word is usually serious and realistic, SITC and DH are campy, with cliche-dribbling narration, over-the-top physical comedy (usually involving difficulties with clothes and shoes). What both these shows (SITC and DH) manage is poignance and commentary cooked into a supersweet cupcake. The characters are simply not real, overall, which allows for some fascinating plot.

    Any network TV explorations of issues of sexuality are usually painful. Not so with DH. If you don't watch the show, I'm sure you've heard about the gay kiss (teenage BOYS) and probably about the love affair between one of the "housewives" and her underage gardener, but you might have missed the storyline where a husband tries to introduce his wife of 18 years to BDSM. The brilliance is in the build-up: we know he has a sexual secret, he wants to tell his type-A perfect wife but says he can't, he sees a prostitute, he finally tells his wife, and her reaction is disgust. Finally, she agrees to learn just how to satisfy him, but never feels fully comfortable with this. The writers inserted the S&M storyline into a struggling relationship, but a relationship between the Van de Kamps, two conservative Christian WASPs, which makes Bree's (the wife's) disdain for the practice not entirely sympathetic, and makes Rex, the husband, one of the most sympathetic and real characters on a show of weird soap opera stereotypes.

    Not long after, we are treated to the "gay kiss", which leads to more gay kisses. Again, the conservative Christian couple are shocked to hear their son come out. The following episode, however, young Andrew compares his sexual orientation to ice cream preference: he likes vanilla the best, but sometimes he could do with a little chocolate. Not surprisingly, no one ever mentions the word "bisexual" and Andrew himself sees his orientation as "not gay" and tells his parents he thinks he's gay basically just to hurt them. His lover, on the other hand, seems to be coming to terms with his identity as a gay man.

    I also think we can look forward to an interracial teen romance between Danielle Van de Kamp (Joy Lauren) and Matthew Applewhite(Mehcad Brooks). Darling Danielle, former President of the Abstinence Club, who left a condom in a pants pocket last season.

    But the show is not only radical in its approach to sexuality. Tim, played by James Denton, is an ex-con with a heart of gold, who still can't bring himself to put the gun down. Yet, he's the show's big catch and moral conscience. Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira) goes to prison and comes back a Catholic. While not all the show's criminals go to prison (not hardly) none of the criminals seem more or less flawed than anyone else on Wisteria Lane.

    Mental illness is dealt with on two fronts: the character of George, played by a sensational Roger Bart, is a bipolar pharmacist and Caleb (Nashawn Kearse) is a mentally retarded teenager whose mother and brother hold him captive in the basement.

    Perhaps most interesting though is the second season's approach to Lynette, who leaves her career as a homemaker of seven years to return to the paid workforce as an ad exec, while her husband leaves the ad game to become a stay-at-home dad. Rarely have I seen the work-life negotiation of working mothers so deeply and consistently considered on television. One of the interesting elements of that storyline is Lynette's inability to trust her husband, Tom (Doug Savant), who we see as a pretty competent homemaker and father, to parent her children. A great loss to the show was the firing of Nina Fletcher (Joely Fisher) whose reparte with Lynette spoke volumes about the conflicts between mothers and childfree women in today's workforce.

    Eva Longoria's Gabrielle is mostly a throw-away character, and Teri Hatcher's clumsy Susan started fresh but died on the vine. Lynette and Bree, however, are lightning rods and the show itself is a finger on the cultural pulse.

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