Desperate Plotlines – How Desperate Housewives has (almost) refound its mojo

The following was written for a job application, answering the task of analysing a recent TV drama (focusing on writing). I went for the opening of the new series of Desperate Housewives (going by the British/E4 schedule rather than American/ABC). I thought it was pretty good. I guess they didn’t agree but I think it’s something TV blog-types will enjoy reading. It contains SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the current series, otherwise you should be fine.

Desperate Housewives is not usually the best show on television. Since season two it has rarely matched the standard it set itself for suburban subversion and dark witticism in season one. But nor has it ever really been a bad show. This, the first episode of the show’s eighth and final season, is testament to that fact and already promises a vast improvement on the flagging quality of seasons six and seven.

There are a bunch of things that have always made Desperate Housewives worth watching and they’re worth noting before I delve into an analysis of the episode’s writing because I think a lot of people forget how good a show it is. It has a really solid aesthetic, with its trim pristine character, almost dystopic in its opulence and middle class domestic perfection. Additionally, I don’t think anyone who’s seen the show doubts the quality of the cast and personally I think Felicity Huffman who plays Lynette is one of the best female actors on American television, as good as Jane Lynch. And I don’t just mean as good as Jane Lynch in Glee. I mean as good as Jane Lynch in Party Down.

The strength of this episode’s writing is rooted in last season’s cliff-hanger, the murder of Gabrielle Solis’s evil step father by her husband Carlos. The four principle characters are all privy to this and the episode opens with them burying his body in the woods and forming a pact to cover it up. This plotline changes everything, completely re-arranging the show’s relationships and what they mean. Desperate Housewives is of course used to redefining its core set-up, jumping five years in its continuity between seasons four and five in order to spice up its line-up and open new storylines. This new murder storyline marks as large a shift in tone and, although it initially seems like quite a blunt device, is actually a lot more subtle.

Foremost among these changes is that each of the show’s romantic relationships is now either under the strain of a shared secret – i.e. Gabrielle and Carlos – or a hidden truth, as none of the other husbands and boyfriends are yet privy to the cover-up. This means that the show’s dark humour and psychological tensions are at last arranged in the right way. For example, Susan’s plotline presiding over the burial of a school hamster, eulogising it as if it is Gabrielle’s step father, is a cross-roads of all sorts of comic contrasts and parallels. Like the confessional scene with the over-enthusiastic junior priest who is “bummed he can’t tweet anymore”, it proves the show’s ability to still be laugh-out-loud funny.

Lynette and Tom’s plotline meanwhile is painfully well observed. The couple are separating but have so far kept it from their children. Since Lynette can’t sleep through guilt over the murder, she finds solace in Tom at night and the two are, shall we say, reunited. The scene the next morning is one of those perfect Desperate Housewives scenes. Tom assumes they will get back together whilst Lynette only needed comfort – she just can’t tell him why. One has a typical romantic problem, the other an extreme and deranged plotline – but because each character is written with an immense level of emotional depth, each seems real and sympathetic. Small drama and overwhelming darkness stare each other in the face, unable to communicate but inexorably linked. That is what Desperate Housewives is all about.

The other great thing about the murder device is that it gives the housewives a unified storyline, saving the show from the fragmentation its multiple plotlines have caused in recent series. Even when the principle characters are apart, the strain of the secret unifies them to the whole. The episode is also full of exquisite details. For example Bree reminding the man stealing her car to “buckle up” as he drives away or Lynette tripping over the same sprinkler on the lawn that we have seen Tom trip over already – this attention to detail reminds us that someone cares about how the show is put together and gives us extra little things to notice.

It still has problems. The scene in which Gabrielle embarrasses herself by fantasising about their new neighbour whilst he stands right behind her looks almost like a Family Guy-level parody of the show, right down to the coffee mugs and coy eye brow raising. There are also too many scenes to which the punch line is someone being good in bed.

Mary Alice Young’s closing and opening monologues are actually very good in this episode, letting the visuals do the dark subversive dealing-with-a-murder stuff whilst Brenda Strong’s soothing tones juxtapose this and sound like the audio book of a housewives’ manual. But too often this narrative style has seemed tired in later seasons. Young’s role as narrator made sense in season one, which was largely about the mystery surrounding her own death, but without this solid rationale her role became much more limited as the seasons progressed. A way round this would have been to narrate each season with a different character, using a death from the previous series each time. Given the show’s high body count this would not have been difficult.

Desperate Housewives, despite retaining a sizeable audience, is desperately out of fashion and has long stopped being the zeitgeist phenomenon it once was. To close at the end of this season is a good call on the part of the producers – but it’s fantastic to see the writers giving the characters and plot a final new lease of life. And, with the closing shots of a mysterious note in Bree’s mailbox, you just know there’s gonna be trouble.

Viewers will know that the series has meandered a little since I composed this, but for proof of the unity provided by the murder plot, just look at the fantastic symmetry at the end of the episode 7 last week – the body resurfacing in the painting just as it is buried below the house. I mean they totally nailed that, structurally speaking.

ALSO: I’ve been getting a lot of traffic on my BBC/Dickens posts – I’m afraid I won’t have time to give the remainder of the season the coverage I’d like, but look out for a summary this weekend.


Leave a comment

Filed under General

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s