Mad housewives act out on competing networks

Influence of HBO evident in the edgy humor of 'Desperate Housewives'

Television

October 03, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Give me liberty, or give him death.

That theme suffuses tonight's big-ticket, prime-time programming match-up as ABC premieres its highly publicized new series, Desperate Housewives, which features four suburban mothers stressed to the point of snapping. (And snap they do.)

At the same time, CBS will counter the ABC drama by airing Suburban Madness, a docudrama about a Houston woman who runs over her philandering husband -- three times.

Both ABC and CBS offerings are told from the point of view of upper-middle-class suburban women; and in both, it's open season on husbands who cheat. The parallels are not coincidental.

CBS is emerging this season as the highest-rated network, thanks to its hit reality TV show, Survivor, and the multiple versions of its phenomenally popular drama, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. It aims to capitalize on that success by using its vast arsenal of made-for-TV movies to crush the competition on Sundays (the night of highest viewership) through strategic counter-programming. Last week, CBS took on the WB network's critically-acclaimed drama, Jack & Bobby, which stars Christine Lahti as the mother of a future president of the United States, by airing Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman, a made-for-TV movie that also starred Lahti. (And CBS won, with 13.76 million viewers compared to only 3.3 million for WB.)

Tonight, CBS has ABC in its cross hairs, as it tries to split the audience for shows about soccer moms mad enough to kill. While Suburban Madness has two fine actresses in Sela Ward and Elizabeth Pena, it is mostly old-fashioned, made-for-TV movie exploitation of a shocking, headline-making event (the film opens in graphic detail with the husband being run over again and again and again).

To its credit, Desperate Housewives is the riskier venture. Like the writers of Lost, the popular new ABC drama about life among the survivors of a plane crash, its creators are searching for new ways of telling old stories on network TV. Desperate Housewives' style and dark, comic tone owe much to such groundbreaking cable productions as HBO's Six Feet Under. And, while the writing is no match for that of Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning creator of the HBO show, several fine performances by an outstanding ensemble cast make Desperate Housewives one of the more wickedly entertaining network pilots of the fall.

The story is told from the point of view of Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), one of five women living in picture-postcard-perfection on Wisteria Lane in Upper-Middle-Class-Suburbia. Only Mary Alice doesn't live there very long. In the opening moments, she commits suicide, thereby ascending to a place from whence she can offer omniscient narration on the secret lives of her neighbors.

The most interesting inner lives belong to four women whom Mary Alice considered friends. Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) is a former advertising executive who gave up her career to become the frazzled mother of four young children -- a bawling, brawling quartet that seems bent on driving her mad. When Lynette's husband, Tom (Doug Savant), suggests during an intimate moment that they dispense with birth control and "take a chance" on her getting pregnant again, she knocks him out with a hard right to the jaw.

Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) is the Martha Stewart of the group, seemingly perfect in every way, from her meticulous grooming to the gourmet meals she cooks each night for her family of four. When her husband, Rex (Steven Culp), says he wants out of the marriage, she tries to kill him by putting onions in his salad and setting off an allergic reaction.

Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), an ex-model, takes her revenge on her emotional bully of a husband, Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira), by sleeping with the 17-year-old kid who cuts their lawn (Jesse Metcalfe). But at least she hasn't tried to kill Carlos -- not yet anyway.

The husband of Susan Meyer (Teri Hatcher), meanwhile, fled Wisteria Lane before she could do anything fatal to him. But Susan has her eyes on a mysterious new man in the neighborhood, Mike Delfino (James Denton), who claims to be a plumber whose wife recently died. He's a little too hunky to be true, but that doesn't stop Susan -- or the oft-divorced Edie Britt (Nicollette Sheridan) -- from knocking on his door.

The other widower of some interest is Paul Young (Mark Moses), Mary Alice's husband, who is shown digging late at night at the bottom of the family's empty swimming pool. There's a mystery connected with Mary Alice's death, and it looks like her four friends will be the ones trying to solve it.

Sexual frustration, gender warfare and even murder under a sunny suburban facade are not exactly new topics in American popular culture. Television has been exploring those themes in daytime soap operas and prime-time dramas like Peyton Place since the 1950s.

Desperate Housewives, however, is a post-modern, pop-feminist take on the matter that tries to re-invent the genre by simultaneously embracing and parodying it. Sustaining that offbeat tone for an entire season is not an easy task, but it is encouraging to see ABC making the effort.

Wives at war

What: Desperate Housewives

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

In brief: A darkly comic drama about soccer moms mad enough to kill

What: Suburban Madness

When: Tonight at 9

Where: WJZ (Channel 13)

In brief: TV movie about a marriage that ends badly in a suburban parking lot

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