Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season Review
Who’d have thought it? The most lucrative TV show of 2004 involved neither police squads nor a wearied force of ER medics nor a sextet of bitchy roommates complaining about their lovers but instead revolved entirely around a group of middle-aged suburban housewives. Of course there’s more to it than that: in an age where TV seems to be becoming increasingly homogenized and stale, the fresh originality of Desperate Housewives and the tantalising mystery that lies at the heart of the series made it remarkably compulsive viewing. At least part of this success is derived from the series’ liberal cribbing from the pop culture of both today and yesteryear. The most concise (albeit glib) summation of the show’s content is that it’s Twin Peaks crossed with American Beauty, with just a dash of The Stepford Wives mixed in, along with a few mildly risqué Sex and the City style asides. The result is a heady melange of comedy, drama and mystery.
It all begins with alpha-mom Mary Alice going about her daily chores, polishing every available kitchen surface and generally revelling in her suburban affluence. All these tasks of hers are performed with characteristic matriarchal aplomb; all except her suicide, which is done with rather less finesse as she unceremoniously blows her brains out over the living room floor she previously scrubbed so laboriously. Her four best friends – daffy Susan (Teri Hatcher, 2004’s official comeback queen), beleaguered Lynette (Felicity Huffman), picture-perfect Bree (Marcia Cross) and temperamental Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) – are understandably perplexed, all the more so upon discovering that Mary Alice was being blackmailed and that beyond the unimpeachable façade there lurked a dark secret. Not that they haven’t enough troubles of their own to contend with: within the pilot episode Bree’s marriage crumbles (‘I feel like I’m living in a detergent commercial!’ gripes husband Rex), Lynette goes to new extremes in a futile effort to keep her fractious children under control, Gabrielle’s infidelity with her hunky gardener narrowly avoids being brought to a screeching halt, and to top it all Susan becomes Wisteria Lane’s most unlikely arsonist. Interested yet?
The key to the success of Desperate Housewives is that in almost every aspect it comfortably occupies the middle-ground, never leaning too sharply in one direction and never crossing boundaries that are likely to offend the audience. Over the course of the series, S&M fetishism, drugs, violent murder, dismemberment, philandering husbands (and wives), prostitution and suburban power-politics will be played out in a fashion that’s so innocuous it’s almost disturbing. Even the so-wholesome-it hurts Mary Whitehouse would approve. Then again, it need be remembered that above all Desperate Housewives is a soap opera of the highest order, which at least partially relieves it of any need to be hard-hitting or intensively realistic. With that said, unlike its vacuous forerunners (Dallas and Dynasty spring to mind) Desperate Housewives has a barbed wit, a sense of irony and – most shamefully of all – a real heart. On occasion the humour is even darkly impressive: one of the later episodes opens with the spectacularly insensitive demise of one of Wisteria Lane’s least lovable characters, and follows it through with an equally mean-spirited funeral.
In truth the series is perhaps a little overlong (it runs for 23 episodes and could fairly easily have shed half a dozen) and upon the series’ completion one realises that the mystery behind Mary-Alice’s death was so baffling only because of some exceptionally convoluted plotting and a few jarring red-herrings. Indeed, if you pay really close attention you can probably unravel the mystery by about episode 15. As is inevitable for such a long-running series, repetition becomes something of an issue. On average Lynette and Gabrielle argue with their spouses at least once an episode, which wouldn’t be such a flaw were it the case that there was any sense of progression in their relationships. Unfortunately they just tirelessly retread the same ground as Lynette bewails her loss of liberty since becoming a full-time mom, whilst Gabrielle spits venom at husband Carlos for treating her like an expensive commodity.
Conversely, the series is able to take numerous character archetypes, clichéd situations and hackneyed plot developments and somehow transmute them into an eminently smart and entertaining show: every episode’s multiple plot threads coalescing with graceful ease and believability. Edie Britt, the comically predatory female (now an endemic feature in ‘the arts’), is marvellously portrayed by the expertly vixen-like Nicolette Sheridan. She reels off her bitchy zingers with easy verisimilitude whilst also hinting at more the human depths that linger beyond Edie’s fragile surface of trailer-trash chic. It would be an exaggeration to say she takes the femme fatale to ‘a new level’, but she certainly invests a tried and tested character-type with a newfangled energy and wit. Not since Linda Fiorentino trampled over every man in sight in The Last Seduction has a woman been so effortlessly conniving, and so brutally entertaining with it. Susan’s role-reversed relationship with her precocious daughter – who spends much of the series propping up her distraught mum or helping her to extricate herself from the various situations she’s become entangled in – is also done with surprising smartness and even avoids stretching the bounds of credibility most of the time.
But of course, it is the four desperate housewives themselves who bear the closest scrutiny. Discounting the four-time divorcee Edie (no longer a housewife but no less desperate than the others) we are presented with four women who, in one way or another, seem custom designed to epitomise a particular facet of the modern housewife. Susan is oh-so-sweet but, of course, an adorable ditz to boot, Lynette is a former business executive who’s found the transition to motherhood more than a little shaky, Gabrielle (the youngest of the group) is a spoilt prima donna and Bree, in the words of Mary-Alice, is ‘considered to be the perfect housewife by everyone in Wisteria Lane. Everyone except her own family, that is’. All the four women perform their parts to perfection (even if Susan can at times be a little too cloyingly adorable), though if I were to have to single out just one for special praise I’d probably be inclined to select Marcia Cross. Treading a fine line between caricature and pathos she brings real humanity and conviction to easily the most complex and challenging role in the series. She also undoubtedly gets the lion’s share of the best lines: when confronted by her husband about getting a divorce she replies tersely,
“I refuse to discuss the dissolution of our marriage in a place where the restrooms are labelled ‘chicks’ and ‘dudes’!”
In a sense she embodies all the show’s variegated qualities; strength, compassion, vulnerability, wit and, most significantly of all, immaculate presentation.
All 23 episodes are presented in their original 1.78:1 ratio and are anamorphically enhanced. The transfer is perfectly acceptable: having previously only seen Channel 4’s pallid broadcasts of the episodes I was impressed by the vibrancy of the colours and the general sharpness of the image. Unfortunately the image has, at various intervals, obviously been edge-enhanced – in some cases quite horribly – and the picture does on occasion look a little inky and diffuse.
The sound is provided in Dolby Digital 5.1 and I must admit I was a little under–whelmed by it. I wasn’t expecting any aural pyrotechnics but the soundtrack does seem a little flat at times and in some scenes the music sounds a little too loud and the dialogue a little too quiet. In every other aspect, however, the soundtrack is fine.
Note about the ‘Unrated’ episodes: I can only assume this is some sort of marketing gimmick; although some of the episodes are extended none contain any material that justifies their certification.
Further Note: Don’t watch the extra features in advance of finishing the series. Unsurprisingly they’re chock full of plot spoilers.
Disc 1: There is an extended version of the episode ‘Who’s that woman’ and, as with all the extended episodes, it comes complete with an explanatory introduction from Marc Cherry. Also included is a fairly unspectacular deleted scene between Gabrielle and John (with optional commentary from Cherry) and a 10 minute ‘Walk down Wisteria Lane’, in which some ageing dolly-bird quizzes Cherry about the show and the forthcoming second season. For what it is it’s actually quite entertaining, particularly with regards to the veiled hints about what is yet to come during the next season. Finally there is an audio commentary by Cherry on the pilot episode. It’s fairly good: Cherry is bright and loquacious though at times he does try one’s patience as he persists in extolling the actors to the skies. Unfortunately upon loading disc one you are greeted by a seemingly unending stream of trailers for various TV shows and films (they can be skipped, however).
Disc 2: The episode ‘Anything you can do’ is extended, although the only added scene is a brief conversation between Rex and his children. Elsewhere on the disc are two deleted scenes (each with optional commentary): one does nothing more than briefly exhibit Nicollette Sheridan in her underwear, the other is a leading example of how to seriously overplay comedy. There is an 8 minute featurette about ‘Desperate Housewives around the world’ (which seems to have been taken from, of all places, Australian television) which reveals – would you believe it – how popular the series is across the globe. The ‘Multi Language sequence’ turns out to be little more than a polyglot version of Bree’s dinner party (whereby we hear the actors dubbed in various European languages). An audio commentary from Marc Cherry and Larry Shaw is available on the episode ‘Anything you can do’ and an audio commentary with Marc Cherry alone is present on ‘Guilty’. The former is a little dull and by-the-numbers but the latter is a little more spirited and insightful, as Cherry reveals a great deal about the inspirations for the character of Bree.
Disc 3: ‘Every Day a Little death’ is the extended episode and the additions, though not exactly substantial, are actually quite interesting: two extra scenes between Carlos and Gabrielle (arguing, surprise surprise), including a shower sequence that almost explains why in the hell this box-set is unrated. There is an extraneous deleted scene involving Gabrielle’s fashion show and a featurette entitled ‘Dressing Wisteria Lane’. If set-design and costuming is your cup of tea then this rather vacuous mini ‘documentary’ might have some appeal, otherwise it's fairly tedious stuff.
Disc 4: The episode ‘Impossible’ is extended (two extra scenes: medium level of interest) and there is an audio commentary available on the original, expurgated, version of the episode with Marc Cherry and the episode’s director. It’s a fairly chatty affair; with plenty of compliments all round and the occasional titbit of trivia. Also on offer are two deleted scenes: one involving Edie and Gabrielle, the other Gabrielle and her cleaning lady. Neither is especially good but they make for an interesting single viewing. There’s also an Easter egg: press up at the bonus features menu, then press enter and you’ll be treated to a little featurette on Jesse Metcalfe’s derriere (I kid you not).
Disc 5: This disc has a comparative dearth of extras: a single deleted scene (a funny one) and a series of mini-commentaries by the actresses on their favourite scenes from the series. Felicity Huffman and Marcia Cross sound a little tired and distracted, Teri Hatcher is often somewhat nonsensical but fortunately Eva Langoria and Nicollette Sheridan are entertaining and enthusiastic in their comments.
Disc 6: The episodes ‘Sunday in the park with George’ and ‘Goodbye for now’ are extended (nothing hugely significant has been added but for the sake of keeping Wisteria Lane’s secrets intact I won’t reveal anything about the new scenes). A mildly diverting blooper reel is available – at 5 minutes it gets a little repetitive though – and a single deleted scene is included on the disc (though it’s one which, by Cherry’s own admission, is almost entirely redundant). The majority of the featurette The Secrets of Wisteria Lane concentrates on a meeting between Marc Cherry and his writers, where they offer a multitude of ideas about how Bree’s character should progress during the next season, though there’s also some brief information about the shooting of a few of the show’s most memorable scenes. Behind the Scenes of Desperate Housewives runs for about 25 minutes and essentially discusses how the show came into being, focussing particularly on the details about the casting process. There’s an ever so slightly self-indulgent featurette, ‘Oprah Winfrey is the new neighbour’, wherein said daytime TV megastar arrives in Wisteria Lane and is dismayed by the strange behaviour of the locals. Finally, Marc Cherry is joined by director Larry Shaw on a typically light and entertaining audio commentary for the episode ‘One Wonderful Day’.
In the space of a single season Desperate Housewives has already entrenched itself in modern pop-culture, and – love it or loathe it – it’s not hard to see why. The skilful mixing of melodrama and comedy, and the wrapping of it around a genuinely beguiling mystery, has created a consistently entertaining slice of big-budget TV. The show’s many fans will rightly be very pleased with this box-set: it’s not without its flaws but overall this is a very comprehensive presentation of a very recent Television phenomenon.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10