Desperate Housewives - The Complete Fourth Season Review

Few television shows would have the moxie to fit in a crushing tornado as symbolic, intentional or not, of the influential writers' strike that crippled the 2007-08 season for the U.S. networks. It's not that the metaphor is particularly subtle, but Desperate Housewives has rarely concerned itself with being delicate. This is a show that's witnessed a husband cheating with a prostitute to get his S&M kicks then dying from intentionally botched medication, the murderous pharmacist making a play for his victim's wife only to witness her letting him die from an intentional overdose, a gay son sleeping with his mother's alcoholics anonymous sponsor, a teenage daughter becoming pregnant and her mother deciding to fake the pregnancy herself, another husband's mother having previously killed his first wife and that man having ran over his current wife's best friend's husband, plus child abandonment on the side of the road. And that's just the misadventures of one of the four main characters. The fact that there's plenty more where that came from is why people enjoy the show so much. It also makes you wonder what happened on Wisteria Lane before we got here.

As is introduced in the first episode of this season, former neighbour Katharine (Dana Delany) has some secrets of her own when she moves back into the same house she once occupied with her husband and young daughter. She now has a new husband (Nathan Fillion) and an older daughter, hinted early on to be not necessarily the same one as she had before. Meanwhile, the rest of the ladies are, as usual, facing one calamity after another at the onset of season four. Bree (Marcia Cross) is still pretending to be carrying the baby that's actually her daughter's. Susan (Teri Hatcher) and Mike (James Denton) are finally married, and she too is revealed to be pregnant. Lynette (Felicity Huffman) must tell her friends that she has cancer and face the increasingly evil daughter of her husband Tom (Doug Savant). Gabby (Eva Longoria Parker) just married Fairview Mayor Victor Lang (John Slattery) but is already cheating on him with ex-husband Carlos (Ricardo Antonio Chavira), who's trying to end his relationship with resident slut Edie (Nicollette Sheridan). Exhausting yes, but almost always entertaining in the process.

It's never really about the whiplash plot development or the shock-of-the-week on Desperate Housewives, though. When the show is at its best, and it's still not surpassed an excellent season one despite a follow-up that wasn't as bad as its reputation, the soapy drama and very funny comedy combine for the original intention of it being a satire. Creator Marc Cherry has admitted at times, including a witty cameo on Arrested Development, that his show really is a satire. It plays up both small town suburbia and how other programmes have depicted that pretty on the outside, rotten on the inside dichotomy. Yet, the key distinction is that it's not spoofing these people. The characters on Desperate Housewives are intentionally given unlikeable traits to the point of revealing the humour in their foibles, but they're also such a representation, albeit an extreme one, of our own neighbours and relatives as to make us nosily care about their daily (or weekly) lives.

The show doesn't work if it paints the characters too far in any one direction and this was largely evidenced by both seasons two and three, when much of the heart and humour was misaligned from the first year of episodes. Desperate Housewives needs both before it can wrap itself around the regenerative mystery and secrets elements. Self-parody was already setting in with some of the more inane plot lines and silly attempts to repeat the feeling of the season one arc. Thankfully, season three, while not really the return to form it was advertised as being, managed to point the show in the right direction. A few too many guest stars, which at least did reap Kyle MacLachlan, who's become the king of sunny suburbia's dark side after adding his time here with David Lynch's Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, hampered the core flow, but season four was allowed to build on some of the promise from the previous year and, as a result, it has considerably righted the ship.

This most recent season of Desperate Housewives may have been helped by, of all things, that tornado, both the literal and figurative one. Network television has tried, with varying levels of success, to co-opt the cable format of extending entire stories across the whole season, turning each episode into a chapter of the season-long book. The main barrier has always been the significant difference in length from a cable show's dozen or so episodes to almost twice as many for the regular network series run. But the writers' strike necessitated shorter seasons, and the result at least here is an improved, more streamlined product. Gone are the superfluous subplots, a particularly unpromising one is even mentioned by Cherry in a commentary track, and the show instead keeps a continued neatness that allows the viewer to enjoy most everything instead of waiting for the next crumb of intrigue. From the other side, the more literal tornado shakes up Wisteria Lane at just the right moment. Injecting some mid-season change into a show constantly in danger of becoming stale proves to be an inspired idea.

Even prior to the tornado upheaval, Desperate Housewives was firmly in its stride. The writing this season returned the show to its best creative period since that first year. Each of the main characters had an interesting arc that allowed for actual development instead of repeated deepening of a particular groove. That rare balance, where laughs meld seamlessly into suspense then heartfelt emotion, also was a welcome return. The humour, in particular, may not get enough credit for how effective it often is, whether it's the biting side effects of Bree's perfection or the full blown self-absorption from Gabby's shallowness. The transition from comedy to drama is handled about as well on this show as most any on the air and it's a reminder that awards show categories requiring one or the other are fairly silly. The perfect example is Dana Delany's excellent work, which is far more in the dramatic arena, being weighed against what Teri Hatcher does from week to week. The performances are hardly comparable just on this show much less against a sea of others.

Awards inequality aside, the more I watched of this season of Desperate Housewives, the more I was impressed. Losing those really erratic subplots helped enormously and I had forgotten how funny the show can be when you don't loathe the characters. The progression of Eva Longoria Parker and Ricardo Antonio Chavira from season one to especially the last half of season four is a huge asset and their scenes together are often wickedly hilarious. Likewise, Marcia Cross and Kyle MacLachlan in the season's first half seem to share the same brain at times, taking their anally retentive characters to absurdity and beyond. Delany's Katharine Mayfair is another boon to the show, often out-Breeing Bree and fitting in nicely with the established ladies. Her slow burn of a plot line ends up well-played by the writers and any excuse to bring in Gary Cole deserves praise.

(spoilers ahead)

The five-year leap forward shockingly tied onto the end of the season finale is certainly a risky move but it also has room for great potential. I like the daringness of upending a show this popular. Repeated scandals and mysteries are its bread and butter and the level of believability, that over and over again someone with a mysterious past moves to the neighbourhood, was stretched thin already. Five years opens up new doors and opportunities to continue in the same vein while still retaining some tiny connection with reality. And who knows what outrageous events might have happened in that time. (Ooh, I hope it involves something scandalous! Perhaps even a buried body!)

Episode Listings:

Disc 1 - "Now You Know" (commentary by Marc Cherry, Bob Daily & Jeff Greenstein), "Smiles of a Summer Night," "The Game," "If There's Anything I Can't Stand"

Disc 2 - "Art Isn't Easy," "Now I Know, Don't Be Scared (commentary by Marcia Cross & Kyle MacLachlan), "You Can't Judge a Book By Its Cover," "Distant Past" (commentary by Dana Delany & Nathan Fillion)

Disc 3 - "Something's Coming" (commentary by Eva Longoria Parker & Ricardo Antonio Chavira), "Welcome to Kanagawa" (commentary by Felicity Huffman & Doug Savant), "Sunday," "In Buddy's Eyes"

Disc 4 - "Hello, Little Girl," "Opening Doors," "Mother Said" (commentary by Teri Hatcher & James Denton) (commentary by Marc Cherry, Nicollete Sheridan & David Warren)

Disc 5 - "The Gun Song," "Free"

The Discs

Desperate Housewives - The Complete Fourth Season, labeled as the "Sizzling Secrets Edition," is spread across five dual-layered discs, housed in a digipak with plastic slipcover. All seventeen episodes have been progressively transferred. They're presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Expectations of quality should be high because the show is broadcast in high-definition and its colour palette is full of bright sunshiney hues. However, there's noticeable digital noise all over the episodes and, surprisingly, there are even some very mild instances of white speckles. Detail too is adequate but not exceptional. The colours are vibrant without looking overly saturated. Most viewers will still be happy, but this isn't the pristine image quality I was expecting.

Audio is offered only in an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. It sounds balanced and fairly rich. Dialogue comes through clearly and the frequent strings of the score fill the track nicely. For a show so dependent on dialogue and few outside sound effects, it's given a surprisingly full audio experience. And if you've ever wondered how television shows are scored, the behind-the-scenes featurette in this set has an excellent look at that process. Subtitles are provided in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. They are yellow in colour and also cover all extras, including the commentaries.

Commentaries are sprinkled throughout the set. The episode rundown above lists exactly who's talking over what episode, and it's strange to have two separate commentaries for a single episode when most have none. A word of warning here is that the commentators often discuss spoilers for future episodes. If you don't want to know anything about what happens down the line, wait until watching the whole season before listening to any of the commentaries. As for the quality of the tracks, the two that feature creator Marc Cherry are fairly good, if standard-issue. I like the idea of pairing onscreen couples, but it tends to give more insight about the dynamic of the show than anything else. For instance, you kind of get the feeling that Teri Hatcher may be the least popular of the actors among her peers after hearing everyone except her praised repeatedly by the different commentators. Her track with James Denton and the McLachlan-Cross one are probably the least helpful in terms of show knowledge, but they're still interesting as eavesdropping sessions. I thought the Nathan Fillion-Dana Delany track was the best for traditional information and sheer listening entertainment, but all should hold some value for fans.

Disc 5 carries all the non-commentary extras. The tornado episode, "Something's Coming," is dissected from pre- to post-production in the behind the scenes featurette "Getting Desperate: From Beginning to End" (26:38). It's nothing outstanding, but still a swift enough watch. A fun outing for most of the male actors on the show finds them in a bowling alley in "Spare Time: Hanging with the Men of Wisteria Lane" (8:34). The main theme seems to be how much easier the guys have it than the ladies. Creator Marc Cherry provides optional commentary on six of his favourite scenes (14:25) from the season, though these may be of limited interest even to fans. An alternate ending (2:09) to the season finale, also with the option for Cherry's comments, has the same surprising final scene, but less detail on the other housewives' fates. Additionally, a collection of deleted scenes (11:08), twelve in all, can be watched with or without Cherry's commentary. A blooper reel (4:41) then tops the disc off. There's also a fake Fairview Realty brochure inside the case that lists the various Wisteria Lane houses and has episode listings on the back cover.

8 out of 10
8 out of 10
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