If the debut of Sex and the City represented the brazen freedom women were feeling as they boozed, screwed, and made mounds of cash in the pre-bust late ’90s, Desperate Housewives marks the aftermath. Women are heading to the suburbs, choosing to stay home with the kids — and are incredibly, deeeeply self-aware about all the implications that follow. Housewives brilliantly exploits these insecurities: The suicide of neighbor Mary Alice boasts an uneasy Sylvia Plath resonance; domestic items like measuring cups and knitting needles become foreboding weapons of mass destruction. Lynette’s (Felicity Huffman) addiction to her sons’ ADD medicine channels both the latest issue of O and a 1950s Redbook article about ”mother’s little helpers.” Bree (Marcia Cross), the ultimate Housewife, is a woman whose pearls and well-tended garden make her as much a mid-century homemaker as a modern one. (In this case, keeping the home tidy means covering up her son’s hit-and-run DUI.) With its picket fences and pastel houses, Wisteria Lane even resembles one of those conformist suburbs mocked in everything from American Beauty to The Stepford Wives. Then again, the neighborhood also looks a hell of a lot like our current landscape, where we buy SUVs in the same creamy-dreamy colors as that KitchenAid mixer that’s basically a display piece.
But as American Beauty‘s tagline advised, look closer. There’s a creepier undertow at work. Just as Sex and the City teased women over fears they’d never find Mr. Right, Housewives fuels all their doubts about post-marriage unworthiness. Heading up a slew of shows — from Supernanny to Wife Swap — that showcase women missing the mark at home, Housewives taps into a bubbling strain of female anxiety. Lynette can’t control her nasty little brood; Bree can’t hold on to her husband. Teri Hatcher’s Susan refuses to mother her child, instead treating her like a best buddy, or worse, her mommy. (Of course, the poor woman needs someone to look after her, considering her many tumbles and pratfalls.)
Naturally, Housewives wouldn’t have its rabid following (much of it male) if it weren’t put together in such a clever, sometimes infuriating way. Mystery lovers assemble the Twin Peaks-esque pieces like a patchwork quilt: a baby blanket, a drug-trafficking plumber, a sociopathic father-son team. Soap fans indulge in the extracurricular sex and nasty marital spats. The Housewives provide endless arguments: Should you chat with your daughter about your sex life? Can you force a child to feel compassion? Is it selfish to not want kids? When so much TV is forgotten the moment you turn it off, Housewives is the ultimate in interactive television.Love it or hate it, you can’t help but feel something.