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''Housewives'': Betty's got a plot problem

”Housewives”: The Applewhites miss all the fun while Lynette, Bree, and Gaby return to their best

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Alfre Woodard, Desperate Housewives
Alfre Woodard: RON TOM/ABC

”Housewives”: Betty’s got a plot problem

I sure hope Alfre Woodard’s got a hobby. Preferably something time-consuming, like knitting, or playing online poker, or making homemade greeting cards. Because when it comes to her role on Desperate Housewives — you know, the one so many people were buzzing about when she joined the cast at the end of Season One — she might as well be stuck on some cut-rate crime procedural, mentally reviewing her grocery list while her character tackles the same set of tasks week after monotonous week.

Ten episodes into Season Two, Woodard’s Betty Applewhite has served only three functions: preparing and delivering meals for the son she’s got locked in the basement; casting shifty glances at her Wisteria Lane neighbors; and tickling the ivories. So you’d think that tonight, when Betty promised to spring Caleb from the psych ward, I’d have known better than to let myself start dreaming of outrageous disguises, fired handguns, and getaway cars. Nope, none of those thrilling accoutrements for poor Betty; instead, she saunters into the hospital, offers a half-baked cover story and (drumroll, please)… starts playing the piano? As the old Leiber and Stoller lyric goes, ”Is that all there is?”

Yes, yes, I realize Betty’s recital served as a distraction to ensure that the hospital staff wouldn’t see Matthew ushering Caleb to safety, but why let the scene play out with nary a hint of the suspense, or morbid humor, or plot-twistiness that we’ve come to expect from Housewives? Why does it feel like the show’s writers forget plot and motivation every time they return to the Applewhites’ story? Here are a few things they should’ve chewed on: For starters, if you’re going to bring a ho-hum bounty hunter into the scene, why not have him chasing after Matthew and Caleb, or in some way throwing their escape plan off course? Why bring Betty into the psychiatric unit, then glue her to a piano bench? And if Caleb is as volatile, unpredictable, and mentally challenged as we’ve been led to believe, wouldn’t he react in some non-catatonic way when his mother shows up for an unannounced mid-afternoon concert?

The weakness of the Applewhite arc is made all the more obvious by the fact that the plotlines for three of the other four major housewives are suddenly filled to bursting with tart punch lines and sweet, sweet drama. After weeks of watching Bree play passive victim to creepy George — which neither allowed her to strike fear into our hearts nor to break them — it’s good to see her loopy and indignant again, as evidenced by her ”Those are my — panties!” gasp while the cops removed evidence from George’s house. (Anyone want to bet the Bree blow-up doll finds its way onto the pages of the Daily Tribune?)

Better still, with George now departed, the Widow Van De Kamp finally gets to square off against mini-Bree. I know a lot of people will say Andrew is far colder than his mother, but think about the similarities. They’re both responsible for a death (Mama Solis and George, respectively), and they’ve both mastered a brand of gleeful menace; that wicked smile on Andrew’s face when he discovers the damning information that Bree had a hand in George’s death is all too similar to the one Bree displays any time she gets the upper hand. (Just think of the satisfaction she took in paying a visit to her husband’s jailed mistress last season.) Bree’s rage is usually fueled by some kind of pain, and now that we know Andrew’s vendetta against his mom is grounded in the belief that she’s stopped loving him because he’s attracted to men, it at least puts his desire to destroy her into some kind of believable context. (What doesn’t make sense is the fact that Andrew’s love interest, Justin, appears to be cutting his own tatty fauxhawk with hedge-clippers, but I digress.)

As scary a mother as Bree can be, God help the Scavo kids if they ever infuriate Lynette, who has hilariously gotten her way with fired coworkers, electrocuted assistants, murdered pet-store rodents, squashed imaginary friends, and captive infants — all on her path to personal fulfillment. Lynette is so blatant, it’s as if her victims don’t see it coming. There’s no other way to explain her success at getting her boss to bring his daughter to company daycare by insisting, ”Without a father figure, poor Mindy will grow up to be a stripper.” (My questions: If the Scavo kids are going to daycare at Lynette’s office, did Tom have any say in the matter? Does this mean he’s heading back to the workforce, too?)

Meanwhile, it’s not terribly realistic that Carlos tried planning a two-month sojourn to Botswana without first consulting Gabrielle. But I’m not going to nitpick over the genius ”hot nun” storyline, even if, in my opinion, Sister Mary Hotpants looks decidedly lukewarm standing next to Mrs. Solis.

The one thing ”Our Lady of Perpetual Stick Up Her Butt” has going for her, though, is her supposed virtue, and that appears to be the one characteristic Gaby’s unwilling to display to hold on to her man. I’ve got to hand it to Eva Longoria: It takes an Emmy-worthy performance to make an audience feel sympathy for a woman who jokes that it’s easier to help the poor by tossing change from the comfort of one’s own car than to volunteer months in poverty-stricken nations. Then again, it’s hard not to root for the gal who’s fighting a woman of the cloth — and possibly a Higher Power — to save her marriage. Let’s all cross our collective fingers and hope for round three next week.

Which Housewives‘ plot line are you enjoying most? Are you as bored as I am with the Applewhite story arc and the drama between Susan and her long-lost father? If so, what improvements would you make?