In the second-season premiere of ''Desperate Housewives,'' both Bree and Lynette make sudden changes, while Gabrielle and Susan seem stuck in relationship ruts
Marcia Cross
Credit: Marcia Cross: ANDREW ECCLES/ABC

”Desperate Housewives”: Sending Rex off in style

Leave it to the cheeky writing staff of Desperate Housewives: After making us wait an interminable 126 days for a new episode, they further delay our gratification with a particularly sleepy opening 20 minutes in the second-season premiere.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Just as Bree politely waited till 9 a.m. to inform her friends of Rex’s death and drop off a welcome basket to her new neighbor — yes, it appears Mr. Van De Kamp really has left this mortal coil, quashing any long-shot hopes that he faked his own demise — the show’s writers were slow and calculating when it came to delivering their own heaping basket of fresh-baked treats.

Seriously, with Lynette rescuing her imperiled infant midway through a job interview, Wisteria Lane’s newest resident apparently holding someone captive (albeit well fed) in her basement, and Edie Britt sporting perhaps the best hat in TV-funeral history — all during the episode’s last half — it’s a wonder that creator Marc Cherry and company had any room for a scene so obscenely perfect it’ll have fans recalling it not only for the rest of the season but probably for the rest of their natural lives.

And no, I’m not exaggerating, as anyone who witnessed Bree changing her dead husband’s necktie in front of a church full of mortified mourners can attest. In this case, the she-devil was in the details — and the pitch-perfect performance of the incomparable Marcia Cross. The hilarity and the credibility of Bree’s wordless transformation from heartbroken widow to borderline psychopath could’ve easily been derailed if, say, Rex’s prep-school tie hadn’t been quite so orange, or so hideously adorned with that blasted crest. Or if the episode’s director hadn’t allowed the camera to linger on Bree as she propped her late husband’s torso upward as casually as one might, say, fold an airplane seat table. Or if Cross’s body language and facial expression hadn’t been so marvelously hungry as Bree scanned the throat of every man in the church for the perfect pinch-hitting accessory.

Cross’ scenes with Shirley Knight (as Rex’s mom), and Dakin Matthews (as their clergyman) crackled, too, especially Bree’s wrathful comment to the latter: ”I will go nondenominational so fast it’ll make your head spin.”

But before I get all Marcia, Marcia, Marcia on you — and yes, I do sort of think Cross wuz robbed of her Emmy last weekend — the formerly underrated Felicity Huffman and new neighbor Alfre Woodard also had some statuette-worthy moments this week.

In light of the way she schemed and manipulated at her husband’s office last year, it was an eye-opener watching Lynette try to get back in the workplace after seven years — and returning not as the warrior I expected but instead as a woman so (for lack of a better word) desperate to get steady work outside the home that she would sacrifice her considerable pride, and possibly the happiness of her family, to get it.

I’m not sure if Joely Fisher is steely enough an actress to go Manolo-a-Manolo with Huffman every week, but it did break my heart a little to see Lynette promising away her nights, weekends, and holidays in an effort to convince her boss she’d be the emotionally detached woman for the job. Here’s hoping this is one story line that gets dragged out slowly, allowing Huffman to bring to life the unique working-mother problem of packing up your maternal instincts before arriving at the office but making sure to take ’em out of your briefcase before you return home at night. Watching her change a diaper and brilliantly critique the ad agency’s lackluster website was pure poetry, punctuated by that wet Pamper splatting against the glass wall.

Speaking of multitasking, what’s with our concert pianist and home-confinement specialist, Betty Applewhite? Folks, please tell me I’m not the only person who was shocked to the gasping point to discover that Betty and her son (well at least she seems to act like he’s her son) have a third resident in their new Wisteria Lane digs: a mystery prisoner down in the basement.

I know I shouldn’t ever be caught off guard by Housewives, but there’s something so inherently warm and maternal in Woodard’s performance, such apple-pie wholesomeness, that it makes her touches of menace all the more chilling, and puts this season’s macabre mystery at least on par with Mary Alice’s season-1 suicide.

Now if only the writers can unlock the mystery of Gabrielle and Susan’s vaguely repetitive story arcs, any thoughts of a Housewives sophomore slump will be no more than a bad punch line. I know that it’s imperative to keep up the dramatic tension between Wisteria Lane’s most popular resident (yes, Teri Hatcher, we mean you) and its No. 1 hunk (yes, James Denton, we mean you), but seeing the duo tearfully separate again was the dramatic equivalent of reheating leftovers, even if I have to tip a hat to the single mother for putting her daughter’s safety ahead of her own romantic needs.

And I’ve still got hope that Gabrielle’s pregnancy will open up fresh comic possibilities — as long as the show’s writers don’t let motherhood tame this character’s inherent wickedness. When Carlos noted he and his wife are ”not very nice people,” Gabby scored the touché of the week with her observation, ”at least we’re still rich.”

Of course, I could say the writing on Desperate Housewives isn’t very nice either, but it’s still very rich. And who’d have it any other way?

What did you think of the season premiere? Which of the housewives is on track to have the most interesting story? And which of the new faces — Woodard, Knight, or Fisher — deserves to extend her stay indefinitely on Wisteria Lane?

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