Felicity Huffman: ANDREW ECCLES/ABC
October 08, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Desperate Housewives”: Power struggles

Those Desperate Housewives writers sure do love to weave a theme, and this week’s message was all about better living through technology. Whether it was Lynette employing the latest in online video conferencing, Bree taking a lie-detector test, or Gabrielle getting her hands on some discarded hedge clippers, the women advanced their causes, and their story arcs, with a little mechanical help. Even Betty, the newcomer on the block, got in on the fun, benefiting from that power tool her son — assuming Matthew is her son, of course — used to shore up the Applewhite Penitentiary.

That left only one major Wisteria Lane-r conspicuously absent from the electronics aisle, and if I were Teri Hatcher, I’d head there myself to invest in a laptop to write myself some decent lines. Yes, suddenly Susan is the least amusing, least sympathetic, and least interesting character on the show. And that’s a shame, really.

I mean, remember all the fun we had with Susan last season? Watching her diving naked into the shrubs? Burning down Edie’s house? Getting tossed on her face by a mechanical bull? Those are good times the writers seem to have forgotten, since they seem dead set on relegating Susan to either whining over her rocky relationship with Mike or souring her once irresistible relationship with her daughter. Watching poor Julie have to choose sides in Susan’s battle with Edie was the episode’s cringe-worthiest moment — a heckuva lot more uncomfortable than seeing Betty pistol-whip her prisoner or Lynette launch scalding coffee onto her boss’s thighs.

And therein lies the heart of the matter. I love seeing a Desperate housewife behaving badly, as long as she’s doing it in a novel and funny way. I said it last week, and I’ll say it again: The writers need to pair Susan with, or pit her against, some unexpected playmates. How ’bout letting her take bereaved Bree out to lunch? Or having an old high-school flame track her down via e-mail? Anything would beat the tired, Mad Libs-ian insult routine she and Edie keep revisiting every week. Hatcher and, for that matter, Nicollette Sheridan deserve better.

It’s not as if the show’s writers aren’t up to the task. Just look at the brilliant scenes they concocted this week for Felicity Huffman, who’s clearly having a blast breathing such vivid life into Lynette’s battle to juggle her kids and her resurging career — all under the evil eye of her family-unfriendly boss. I’m not sure what’s more delightful: hearing Lynette offer brutal working-mom truths to her tots (”Mommy’s boss is a mean, mean lady, and if I miss work, I’ll lose my job, and then we won’t have any money to buy food”) or watching her barely concealed hatred of Nina bubble to the surface (”I’m sorry about your hair. I can see why you’re upset”).

Yet as funny as Lynette’s dialogue was this week, nothing made me laugh harder than seeing her bang her fists on the conference-room table in an effort to surreptitiously send that mug of coffee over the edge. You gotta love Lynette: While her primary goal may have been to cut the meeting short and finish teleconferencing herself to her son’s first day at kindergarten, it wasn’t as if she didn’t enjoy the bonus of punishing the mean, mean lady in the process.

Anyhow, who can fault Lynette for inflicting a couple of third-degree burns when Betty is passing off the blood on her blouse as cherry-pie filling? Sure, I saw last week’s previews, so I knew Betty and Matthew’s captive was going to attempt a prison break out of the basement, but when it all went down — in a sudden, shocking flourish of violence — it provided a moment of genuine menace in the typically consequence-free Housewives universe. The shot of Betty wiping a pool of platelets off the floor with her green kitchen sponge was like a perverse advertisement for a new household cleaner: fresh and deeply disconcerting.

With Lynette and Betty hoarding the episode’s respective comedy and drama bits, Bree’s plot line took a rare back seat, although clearly the show’s costume designers continue to put the Widow Van De Kamp front and center. I know Bree’s in mourning, but who knew she had more black couture in her closet than the average Manhattan hipster? That conservative silk blouse with massive black bow she wore to her police interrogation was particularly rich, both an homage to and a parody of the kind of fashions you’d spot on the femme fatale in your typical ’50s noir thriller. Sure, the whole story was over-the-top — from the kids sitting in on the lie-detector test to Bree’s announcement that ”the police dug up your father today” — but all in good campy fun. And the Van De Kamp camp should be back in fine fettle next week, what with sociopath George in the clear (for now) and the dead weight of Shirley Knight as mother-in-law Phyllis packed up in a yellow cab.

Unfortunately, it looks like Harriet Sansom Harris’s Mrs. Tilman is heading for the airport, too. The show’s most underrated actress delivers every line as if she were teaching a comedy master class. And her wicked performance seems to inspire the writers to new heights, for instance: ”Funny thing, since he beat me and threw me down the stairs, we just don’t stay in touch like we should.” Let’s hope Mrs. Tilman doesn’t stay away too long. Wisteria Lane could certainly benefit from her menacing/nurturing vibe, and her penchant for snooping on the neighbors, especially with Betty and Bree’s mysteries both in need of some clearing up.

As for this week’s other puzzle — was Gabrielle’s apology the real deal? — I’ll leave that to you, TV Watch-ers. I know from your comments that you watch every scene with the same kind of unnatural zeal that I do, so let’s hear your thoughts: Do you prefer the Gabrielle who slumps down in her new Aston Martin to stalk her teen ex-lover? Or the woman who tearfully asks for her husband’s forgiveness for cheating on him? And who’s better for her: The guy in jail, or the one young enough to get her sent to jail?

Eva Longoria Parker, Teri Hatcher, Marcia Cross, and Felicity Huffman star in the soap set on the dangerous Wisteria Lane
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seasons
7
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