By Henry Goldblatt
October 21, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

There’s something horribly awry on Wisteria Lane — and it has nothing to do with the guy in Alfre Woodard’s basement. Since the show returned for its second season in September, the four titular wives have spent a total of 135 seconds together on screen. (For real.) During that same time, Desperate Housewives has morphed into four series. Call it the Separate Housewives anthology: Bree, a seriocomic drama about a rigid wife who loses her kinky husband; Susan!, a romantic comedy about an impossibly gorgeous, impossibly klutzy divorcée who spars with her evil, poorly dressed blond nemesis, Edie; The Gift of Gaby (tagline: Her Milkshake Brings All the Boys to the Yard); and Baby Boom, a remake of the 1987 film, with Felicity Huffman wearing Diane Keaton’s pumps.

The problem is that not one of these shows is nearly as good as last year’s Housewives, a dark weave exploring the complex friendship between a four-pack of women — Disparate Housewives — who were united by proximity and a Nancy Drew mystery involving their dead pal Mary Alice. Now, as the actresses wander through their separate scenes (even the sets don’t seem to match), all that unifies them is the one element of the show that should have been ditched at the end of season 1: Mary Alice’s narration. (Let’s introduce M.A. to Jennifer Love Hewitt’s Ghost Whisperer — this is one dead lady who really needs to cross over.)

How did Housewives cross over from a pretty brilliant show to merely a good one? It’s hard to fault the acting. The cast continues to turn in impressive performances, particularly Marcia Cross, who inhabits her character more confidently than any actress on TV, and Eva Longoria, who consistently delivers some of the funniest lines. And reports of on-set turmoil would be a facile (and quite frankly, sexist) explanation for segregating the leads.

No, the problems are long-standing ones that have become evident now that Housewives‘ novelty has worn off. The series has always had a tough time giving its impossibly large cast — at this count, 14 regulars, plus seven costars — enough to do, maintaining its dramedic tone, and pacing its plot revelations. (That jam-packed season finale last May was the TV equivalent of serving a seven-course meal in 30 seconds.)

Last Sunday’s episode displayed all of Housewives‘ worst indulgences. Poor Huffman is staging a one-woman Groundhog Day, reenacting variations of the same tortured working-mom plot. Teri Hatcher’s Susan — remember when she was the relatable one? — Ally McBealed herself with two ice cream sundaes in an elaborate chase scene that came at the expense of a single moment featuring four-time Emmy winner Woodard, or Harriet Sansom Harris’ terrifically sinister busybody. Most disturbingly, the show’s population is only growing: Coming soon — Edie’s never-seen son and Spawn of Gaby.

The plot seems to be meandering toward a trial for Cross’ Bree. That could, but probably won’t, coalesce the inhabitants of Wisteria Lane. After all, Huffman’s Lynette has expressed hardly an iota of sympathy to Bree over her husband’s death, so why would she take time off work to attend a trial? Even at its weakest, Housewives is better than 75 percent of network television, but the writers shouldn’t be satisfied with that: They need to find a way to put these women in a room together — how about bringing back those all-gal poker games? Or integrating Woodard’s Betty Applewhite more fully into the cast? Barring that, at least make sure her basement creepo’s backstory reunites these women. I really hope it does. Otherwise, reluctantly, here’s the show I’ll be watching: Family Guy.

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