The women playing minor characters shine in a ''Desperate Housewives'' episode in which the Wisteria Laners struggle with parenting issues
Andrea Bowen
Credit: Andrea Bowen: ANDREW ECCLES/ABC

”Desperate Housewives”: Best supporting actresses

Felicity Huffman has an Emmy. Teri Hatcher has a Golden Globe. Marcia Cross has the praises of a thousand TV critics. And Eva Longoria has a replica of her cover from this month’s Maxim magazine blown up to house-size proportions somewhere in the Nevada desert. All of them deserve these honors, I might add: At their best, the leading ladies of Desperate Housewives provide so many outlandishly naughty laughs it makes it easy to forget that their show’s opening credits mark (for many of us) the start of a 12-hour countdown to another dreaded work week.

Yet while the Wisteria Four do plenty of heavy lifting (comedically speaking), Housewives‘ often unsung recurring players carry lots of weight, too, as tonight’s episode proved. Take Lynette’s story line, for instance: We’ve seen her do funnier (and more disturbing) things than find ways to deal with son Parker’s sudden inquisitiveness about the facts of life — and his attempts to bribe women of every age to show what’s under their petticoats. But add Kathryn Joosten’s salty Mrs. McCluskey into the mix, and it (a) automatically provides Lynette with a sparring partner who’s even more warped and less tactful than she is and (b) gives us the joy of hearing an AARP member use the term ”woo-woo” to describe her nether regions. (Yeah, so I can be a little infantile, but don’t tell me you didn’t laugh, too.)

To be fair, Joosten isn’t exactly unheralded (she won the 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy for an episode of Housewives), but there are moments where she’s so priceless you have to wonder why she and a couple other supporting Wisteria Laners don’t get their own sitcom spin-off. Watching Mrs. McCluskey blithely tell Lynette, ”Parker offered me a Fudgsicle if I showed him my vagina,” then slowly remember she’s snacking on a Fudgsicle, was worthy of the DVR rewind.

Now, I can imagine some folks may have found it uncharacteristic of Lynette to cure Parker’s curiosity by buying him a new puppy, but think about it: In some ways, Mrs. McCluskey isn’t so different from the crabby old woman Lynette is destined to become. It kind of makes sense to see Lynette make a rash, reactionary decision moments after caving in and delivering Mrs. McCluskey’s sex-is-shameful sermon.

Anyhow, should Joosten ever get that aforementioned sitcom deal, might I suggest she receive second billing behind the one actress whose name I pray I’ll see pop up on my screen during Housewives‘ opening scenes each week: Harriet Sansom Harris? Fair enough, it doesn’t really make sense that her Mrs. Tilman is hell-bent on avenging the murder of her sister, a woman for whom she icily declared her dislike throughout season 1. But then again, who really cares? Not since the days of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote have I had this much fun watching a character try to off her nemesis. And it’s pretty clear Harris is enjoying herself too. To me, the highlight of the episode was seeing Mrs. Tilman’s fiendish smile after Paul slipped on the shortening on his front step. Then again, I also enjoyed her grinning one-liner, ”Somethin’ smells good over there,” after watching Paul nearly self-immolate after lighting his grill with gasoline instead of lighter fluid. I know the show’s writers probably won’t indulge me, but I could spend the rest of the season watching Mrs. Tilman set death traps for Wisteria Lane’s least necessary creep.

Of course, it’s not just actresses of a certain age who excel in Housewives‘ supporting roles. My biggest laugh tonight stemmed from a throwaway moment when Gwendoline Yeo’s housekeeper, Xiao-Mei, went from napping to polishing in a split second after being startled awake by Gaby. The whole Baby Lily story arc, in fact, beautifully balanced crass laughs (Gaby giving Xiao-Mei a pass on window washing in exchange for a night of soothing her crying infant) with heartfelt emotion, or as much of that as you can get in the Solis household, anyway. Only Gaby would compromise by doing yoga with Lily precariously perched in her baby sling.

Down the street, meanwhile, another young actress, Andrea Bowen, steals pretty much every scene she’s in as Susan’s right-headed daughter, Julie. Intentionally or not, through Bowen’s character, the show’s writers give voice to the frustration of viewers like me who are left unamused and even a little disturbed at seeing Susan and Karl re-embark on their fruitless (and not particularly believable) relationship. I remember a time when Susan was an infinitely likable, bumbling kind of character. Tonight, as she expressed her post-coital rage against Karl and threw him (and his clothes) out of the house, all I could think of was her selfishness: What if poor Edie looked out her front window and saw what was happening? And how could Susan and Karl allow this kind of scene to take place in front of their daughter? The way Julie observed it all, silently munching on her cereal while passing judgment on her infantile parents, saved the moment for me.

That said, I’m far happier with the direction taken by another parent-child duo — Bree and Andrew. She may be Wisteria Lane’s most image-conscious woman, but Bree strikes me as a hands-on mother bear to the core (which is why I never really bought the idea of her sending Andrew off to some camp when she found out he was gay last season). Tonight, when her chilly New England dad and stepmother (the underutilized Carol Burnett) sought to take custody of her wayward son, I feared she’d cave in again. So imagine my surprise (and delight) to see Bree return to her wily ways, combining forces with Andrew’s beau, Justin, to score a lopsided victory with a boxful of gay porn. Even better, though, was getting caught off guard by the emotional payoff of Bree slicing homemade pie for Andrew and his boyfriend. Call the Housewives characters cartoonish, if you like, but with a bench of acting talent this deep, these folks end up feeling mighty real in spite of it.

What do you think? Who is your favorite supporting actor on Housewives? Does the show benefit from having high-profile guest stars like Carol Burnett? And what happened to the Applewhites?

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