We are all of us, each in our own way, whether living on a farm, in a trailer or a palace, Desperate Housewives. This is the simplest explanation for the wonderful frothy phenomenon of ABC’s hit series, which became an instant cultural touchstone when it premiered last October. There’s vulnerable, open-hearted Susan Mayer…brittle, sorrowful Bree Van de Kamp, with her ruined dreams of perfection…that naughty, good-natured vamp Edie Britt—yes, we all find something that touches us, amuses us as we watch these ladies trying to find love and contentment while unraveling the mysteries of Wisteria Lane. No less than Laura Bush realized that she was a Desperate First Lady—at least that was her famous joke for a Washington press corps dinner last spring. She described a Sunday at home, with W out for the night by 9 p.m. and Lynne Cheney her only company in watching Housewives. “I mean, if those women on that show think they’re desperate,” she said, “they oughta be with George.”
Well, it turned out that she hadn’t seen the show, but some 24 million other Americans turned it into ritual viewing, and it’s currently airing in more than 25 countries. (The show is so integral to the lineup, ABC even skipped its traditional Easter replay of The Ten Commandments, many of which are broken on Housewives anyway.) For once, to say we live in Desperate times is a good thing. Wives provided meaty roles for actresses who are mostly in their 40s, showed that a clever, innovative drama could work against the onslaught of reality TV, that audiences could “get” a show that was dramatic and funny and sad. In the end, we wouldn’t choose to be Happy Husbands for all the green-carpeted lawns in the world.