Buena Vista // 2004 // 999 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // October 10th, 2005
Mary Alice: Yes, each new day in suburbia brings with it a new set of lies. The worst are the ones we tell ourselves right before we fall asleep. We whisper them in the dark, telling ourselves we're happy, or that he's happy. That we can change, or that he will change his mind. We persuade ourselves that we can live with our sins, or that we can live without him. Yes, each night before we fall asleep we lie to ourselves in a desperate, desperate hope that come morning -- it will all be true.
Every major broadcast network, as well as HBO and Lifetime, passed on Desperate Housewives. Marc Cherry, the show's creator, who had helped produce Golden Girls in its last couple of years, was on a losing streak trying to sell his show about life in suburbia. He had come up with the idea for the series after his mother told him that raising him and his siblings with their father away most of the time made her feel "desperate" sometimes. He must have been feeling desperate a little over a year ago, too. He claims the tone of the script came out of his real-life feelings of frustration about not being able to find work. He couldn't even give his program idea away, yet he believed in it desperately. Then an executive at ABC called him back for a second meeting and asked, "Can you make it a little more dramatic and a touch darker?" And with those immortal words, television history was made.
Somewhere on a suburban street named Wisteria Lane, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong, Starship Troopers) decides to take her own life. She's tired of keeping a dark secret, and someone is threatening her with cryptic notes that read "I know what you did, and it makes me sick." Mary Alice never talked to her friends about what was going on, or the secret she was hiding. She lived a normal life with her husband and son in an idyllic place where very little seemed to happen. Her death will set off a chain reaction of events among her four closest friends -- recently divorced, struggling single mom Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher, Tomorrow Never Dies), ex-career woman and current mother of four Lynette Scarvo (Felicity Huffman, Magnolia), the Martha Stewart-wannabe perfectionist Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross, Melrose Place), and golddigger ex-model Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria, The Young and the Restless). Her friends will bond together and search for clues about why Mary Alice couldn't go on. The women will learn everyone has secrets, even in the suburbs. Mary Alice's death will be the catalyst for them to look for the lies, and what it will take for each of them to be truly happy. None of the surviving four want to end up like Mary Alice -- guilty and depressed over secrets assumed to be long buried. But secrets and lies have a funny way of multiplying, and happiness always seems just out of reach. And the truth, once revealed, may just be more dangerous than any of them bargained. Lives are about to change, marriages are going to be tested, and Wisteria Lane will never be the same. All because one housewife became so desperate she had to kill herself.
There was a void that opened up on Sunday night once the single gal pals of Sex and the City decided to hang up their designer shoes. The time was ripe for a show to come along and engage millions of women with nothing to watch. ABC was set to premiere an odd little series that mixed some of Sex and the City with American Beauty called Desperate Housewives. Nobody knew it would be a runaway hit. Felicity Huffman even gave gifts at the first reading with a card that read "Let's hope this puppy has legs!" Sure, the series had a killer cast and a witty writer. But nighttime soaps like Dynasty and Dallas had seemed to run their course decades ago, and reality television and crime scene shows were all the rage in the ratings. Who knew Desperate Housewives could make it with a Twin Peaks mystery and Melrose Place sensibilities? But now the show is so influential even the term "desperate housewife" has slipped into our vernacular. What drove America to tune in in record numbers, and create a smash hit out of a series nobody wanted to air?
First off, it's the writing. When you watch Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season you're amazed at how smart and insightful the dialogue is. So many one liners, but the show paints these women as real people with an incredible amount of depth. As much of a soap opera as it can be, the writing keeps it afloat week to week. Marc Cherry is an odd man to helm the series, given that he is openly gay and the show is primarily about straight characters. But I've noticed gay men observe women and walk away with more accurate takes on them. Maybe Cherry has an advantage, because when he writes the show he can stand back from the women he knows and view them subjectively. Bree Van de Kamp is based on his mother, and not surprisingly he mines her life for Bree's dilemmas. She has to deal with a gay son, and her husband disappears much of the time, just like Marc's father. I suspect there are more "real world" women out there who influence Wisteria Lane. Wherever he's getting it from, Cherry's series is amazingly well-written and plotted. It defies any genre classification, because it can go from insanely heavy drama to light farce in a heartbeat. In fact, he often follows the [b]Steel Magnolias[/b] rule: that laughter through tears is the best weapon of a writer. It's amazing stuff. Every episode has a moment so true and universal that you just sigh and nod. Cherry has created four of the best women on television.
All the good scripts in the world wouldn't fly without the right actors. And boy, did Desperate Housewives hit the jackpot when it comes to dynamite casts. Teri Hatcher as Susan is fearless. Hatcher finally gets to play a sweet, normal, often klutzy woman, and it feels like we finally get to see the actress blossom. She's an absolute trooper -- once, after breaking two ribs falling in to a wedding cake, she insisted they keep filming. She's playing this for all she's worth. Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), Heather Locklear (Melrose Place), and Mary-Louise Parker (Weeds) were all considered for the role, but Hatcher is the heart of the show. Marcia Cross was originally considered for Mary Alice, but was instead cast as Bree Van de Kamp. She's a revelation as the perfectionist who, deep down, doubts everything she does. Eva Longoria is a stunning beauty, and becomes the cast's knockout ace in playing the sexy Gabrielle. She's no slouch in the acting department either. And Felicity Huffman as the frazzled Lynette? Brilliant. Emmy honored her, and rightfully so. She gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and brings television acting beyond film. Nicolette Sheridan originally auditioned for the part of Bree Van de Kamp, but landed the sultry role of the neighborhood...um...slut. It's a role that could have easily been played on one sexy note, but Sheridan gives Edie Britt a vulnerability rarely seen in the vixen character. She's the only character with her heart on her sleeve, and has hardly any secrets to hide. I could go on and run down all the supporting players as well, like the husbands and boyfriends, but suffice to say they are all actors on top of their games. There's not a bad apple in the bunch. But honestly, this is an Amazon world where the women make or break the show.
But don't think Desperate Housewives sprung perfectly formed from the head of Marc Cherry straight to the television screen. In its first draft, the mystery took a back seat to comedy, something they altered as the production went along. The directors implored him to make it more prominent. As the pilot began shooting, the cast was slightly different. Sheryl Lee was cast as Mary Alice, and had they kept her it would have given the show a cool tie to David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Sheryl, who played the murder victim Laura Palmer for Lynch, would again have been a corpse everyone obsessed over for a season. But her narration was considered too ethereal. So she was out, and Brenda Strong was in. Jesse Metcalfe, who plays Gabrielle's hot gardener, was originally a more scrawny teen, but test audiences reacted badly to someone who looked too much like a real teenager. Nicolette Sheridan's role was originally much smaller, but she was so brilliant they expanded her time on the show. Cherry did a fair amount of making things up as he went along, and that approach seems to have worked for him. He collaborated a lot with the cast and crew, and they changed things throughout the season.
Buena Vista is having a killer year when it comes to releasing television on DVD. A couple of weeks before this set they released Lost: The Complete First Season, and I was astounded by the technical presentation. Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season is possibly even better. The transfers are widescreen, and crystal clear with eye popping color. The audio is a full, robust surround mix that showcases the Danny Elfman score and enhances the mood in almost every sequence. These discs rival an HDTV broadcast. The menus are animated, and recreate the show's opening with some new twists that are quite humorous. Everything seems to be perfection here on Wisteria Lane.
The amount of extras are daunting, and provide an exhausting look into the creation and execution of the series. There are commentaries from creator Marc Cherry and director Larry Shaw. Like the show, the commentaries don't take anything seriously. It's great fun to hear Cherry and Shaw notice their own mistakes and good-naturedly poke fun at the series. The actresses get to talk about their favorite scenes as a separate feature, and they seem just as relaxed. Bloopers are collected from the set's gag reel, and we get inside looks at the making of the show. The extras have Oprah's fantasy of being the new neighbor, as well as two segments from The View going behind the scenes. Wisely they have spread the extras over the six discs, so you can watch them progressively as you progress through the show. In a revolutionary move, Desperate Housewives: The First Season extends six of the episodes with deleted material to produce a "director's cut" for the series. It's a brilliant idea I wish more series would copy. You do have to elect the extended option from the main menu, or else you will get the episode's original TV cut. Where the scene wouldn't work (e.g. where it alters plot or is considered not of the same quality) the DVD producers have left in a deleted section with commentary from Cherry to explain why the scene fell flat. So it's not always a case of cramming everything they had back into the show -- the creator had a lot of say in what was added. None of the scenes are sexy enough to be considered "unrated," so don't let that marketing ploy fool you. But it is amazing to have these scenes reinserted, and a strong argument for diehards who Tivoed every episode to ditch those DVR copies and buy the proper release.
Unfortunately, although Desperate Housewives starts off strong and smart right out of the gate, it can't keep it up throughout the whole season. They were working fast and furious around tight schedules, and changes were sometimes wrought haphazardly. The finale wraps up the mystery too well. It's frustrating when you spend a whole season wondering and waiting for a resolution, and the creators have made it impossible to pay off. As much as people criticized Lost for extending its mystery, Desperate Housewives wrapped everything up with a neat bow. It was too neat, as if Bree Van de Kamp had tied it. I wonder how they will handle this in the coming seasons. Will each one present a new mystery? Apparently so, now that we have Alfre Woodard (Beauty Shop) joining the cast for the second year, with something hidden in her basement. It would be nice to see these women cruise along without a mystery for a little bit. There's still tons of fallout from Mary Alice's death to deal with, and many more unresolved issues in their relationships.
Minor quibbles come up with Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season. Again, as with Lost: The Complete First Season, some sets of Desperate Housewives: The Complete First Season shipped out to retailers without the episode booklet. It's not a big deal, and a quick call to Buena Vista's customer service department will result in one being sent to you within a week. It's fun to see the names of the episodes in print, because musical fans will notice that every show is named after a Stephen Sondheim song (just in case anyone doubted a gay guy was behind all of this). Also, the beautiful box with the foldouts includes the discs stacked in a way that makes it hard to pull them out in order.
Desperate Housewives has everything going for it -- a brilliant script, an incredible cast, and handsome production values. The real secret about the show is it's simply guilty fun! TV in recent years has become a wasteland of reality contests, tepid sitcoms built around comics, and endless crime scene shows. Desperate Housewives did something simple that feels revolutionary these days. It gave good actors great scripts, and let the magic of storytelling take over. Together with Lost, the show saved ABC and television in general with smart drama that revolved around a compelling mystery. But unlike Lost, the women of Wisteria Lane relied on comedic flourishes to keep the show appealing and fresh. It's dazzling, addictive, and to cop a line from the Season Two promo spots -- "juicy."
Desperate Housewives flies in the face of conventional wisdom. The show firmly plants itself in the middle class, an area previous night time soaps avoided. Dynasty tried it initially, but found people weren't interested in mundane middle class problems. What's changed? Cherry has darkened Middle America, and shown suburbia with a razor-edge twist. Ironically, it feels more real that way. I always fantasized that behind the closed doors of my neighborhood's white colonial houses, just past the perfectly manicured lawns, someone was losing it. Marc Cherry has exploited that fantasy, and apparently hundreds of millions of people were thinking the same thing. We love dirty laundry. Especially when it's not our own.
The guiltiest pleasure on television, Desperate Housewives has broken every commandment in the Bible and every law on the books. But we wouldn't have it any other way. The show has made housewives hot, and America has noticed. We've all learned "sometimes evil drives a minivan." Buena Vista is free to go on making incredible packages for shows we love.
Review content copyright © 2005 Brett Cullum; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2005 Nominee
Studio: Buena Vista
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 999 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Unrated, Extended Versions of "Who's That Woman," "Anything You Can Do," "Every Day a Little Death," "Impossible," "Sunday in the Park with George," and "Goodbye for Now"
* Commentary by Series Creator Marc Cherry on "Pilot" and "Guilty"
* Commentary by Marc Cherry and Director Larry Shaw on "Anything You Can Do," "Impossible," and "One Wonderful Day"
* Commentary by Actresses Eva Longoria, Felicity Huffman, Marcia Cross, Nicollette Sheridan, and Teri Hatcher on Their Favorite Scenes
* Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Marc Cherry
* Making-of Featurette: A Stroll Down Wisteria Lane
* Featurette: Desperate Housewives Around the World
* Multi-Language Sequence: Bree's Dinner Party
* Featurette: Dressing Wisteria Lane
* Behind the Scenes with The View's Meredith Viera
* Secrets of Wisteria Lane
* Bloopers from the Set
* Oprah Winfrey Is The New Neighbor
* Official Site
* Desperate Days Fan Forum