What do 'Desperate Housewives' want?

Suzanne Fields

11/29/2004 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Certain housewives (like some other people) lead lives of quiet desperation. When they get on television, their desperation gets quite loud. Housewives are the latest victims to be discovered for prime-time television, this time in ABC-TV's dark, satirical Sunday soap called, naturally, "Desperate Housewives."

This is sophisticated, edgy television for the era of the values voters who kept George W. on Pennsylvania Avenue. Think Evelyn Waugh meets Bridget Jones (after she married and moved to the 'burbs). Evelyn and Bridget give new meaning to the words "Brideshead Revisited."

The network's marketing people scored a coup with that X-rated commercial for Monday Night Football, which drew attention from the guys as well. The desperate housewife attempting a locker-room seduction of a Philadelphia Eagle star was definitely not for the children's hour. The children, in fact, should be in bed when their mamas and papas watch the show. It's aptly described as "sex in the suburbs." But this show is selling more than sex.

The network has been scolded by the American Family Association, which encourages a boycott of sponsors. It will offend those with squeamish tastes. It was designed that way. Feminists with no sense of humor complain that it's post-feminist, a throwback to the sizzling sex hidden behind the facades of Peyton Place.

But this is a lot more than a satirical "Ozzie and Harriet." It exposes the mommy wars, the women wars, and the slings and arrows that fly in the endless war between the sexes. It exposes the superficial side of women's magazines, best-selling advice books about love and marriage and the silly stereotypes made in the name of femininity, feminism and family values. The timing, bursting into the consciousness of TV viewers just after the earthquake of Nov. 2, couldn't be better for the moguls of the tube.

The ladies of "Desperate Housewives" who live on Wisteria Lane are more surreal than real, but share enough of a comic-tragic mix to render the social commentary funny and painful in a suburban theatre of the absurd. As in the '80s movie "The Big Chill," the leading character - the most desperate housewife, you might say - has committed suicide and all those who knew her have to speculate why. This brings out the brutishness of men, the bitchiness of women and the brattiness of their children. The red badge of courage for these desperados of the kitchen sink is drawn from blood, strawberry jam or a spilled Bloody Mary.

If "Sex and the City" was about desperate singles in their 30s, "Desperate Housewives" is about the desperately married - or the desperate formerly married - women in their 40s who are facing up to the frustrations, rationalizations and unexpected pleasures of their choices. The personal is no longer political, but it's up close and very personal.

No hysterical rhetoric can explain it away; their bras were burned a long time ago. Martha Stewart is in a prison of her own making, divorce is commonplace and adultery on television and everywhere else is unadulterated. This is unvarnished criticism of the stereotypes that make us feel better about our complexity. There but for the grace of God go I. Not!

With savage satire, the characters are portrayed trying to snatch happiness from the jaws of compromise. Lynette, who left a career filled with mixed feelings to raise her four children with mixed feelings, becomes addicted to the drug prescribed for her twins suffering from attention deficit disorder.

Gabrielle, a model who married for money, has a big house but an empty life. She mows the lawn in high heels and evening gown to cover the tracks of a love affair with the gardener. The grass or her side of the fence is definitely not greener.

Bree, who sounds like a gourmet cheese, isn't maturing naturally. She's described as "Martha Stewart on steroids," an overachiever who makes osso bucco for her son.

Susan, the divorcee, looks for love in a sexual cul-de-sac. Her competition is as tough and polished as false fingernails.

"Housewife," as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary, is "a domestic economist, a pert woman, a hussy." That sounds about right for this suburban limbo. The foods the housewives bring to the house of mourning reflect a wild spectrum of styles: macaroni and cheese, an expensive basket filled with gourmet goodies, fast-food fried chicken and hot paella.

Critics say "Desperate Housewives" examines women in suburban society today. Well, some of them, maybe. But the show is simply one more bit of evidence that we still haven't found the answer to Freud's famous question: "What do women want?"