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mow that lawn!

Recipe for Desperation:
"Desperate Housewives" Reconsidered

Last year, "Desperate Housewives" stood apart as a fresh alternative in a sea of mediocre reality shows. The series started with a daring bang, and breezily introduced us to four breezy suburban women unlike any breezy TV characters seen before (at least not in any actual suburbs). Funny, well-written, original in both content and tone, the soap opera-cum-comedy-cum-mystery, thriller-cum-cultural critique brought something devilishly new to the stale world of cross-genre programing. And its ratings were good, too. (You could say it was a perfectly delicious and decadent layer cake in a season of bland store-bought television brownies.)

That was last year. Now, in the unfolding second season, the show has lost focus and flavor, delivering nothing but — sigh — leftovers.

What's changed? Not much — and that's the problem. With a large, adoring fan base and powerhouse ratings, it may have seemed wise not to mess with what was working. But relying on formula has done nothing but let the show grow stale.

The problem with the second season of "Desperate Housewives" is redundancy. And when it comes to dieting, any savvy weight watcher knows that redundancy leads to bingeing (TV on DVD, anyone?). During the first season, "Housewives" found a formula that brought the ratings in; now, the formula is all there is. In each episode, each of our four housewives always finds herself in a "desperate" circumstance.

This season's predicaments, however, do not add to our understanding of the characters, nor do they add up to anything creative. Last year's watercooler moments, like Gabrielle mowing the grass in her evening gown, were outrageous, but they also helped develop compelling (if not sublimely ridiculous) characters. This year's watercooler moments, like Lynette getting up and gyrating sexily on a bar, seem completely out of character. Sure, these are meant to shock, but who do the writers think are so desperate? The viewers? Ouch. This season, the housewives are way past desperate. They're absolutely pathetic.

Worse yet is that the women we once loved for their odd complexities have been reduced to one-dimensional stock characters. Gabrielle is the spoiled one, Lynette is the haggard one, Susan is the clumsy one and Bree is the cold fish. And there isn't a likable character in the bunch. In fact, they've become tiresomely despicable. Rather than allowing the characters to grow naturally by revealing layers and underneath, emotions, the writers seem content to remind us again and again that these ladies are pathetic. And pathetic is boring.

In the quick-moving, eye-popping first season, the audience mostly ignored glaring errors. But because this season has offered nothing but repetition, it's easy to notice — and dwell on — the weaknesses in the set-up and structure. It seems that, after all, Bree, Lynette, Susan and Gabrielle do not represent four different female archetypes. Rather, they represent one archetype with four elaborate wardrobes: a spoiled, soulless, self-centered, woman-child who is simplistically motivated by her own narcissistic needs (but nicely dressed). Confusingly, the heroines of the new season aren't behaving much differently from the villains (like the devious pharmacist, George) or the vamps (like trashy Maisy Gibbons).

In the face of this homogeneity, it's easy to lose interest in the fates of Wisteria Lane's va-va-voomy women. It used to be refreshing to watch women struggling with motherhood, marriage and suburban life — even if everything was exaggerated. This year, the caricatures have become cartoons. Even the weather is reminscent of Hanna-Barbera. Sure it's filmed on a studio back-lot, but can't they drag in the rain machine at least once?

Oh, and there's the problem with that pesky thing called continuity. Audiences will swallow bizarre plotlines and twists, but they're not so tolerant of blatant inconsistencies and plotlines that ignore reality. How does Gabrielle convince her husband that she got paternity test results back in one day — especially without a DNA sample? Why would a woman like Bree, who we learned in season one was obsessed with etiquette, be involved with George only weeks after her husband's death? How the hell does Lynette get a job interview and a job just 24 hours after deciding she needed to start looking? And sure, Susan can be a children's book illustrator, but doesn't she ever draw? And even if it's all off-camera, how does she live so lavishly on an artist's income?

Despite the fun of last season's outrageousness, it was the quieter, more realistic moments that resonated with most women — such as when Lynette finally cracked under the pressure of motherhood or when Bree continued to polish her prized silverware, despite the friction in her marriage. These scenes were convincing, especially for suburban veiwers who dreamed of glamour but saw in writers like Marc Cherry an empathetic understanding of the reality of suburban womanhood.

This year, it seems the writers could only despise women — or at least the kooky women they created. How else can we explain the fact that all the female characters are consumed with getting what they want, when they want it, without regard for anyone else? On this season's Wisteria Lane, everyone hates everyone and nobody is trustworthy. This dynamic gives us lots of opportunities for bitchy put-downs and angry pouting — but not much else.

It's time to admit that what was fresh and invigorating last year simply seems store-bought and tacky this year. It's time to throw the proven recipe to the wind and to start cooking with all new spices. Or, non-metaphorically, it's time to stop the goofy gags and give us some real character-driven plot. Or else the housewives at home are going to get desperate ... for a new show.

Lizbeth Finn-Arnold (lizfinnarnold at yahoo dot com)

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