Wide Range. Cultural Focus. Editor Patrick Neithard
by Patrick Neithard, April 4th 2005
In autumn 2004, the street sweeper “Desperate Housewives” has been raging for the first time successfully in the United States. Feverishly anticipated, its pilot took on Switzerland with yesterday’s premiere on swiss german`s channel sfzwei.
It must be in June, at least it seems to be summer, in that wonderful fictional town of Fairview. Pastel colored suburban houses are glowing in the morning sun. Wisterias here and there pride along the suburban street, Wisteria Lane. A jogger bounces along white fences. Windows, car paint and polished doorknobs gleam in competition within the summer sun. And in between flower beds, roses, hydrangeas, and mowed lawn stand cypresses trimmed to form. The air seems crispy and clear, about to warm the day while a gentle wind wispers through branches of old trees in front of these windows, bird chirps add to the suburban idyll . Until – a violent gunshot cuts through the air. Mary Alice Young`s suicide marks the launch of the new, this year Emmy nomininated American television dramedy series “Desperate Housewives”.
“A last day without anything newsworthy but gleaming with perfection”. Brenda Strong as Mary Alice Young in the pilot of “Desperate Housewives” © ABC Studios Productions, 2004
Bitter Sweet View on The Trauma of Everyday Life
To look down on her friends from beyond was not the life that used to be Mary Alice Young`s (Brenda Strong) . However her shot to the head ended everything abruptly. The all perfectly polished suburban life, the family ties, the endurance of chores, the narrowness of existence with this very only, subjective outlook. Yes, this very same Mary Alice Young is now hovering henceforth sympathetically sighing, but freed, above all, and can now, almost godlike, spy into the deepest corners of the life of their family, their neighbors, their four very different best friends. And narrate and comment just as much (which is just one of the artful elements the show delivers). Shortly after her funeral, the four survivors, the hot-blooded, tormented-by-the-glamorous Latina Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the pragmatic quadruple family mother Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), the single parent and children’s books illustrator Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) and the WASP -upperclass matroness Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross) and their families gather at Mary Alice`s wake. Neighbors are whispering, Mary Alice`s husband behaves strangely, suspicious even, and the four friends are wondering how one of their own could commit something so incomprehensible, rash and irrevocable, if not treacherous, like suicide.
I know what you did!
Gustave Flaubert’s „Madame Bovary“ (1857) applies only as one of the templates for Marc Cherry’s hit series. In Flaubert’s social satire, his Madame Bovary becomes somewhat emblematic, combining four classic female roles in one. She stands for the mother role, secondly she competes with Charles Bovary`s first wife, a yardstick really, her third role is the one as the protagonist Emma Bovary herself and thus as Charles’ second wife, and finally as Madame Bovary again, only this time as a copy of her own mother, in whom ideals should be hopefully propagated. And all that united in a spread out fan of literary subjects. However, Madame Bovary consequently, as tormented as Gustave Flaubert sketches her, commits suicide for numerous reasons. Today, these gendered roles may have long been affected by a large number of circumstances, transformed even by work environment and the impacts of social peering, and yet they are no less committed. Unless you move to the suburbs, as did once the five main protagonists in „Desperate Housewives“. And when the four women, left behind after the tragic death of her fifth, Mary Alice, still in shock with grief and loss find that note “I know what you did! I’m going to tell!“ when rummaging through Mary Alice`s small things left behind, it dawns on them, with much horror „Oh Mary Alice, what you have done?“ It`s as if it`s those parts of Emma Bovary left behind looking for a real identity. And, perhaps there may be similarities with Jane Austen’s novel “Pride and Prejudice”, where society as is, first leads to constraints as the individual is initially praised only in the common cherishing of societal ideals such as “love, as supreme happiness and a pledge to marriage”, to then turn into treason until eventually all the secrets – or circumstances- are brought to light over the course of endured long breaks between truly loving hearts. Already the pilot of „Desperate Housewives“ brims with margins that need expolitation, using both a female voice to narrate present story while it is at the same time an excellently equipped visual language nods perhaps even towards Billy Wilder’s films. Thus making “Desperate Housewives” great literary material by far, opening up the Bovaryèsque emblem in four parts and making them individual portraits.
Seriality 2.0 or Race Icon Female Conformisms
What started successfully in the late 1970ties with TV series like “The Waltons”, “Lassie” and “Flipper” only to bloom forth with oil tycoon series such as “Dallas” and “Dynasty” (the latter was called “Denver” in German) was a first heyday as it portrayed families or societies at large. Today, TV shows are in a state of renaissance, (with shows such as the hugely successful HBO series Sex & The City) set to a brilliant second wave. Television today is a mass phenomenon in which quotas determine. And it`s the success of a pilot which decides over the future existence of the series. Rates and target audience are the power couple if you think in television terms. ABC Television division must be aware of that. If the couple isn`t well paired, it simply leads to an expensive dead end. And while a while back, TV shows were either fast paced, or comedy – or that endlessly developping story, it is now increasingly genremix of both comedy and drama, and with „Depserate Housewives“ a less toxic, less urban, still American Hausfrau whose marriage crisisews, whose flings and whose competitions (keeping it up with the Jones`s) here are being ornamented by murder, intrigue and slander (following the example of film noir). These ingredients spice up authenticity and breathtakingly attractive identification, while tremendously elaborate cinematic shots recall far more the golden era of cinema, and much less television. And yes, to come back to the the literary work, that Madame Bovary again, there is that moment in „Madame Bovary“, in which Emma Bovary now as herself, escapes the city, in a carriage to sweep out through endless roads, and all the while thoughts running, she forces her driver to just drive, drive, to merely go on, to just the heck go on! And not any less breathtaking and blood pressure-altering are „Desperate Housewives`“ opening credits. Audibly supported by Danny Elfman, its alarming sound gathers like bomb alarm, gathering the visual work to come. There will be centuries of female conformities crossing swords, and it almost seems as this series might work like a broom that swabs a whole nation althogether onto their sofas. It`s a series for all to see. Motion Graphic Designer Garson Yu, who stands behind „yU+co“ has created a thirty second „women`s story“ greatly infused by cultural artifacts.
They do begin, naturally, with „Adam and Eve“ by Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach (1528) followed by Nefertari, one of King Ramses`wives (in his Harem) then evolves into the “Portrait of the Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami” (1434) by the Dutch artist Jan van Eyck. (the one with the swabbing) Then, history evolves as in”American Gothic” by Grant Wood, (its original can be found in the Art Institute of Chicago) claims to be iconic for the American life during the great depression. The portrait of calcified interrellations between male and female bound in marriage is frivolously cut open when a roguishly winking Pin-Up Girl image-bombs the rather canned couple. Rumours have it, that Pin Up in real life was the American actress Betty Grable. “I am Proud”, originally a propaganda poster of the Post World War II -Amerika, shows the busy, pulling-up-the-sleeves overfraught housewife who prevents famines by making preserves. This post WWII female role model has been broken with just as much, as Andrew Warhol’s commodity portrait “Campbell’s Soup” placeholds, making for the portrait for a streamlined decade heading towards the future with its industrialised standards. These growing assets to everyday life have greatly intervened with both the male and female roles, enabling a much needed change in living: a couple in the 1950ties suddenly had time to spend as a “romantic couple” and “contending pair” as both following Pop Art glitteraty suggest. Already Robert Dale`s images, in style, used the patterization of the painting in lithography as a means to express what also world famous Roy Lichtenstein`s images portray. They both criticized serial production (aka industrialisation) which already resonates in Warhol’s Campbell Soup, while Lichtenstein further evolved asked, 1956 with his work “Just what is it did makes today’s homes different, so appealing?”. Both social criticism and industrial critique is the end point of the fulminant iconic journey. Within no less than thirty seconds we went from Adam and Eve to the early 1960ties where gender stereotypes and its inequalities finally were brought to light during a first wave of the sexual revolution.
Come again? Sexual revolution?
Sexual revolution is without question the hot topic of „Desperate Housewives“. The women we find here still know what “sexual revolution” means. And yet, this much be revealed, the series approach has it encrypted within its appearing humourous real-life predators of the suburbs who deal with cooking and baking battles as well as multitasking while battling offending opportunists. Women today aren`t just that, their secret weapons may reveal themselves over the course of the show when brilliance of minds and their inoculated class-consciousness collides with structures, even self-imposed and carried forth as indicated by ancestors. While moving forward at times may require desperate courage and heroism in order to endure entrapments within their daily lives, being woman means having to battle for multiple possibilities, and that grants for collisions with newly formed stereotypes. Sure, being calculating ensures the safe raising of kids, while maternal instincts may aid here, on the other end it enables society`s deeply rooted Freudian prejudices and archetypes held up against women in endorsing them to being prone to hysterical fits. It is only highly likely that these ingredients make for greater trials and tribulations, as myths may surround neighbours, while perhaps pent-up pain here and there is released in an explosive discharge about neglected self-fulfillment while living in roles both maternal and marital, and professional. Already in the expertly written pilot, the four main characters portray their in-dephth character traits with admirable poise, while being both loyal, enduring, insightful and emotionally deeply rooted. Of course they do just as much portray their communicative gifts as well as their romantic needs and wants alike.
That this is done with a great sense of situational comedy could be seen already today when Lynette Scavo blackmails her loutish boys into decency thanks to her direct connection to a higher power, the cell phone number of Santa Claus, or when Susan Mayer’s famous “cooking” portrays the worst of her qualities, her world famous Maccharoni & Cheese both burnt and undercooked (Great humour) makes for both legendary as well as tradition. And that is the quality of American television: Grandiose spinning forth by means of dramatic fictionalisation, oftentimes emphasized by music stlyes lented from1950ties television`s “Mickey Mousing” ( Steve Jablonksi directs a costly live Orchestra to build the audible athmosphere) In the course of the coming weeks, I forecast significantly deep character development woven from this beautiful fabric, while we will just want to watch and not miss it. Who will not want to know why Mary Alice Young killed herself and why a note turns up telling us that someone already might know. It is this permanent tension mixing fun with suspense gathering us in front of our TV sets. I still can`t decide which character I might grow fond of most deeply, however I am sure it will happen with the urgency of an open heart. That may be even despite that at times, in this portrayed world, as one of the spouses at the Wisteria Lane yet has to say it, at times it all just appears as a brilliant, luxurious detergent commercial. This time though it affords us to do away with filthily gendered stereotypes. (pn/editor)
sfzwei, Monday, 20:00 Stereo (English/Dubbed German) & ORF
Repeats same night sfzwei night time slot.
German version, Wednesdays on ProSieben 20:15
©ABC Studios Production
Marc Cherry ( Idea)
Charles McDougall (Director)
Charles Skouras III ( Producer)
Stephanie Hagen (Producer)
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