Desperate Housewives is Hot Again

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Desperate Housewives is back! After a serious creative collapse in season two and a long, slow climb back to respectability in season three, I am happy to report that this fall Desperate Housewives is more fun and engaging than it has been since its sublime freshman year. I realize I’m going out on a limb with this, since there have only been two episodes this season, but I’m willing to take the risk.

Much of the credit goes to the smart decision by executive producer Marc Cherry and his team to add a new housewife to the mix and immediately tie her to the four women at the heart of the show. I’m talking about Katherine Mayfair, played by Dana Delany, the beautiful and talented Emmy-winning China Beach alumnus who in recent years has languished in terrifically promising but sadly short-lived series (Pasadena, Kidnapped). Katherine is a fine addition to Wisteria Lane (just as Delany is a sublime addition to the cast), and her introduction to the show has been so skillfully handled that after only two episodes she seems more like a significant series veteran than a disruptive newcomer.

Unlike Betty Applewhite, the unwelcome outsider (played by acclaimed actress Alfre Woodard, who never seemed comfortable in the role), Katherine Mayfair has a history with two core characters, Susan and Mary Alice. The latter, the deceased resident of Wisteria Lane, who serves as narrator of the series and is seen in the occasional flashback (including one with a much-younger Susan and Katherine in the most recent episode). Katherine and Susan (and Mary Alice) were dear friends and neighbors until Katherine hurriedly moved away under mysterious circumstances many years earlier.

Like Betty, Katherine is hiding a dark secret about a child—but Katherine’s secret is already so much more interesting than Betty’s. (Mrs. Applewhite was keeping her mentally challenged adult son locked up in a basement room, mistakenly believing him to be a murderer. This storyline was so poorly played that the world yawned when it was revealed Betty’s other son, a seemingly model young man, was the actual psycho.) Her teenage daughter Dylan (Lyndsy Fonseca) seems to not have any memories about her childhood years on Wisteria Lane, including anything involving her father (whom, she was told, deserted Katherine when Dylan was a baby) and her one-time best friend, Susan’s daughter Julie (Andrea Bowen). Katherine knows why Dylan can’t remember so much of her past, and it’s a secret she shares only with her new husband, Adam (Nathan Fillion, another excellent addition to the cast), a gynecologist who counts among his patients the pregnant Susan.

Katherine has already integrated herself into the heartfelt four-way friendship between Susan, Bree, Lynette and Gabrielle to a greater degree than neighborhood tart Edie Britt, even becoming part of the intimate support group for cancer patient Lynette as she endures weeks of chemotherapy. In addition to establishing her as an old friend of Susan’s and a returned resident of Wisteria Lane, Cherry and Co. in a masterstroke of creative genius have made Katherine an instant nemesis for Bree, a neurotic perfectionist and meticulous mistress of the household arts. The two are constantly in restrained conflict: To Bree’s horror, Katherine makes a superior lemon meringue pie and notices tiny loose threads on Bree’s clothing that Bree herself doesn’t see. Marcia Cross has been in priceless comic form these last two episodes, keeping the perpetually steamed Bree at a low simmer but never allowing her to boil over. (Bree has a comic storyline of her own, for appearances sake faking a pregnancy while keeping her pregnant daughter Danielle sequestered out of town. When Danielle has her illegitimate baby, Bree will presumably fake a birth and present it to the world as her own. A sequence at Katherine’s yard party two weeks ago when Bree skewered her artificial baby bump on a barbecue fork was one of the funniest moments in this series’ four-year history.)

With a vivid new character on the canvas, the stories these last two weeks have brought the four leading ladies of Wisteria Lane together in a natural and organic way and once again made their friendship the center of the show, as it was in season one. In season two they all seemed to be living in their own worlds, and while there was more four-way interaction in season three, much of it came about only because of extreme events. (Orson Hodge, who would eventually marry Bree, running down Mike Delfino and causing him to lose his memory; nutcase Carolyn Bigsby taking shoppers hostage at a local supermarket, etc.) There is a feeling this season that the ladies spend so much time together because they are so dear to each other, and because they live next door to each other. Wisteria Lane has become a neighborhood once again.

There are other things to celebrate this season. Carlos is front and center in a clumsy quadrangle that has comic ramifications for some characters and a deep emotional impact on others. Carlos is living with and engaged to Edie, who has abandoned her wicked ways and wants to settle down with him, but he’s fooling around with ex-wife Gabrielle, who is newly married to the mayor. The very cool Ricardo Antonio Chavira and the supremely sexy Eva Longoria and Nicollette Sheridan are all in top form playing this complex, high stakes story.

Lynette’s cancer story is once again providing Felicity Huffman with material that could earn her a third Emmy nomination. (She already has one Emmy for this role.) It is also adding some essential human drama to the show and serving as a surprising showcase for Longoria. (Gabrielle is terrified at the thought of her friend Lynette dying.)

Meanwhile, appealing nice guy Mike, who spent much of last season unconscious in a hospital bed, is trying to be a calming influence on his ditsy new bride Susan and her mature daughter Julie, with limited results. This story has Teri Hatcher playing Susan as naturally nutty, the way she was in season one, and not as a clueless irritant, as she was in all of season two and much of season three.

Finally, the all-knowing Mrs. McClusky (Kathryn Joosten, still super) continues to provide rich comic accents in a number of key scenes and storylines. (Mr. Cherry, I know that you enjoy killing off supporting characters in devilish new ways. But you must never kill off this woman!)

Although Andrea Bowen (as Julie) and Lyndsy Fonseca (as Dylan) have had a few good scenes together, my one complaint with the show this season is that the younger characters on the canvas haven’t had much to do. Housewives could really use some youthful sex appeal in its madcap mix, and Bree’s demon-spawn, Andrew and Danielle, are just the kids to provide it. Shawn Pyfrom and Joy Lauren, as Andrew and Danielle, respectively, are both capable of playing edgy comedy and raw emotion, and Andrea Bowen is a gem. I’d like to see Andrew and Julie bring home a number of different young men, simply to agitate their mothers. And I have to imagine there is a story in the works that has a very pregnant Danielle returning home for a surprise visit. If not, why not? The comic and dramatic possibilities are endless.

By Ed Martin

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