Editorial: What Went Wrong on Wisteria Lane?

Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday post! My first Wildcard post was an editorial about ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, the only currently airing network drama that I still watch.  Based on the success of that entry, today’s post intends to do a similar thing with a recently extinguished ABC drama, Desperate Housewives. Based on a rambling analysis I wrote a few months ago, here are some thoughts on the series as a whole, but more specifically, the season-by-season happenings that contributed to the overall downfall of this once great series.



Here’s the thing: Modern television has gotten itself into an unfortunate predicament. A new series is expected to have an audience upon arrival. If it doesn’t get high ratings, it’s canceled immediately. There’s little time these days for a show to grow and develop an audience. However, Desperate Housewives was a hit right off the bat… a huge commercial AND critical smash. The success of that first season was the result of many things coming together in an almost perfect blend. There were four strong actresses (five, if we count Sheridan) playing equally strong and diverse women. Bree (Cross) was the living embodiment of the “Stepford Wife,” whose initial emotional shortcomings contributed to the series’ wicked satirical bite. Lynette (Huffman) and Gaby (Longoria) were two polar opposites: soccer mom and trophy wife, each providing elements of both comedy and drama, with scandalous stories (Gaby’s affair with her teenage gardner, Lynette taking her kids’ ADD medicine) that galvanized audiences. Meanwhile, the recurring Edie (Sheridan) was a bitchy divorcee that we loved to hate, and lovable Susan (Hatcher) brought in the RomCom hook, giving fans a couple to “ship” and root for.


There’s absolutely no doubt about it: Hatcher WAS the star of Season One. She got the most screen time, she was the anchor of most episodes, and she was the girl most directly involved in the season’s ongoing mystery. After all, the real reason for the initial success of the Desperate Housewives was it’s engrossing mystery: Why did Mary Alice kill herself? The story developed progressively throughout the season with shocking twists — Martha Huber’s death — and brilliantly placed wrong-turns — Dana as Zach’s sister — that were exciting and well-paced. Additionally, all the women had a vested interest in Mary Alice’s death, which served to unite the girls and their stories. Desperate Housewives, the soapy hilariously dramatic satire was a breakaway hit.


As a result of that stellar first season, the series succumbed to the dreaded sophomore slump. The show put so much into those first 23 episodes, the second season was destined to be a let down in comparison. Unfortunately, because Desperate Housewives was an immediate hit, the slump coincided with the media blitz. Spoiled fans and fussy critics corroborated to make Season Two seem horrendous. But it WASN’T. Yes, there were definite flaws. The Applewhite mystery is largely responsible for the season’s bad rap. It was entirely too predictable and lacked all the necessary nuances. Furthermore, none of the wives were as invested in the story, like they were in Mary Alice’s suicide. Additionally, there was storytelling residue from the first season’s mystery involving Zach, Felicia, and Paul that felt extraneous to the show’s current arcs. Meanwhile, the writers struggled to give Susan a storyline: re-writing, re-filming, and scrapping plots. But when they finally found an idea that worked — her wandering spleen — the story felt rushed and silly. The writers’ obvious struggle with Susan was a disappointment, and the season felt off-kilter as a result.


However, there was a definite improvement during the last half of the seasons, which featured some terrific stuff involving Bree. This was Marcia Cross’s best season, as she dealt with the loss of her husband, her descent into alcoholism, and her ongoing conflict with a gay son. The writers were wise to rope Bree partially into the Applewhite story in the latter half of the season, making the mystery once again important. Also to the series’ credit, both Gaby and Lynette’s characters were expanded and allowed more development. So, it wasn’t a season without its merits. But, the overblown media hype and inevitable dip in quality from Season One has given it a bad reputation.


Then Season Three came along with a mystery that was much more compelling and, more importantly, involved main cast members — Bree, Orson, Mike, and Susan. The blend between comedy and drama had returned, and the series’ return to form made Season Two look even more like an unfortunate accident. However, because of Cross’s pregnancy, the mystery was sped up. Since the storyline had to be resolved before her absence, the ensuing episodes were chockfull of suspense. Meanwhile, though Bree was firmly at the crux of the mystery, Susan’s character returned to prominence and was once again the anchor of the show. Gaby continued to show more depth, and Lynette got priority in the show’s best episode of all time, “Bang,” in which a jealous wife takes hostages in a supermarket.


When Cross went on leave, the show creatively shifted away from the drama of the mystery and onto the ladies’ personal dramas. More focus was given to Edie Britt, a wonderful character, who had primarily only been used as comedic relief. All the ladies’ storyarcs were strong, but the lack of a juicy mystery made the last episodes directionless, and the season could not possibly live up to the memories and hype of the first season. Regardless, Season Three was a wonderfully entertaining year with a great mystery, great stories, and scads of great moments.


Season Four introduced new characters and had another fairly intriguing mystery. The writers were sure to give Katherine (Delany) a past on Wisteria Lane, and therefore, a connection to the other ladies — well, at least to Susan. But the writers were also crafty in their initial handling of Katherine — they gave her individual stories with each wife, allowing them all to establish a specific dynamic with her. (They learned from their mistakes with Betty!) But the episodes were more dramatic in tone, and the foreboding aura threw off the series’s balance. Elements of satire were replaced with traces of genuine melodrama. Some things worked superbly, however; Katherine’s continuing coldness, Lynette’s fight with an opossum, and the deliciously soapy tornado were particularly notable. Susan was initially set up as Season Four’s central presence, but this development quickly evaporated again as the mystery took prominence and the other wives were given more equal coverage.


Though well-written with tons of great character stuff, I still felt that the episodes were less enjoyable. As opposed to Season Two, the mystery was engaging, but all of the wives seemed to contend with comparatively boring material. Well, that was the case before the Writer’s Strike; the scripts picked up when the series resumed production. The season also ended with a truly brilliant cliffhanger — a flashforward — that looked like it might rejuvenate the show. Season Four was a transitional year that, fortunately, still had more successes than failures.


Season Five was a very different season. It featured perhaps the darkest mystery of the entire series, but also the zaniest comedy of the entire series. The five-year jump was such an inventive cliffhanger that, if treated as more than an initial novelty, seemed guaranteed to make the series new and exciting again. To the writers’ credit, the season adopted the overall lighter tone of the earlier years, and the show was much fresher in the first handful of episodes. But the mystery was more predictable than ever — solvable in less than five episodes. (I thought a lot about what could have been done to fix this. I think showing the Susan/Mike car crash flashback in the premiere was a mistake. That could have been revealed later on. And the reason for their split could have been handled differently… it could have been part of the suspense. And as always, the damn thing just needed more plot twists!) But as the initial rejuvenation provided by the five-year jump wore off, and with a flaccid mystery, the series revealed itself to be much weaker that it had ever been, even in the so-called “disappointing” days of Season Two. Like most series, especially those that peak early on, Desperate Housewives was obviously declining.


Losing Edie was an incredible detriment to the show’s list of still working elements. She was vital in the series’ initial success, and the show never recovered from her loss. Also, pairing Katherine and Mike together was an interesting idea, but the whole story was handled very tritely. First off, Mike and Susan were presented from the pilot as the central couple of the series, and any relationships they have with other people are almost definitely going to be short-lived. It was a difficult development to navigate, especially since viewers were given little explanation as to why they should even try to root for Katherine and Mike. Meanwhile, Bree became more human and less of a walking satire, Gaby still was given mostly comedy, and Lynette took on more of the show’s weight, as Susan once again was alternatively bestowed and stripped of prominence periodically throughout the season. But, for all its flaws, Season Five was very entertaining. Okay, it was less entertaining than the seasons prior, but it had some very strong stuff (crazy Dave, fat Gaby, and a strangely sad Susan) plus a breathtaking 100th episode that brought the show back to its roots: Mary Alice.


Season Six was a major step down. The mystery was intriguing during the Fall episodes, but it slowly lost suspense, as the characters devolved and became less dimensional and more thinly drawn. Also, having two mysteries — the Bolens and Eddie, the strangler — did not work in the series’ favor. It was a disjointed year, lacking any sense of fluidity. It is also interesting to note here that Susan and Katherine swapped storylines shortly before production began. As a result, the Susan character floundered. While Lynette and Bree initially thrived in their fresh and exciting stories, Susan played second fiddle to Katherine and the mystery, as Gaby continued to be used exclusively for laughs. Yet, in the Fall, everything was working well and the series showed improvement. But the unnecessary plane crash marked a major turning point in the series. This is when things went wrong on Wisteria Lane.


All the characters treaded water as they lost nuance and become hollowed vessels for whatever contrived story the writers planned next. Dana Delany got her own show and Katherine left Wisteria Lane in one of the hastiest, out-of-chaarcter, and shodiest exits of the series. As Susan and Mike became boring, and Orson and Bree became unlikable, Gaby and Lynette, for the FIRST TIME EVER, were involved in the mysteries. Gaby with the Bolens, and Lynette with Eddie. And while the former mystery was handled sloppily, the latter seemed to work better — mostly due to Huffman and some great performances. The disjointed season ended with Susan moving off the street (but not the series) and two old stories coming back: Andrew running over Juanita, and Paul Young’s return to Wisteria Lane. It was obvious that the series was in need of help and desperately trying to recapture the magic of the earlier seasons.


Don’t get me wrong–I’m glad that there was continuity in regards to Andrew/Juanita in Season Seven. But, there wasn’t a lot of mileage to be had in resuming the story, especially in the melodramatic way that it ended up being presented. And interesting as it was to see Paul Young, his mystery, like the Bolens’, petered out after the Fall stretch. Essentially, the story involving Paul’s revenge on Wisteria Land ended and gave rise to another story: Felicia’s revenge on Paul. Pale and silly imitations of their former selves, all returning characters looked trivial–especially Zach in a brief return. Meanwhile, the housewives had switched positions — while Susan and Bree got handed the juiciest and most prominent stories in the early seasons — now Gaby and Lynette had more engaging narratives. Gaby played real drama in a serialized arc that, though trite, allowed the character to become much richer. And even though Lynette, like in seasons past, had trivial stories, her scenes were written and played with a stronger integrity, and seemed to elevate the character’s growing importance in the series. And the devolution of her relationship with Tom was, for the most part, well-handled.


Meanwhile, the balance between comedy and drama was off again, and while we met the painfully undeveloped Renee (Williams), who unfortunately did nothing for the series but provide moments of shallow laughter, it became clear that Susan, the CRUX of the first three seasons, had all but died. I don’t mean literally died, but figuratively, died. (Now, we all know that there was some behind-the-scenes drama that occurred with Hatcher and the other ladies. We also know that it got worse as time went on. I speculate it was over the writing.) In Season Seven, her character got stupid material, had little interaction with the other wives, and never once was remotely interesting. She was tacked into the mystery, but because that was half-assed as well, Susan was unabashedly awful this year. But when Desperate Housewives wrapped up Paul and Felicia’s tripe, they managed to produce a thrillingly unique cliffhanger — the cover-up of Gaby’s step-father’s death — uniting all the wives back together in a way that seemed to guarantee better Desperate days to come.


Season Eight started promising. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that there wasn’t a lot of story to be told from this cliffhanger. At least, nothing that could successfully be stretched to last 23 episodes. As a result, the mystery that hoped to unite all the wives did nothing more than cast a dark cloud over the last season, as things dragged out in a pace that neither engaged the audience or flattered the characters. All the women were darker this season, and though they occasionally were brought together by the storyline, seemed otherwise estranged from each other. Meanwhile, the writers decided to add an additional twist, semi-connected to the mystery, by killing Mike. What did it accomplish? Nothing more than melodrama. Mike (and Susan) had been boring for two seasons, so it didn’t really do much more than rob Susan of a happy romantic ending, which was all but promised in the pilot. I loved that the show would go against the grain and be brave enough to kill this formerly successful and still mildly important character, but why so close to the end? And handled so poorly too?


Meanwhile, the darkness of the mystery had to be met with silly comedy as a balance. But it was all contrived, with characters doing and saying things that simply weren’t motivated. I was just waiting for the end now. And it came, after some contrived doings by all four ladies — Susan going to Texas, Bree becoming a whore, Lynette getting clingy, Renee receiving flashes of trite development, and Gaby alternating between growth and regression. Furthermore, the ending was predictable — totally lacking in the juice and bite of the Desperate Housewives of yore. But I was still sad. Not because the show had ended, but because the show had lost itself long before the finale. It was heartbreaking.



Well, that’s my analysis of the series over its eight year run. If you read the whole thing, kudos to you! Subscribe and comment below with your thoughts!




Remember to tune back in next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And don’t forget that the Xena countdown continues tomorrow on XWP Thursday!