"Desperate Housewives" defies conventional wisdom in the TV business: It stars a handful of middle-aged women at home, it does not feature a new dead body each week (OK, there is a dead body, but it's the same one each episode), and it has a jampacked, serialized plot.
But thanks to these Wisteria Lane residents, the most-watched show in the fall lineup held its own Sunday night, pulling in 21.3 million viewers, even against Boston's triumphant second win in the World Series playoffs.
What is it that makes this ABC show such catnip to viewers? To answer this question, The Monitor gathered a group of five women to watch and dish, appropriately enough, over afternoon tea and scones.
What the girl talk reveals is that "desperate" may not be that far off the mark. For most of these Los Angeles-area women - all mothers, some married and some not - there's more than a grain of truth buried in the outlandish plot lines of "Desperate Housewives." In some respects, it's a series about them.
"It rings bells with all of us," says Jenna Abouzeid, an artist, neighborhood activist, and mother of a 7-year-old boy. As a mom, she says, she can relate to the central theme: We all live lives of quiet desperation.
"At any given time in your life," she says, "how much do you wish you could have shared about what's really going on?" A murmur of agreement ripples through the group as the women alternately balance teacups and dessert plates.
"I especially love the name Wisteria Lane," says Cindi Dale, a museum program director who now stays home with her two young boys. "That vine is so pretty, but it's a creeper and really strong, and ultimately it will take over and destroy your whole garden."
The only one who's been watching the show from the start is Julie Reynolds, a department- store public relations manager and single mother of a 9-year-old boy. She says she can identify with the character Lynette (Felicity Huffman), a corporate go-getter now stranded at home with four children. Among other things, Lynette struggles with a loss of self-image.
"I nearly lost my mind when I was married," Julie says. "I was used to being in a boardroom with powerful people, and losing that was hard."
But if many of the show's themes resonate, it also takes a few critical punches, especially for its execution.
"This is Barbie- and 'Stepford Wives'-level writing," says actress Susie Duff, a single mother of a teenage son. "This is nothing but a bunch of men writing their fantasies about women." (The show was created by Marc Cherry, who writes the script along with nine others. Of the 10, six are men.)
Susie suggests the popularity of "Desperate Housewives" may have more to do with the deterioration of network TV in general than with the quality of this show in particular - though she admits she doesn't watch television. "Come on, this is nothing but vaudeville."
And Cindi "was particularly offended by some of the sexist things in there." She cites a scene in which Carlos, a wealthy businessman, orders his wife, Eva, to let one of his clients grab her behind at a party because it will keep the client happy.
The Carlos-Eva incident sets off a tizzy of responses. "It's crazy TV, we all know that, but all these things are happening to all of us on some level, right?" says Lisa Tay, who has two children under age 10 and teaches school part-time. "We've all made compromises we have to learn to live with." Julie, laughing ruefully, adds, "A lot of folks have had managers like that."
Susie, for one, does not appreciate the shallow stereotypes. "This is nothing but a redone cartoon," she says, citing the character Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross). "There's just zero subtlety or character depth there." But Bree, who outdoes Martha Stewart as a domestic diva, arouses sympathy from the other women.
"There are plenty of people who are as extreme as Bree," says Lisa. "There is plenty of pain being expressed there." "Let's get to her sadness, then," says Susie. "Now that would be interesting!"
Julie is unapologetic about her commitment to the show. "Sometimes you just need to bliss out with something funny and close enough to home that it keeps you interested. I know it's junk TV, but it's fun."
Several suggest that 9/11 has changed what TV audiences want. "People want shows that will make them laugh, that are like comfort food and not too challenging," says Lisa. "There is a place for that; not everything has to be Shakespeare."
Cindi adds, "Don't you think it's interesting that all the homes have family pictures in them?" Indeed, the camera persistently scans the family photos in each home. Viewers, especially women, are tired of all the cop and doctor shows, she says. They want something about families and homes. "Even if it's dysfunctional families, at least it's a topic you care about."