Over time, the ladies were really put through the wringer. The pilot started off with a suicide, for Pete’s sake, of neighbor Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong), who became the omniscient narrator. (Mary Alice, by the way, is one of many of Desperate’s dearly departed rumored to be making a return visit Sunday.)
Terrible, awful things happened on Wisteria Lane all the time. Tornadoes, plane crashes, fires, revenge served at every conceivable temperature, hit-and-runs, psycho killers, crazy people locked in basements, and enough poison to keep the Borgias stocked for centuries. Your typical suburb. (In fact, it was shot on the same outdoor set as Leave It to Beaver.)
Housewives’ reliance on a dire assortment of danger and disaster scenarios grew exhausting after awhile.
Following two seasons in the Nielsen Top 5, Desperate Housewives began a slow, inexorable slide in the ratings. It limps to the finish line this final season out of the Nielsen Top 30, with less than half the audience it enjoyed in its prime.
Adult women have stayed loyal to the franchise. That may be due in part to the show’s strategy of parading a procession of hunky men past viewers as eye candy. James Denton, Dougray Smith, Mehcad Brooks, Gale Harold, Brian Austin Green, Charles Mesure, even Mad Men’s John Slattery have served stud duty.
Early in its run, Housewives ran into a quandary many soap operas face: It was flipping through story lines so fast that the options for the main characters were growing increasingly outlandish.
So the writers recruited new neighbors to bend, fold, and manipulate, women like Edie (Nicollette Sheridan), Katherine (Dana Delany), and Renee (Vanessa Williams).
The show also brought in a series of single-season plot hangers, like Alfre Woodard, Drea de Matteo, and Neal McDonough, a transparent ploy that was not popular with fans.
At the start of the fifth season, the series made what seemed like a desperate attempt to wipe the slate clean and start afresh. Ostensibly, five years had passed. Gaby suddenly had two substantial daughters. Lynette’s teen-terror twins were known to every cop in Fairview, and Bree had become a gourmet cottage industry.
Remarkably, this contrivance worked and the show gained a new energy and equilibrium (although viewers continued to drift away). Much of the credit for this quiet renaissance must go to the four stars, whose consistently fine work over the years has gone largely unrewarded. Since the first season, when Huffman won for outstanding actress in a comedy series, the ladies have received distressingly little Emmy love.
The lather, by the way, hasn’t been confined to the soap opera’s scripts. Sheridan filed a $20 million lawsuit against Cherry and ABC, claiming she was assaulted on the set and wrongfully terminated for reporting it. Her character, Edie, was killed off in season five.
In recent years, there have been repeated reports that Hatcher is estranged from the other three principals, a schism that apparently continued right through the cast and crew’s closing celebrations in April.
The network certainly owes Desperate Housewives a warm send-off. “That show and Lost, which began the same season, are responsible for ABC’s turnaround,” says Shari Anne Brill, a noted TV audience analyst. “Before that, ABC was reliant on Who Want To Be a Millionaire? and The Bachelor and Bachelorette. It made such a mark on ABC’s performance.”
Even if you’ve drifted away over the years, you may still enjoy Sunday’s finale. This season Housewives has scaled back the Perils of Pauline pyromania and made a satisfying return to its garage-sale roots.
What can we expect? Well, Bree is on trial for murder, but she’s finding it hard to concentrate because she’s kind of got a thing for her lawyer, Trip (Scott Bakula). Susan has decided to sell her house on the Lane and move away to help her very, very pregnant daughter Julie (Andrea Bowen) raise the baby. But Susan hasn’t let the other ladies in on her plans yet.
Mrs. McCluskey (Kathryn Joosten) has decided she wants to face the final stages of lung cancer in her own home.
OK, so we have birth and death. What else? Of course, a wedding. Renee’s elaborate union with Ben (Mesure) is scheduled — although I foresee complications.
And then you can count on a whole passel of surprises, including the return in one guise or another of a raft of characters who previously died on the show: Mike (Denton), Karl (Richard Burgi), George (Roger Bart), Rex (Steven Culp), even (heaven help us!) Martha Huber (Shirley Estabrook).
Doesn’t matter if all of them are ghosts, zombies, or reincarnations (stranger things have happened on soaps). As long as Lynette, Susan, Bree, and Gaby are together at the end, this crazy little corner of heaven can survive anything.
Contact David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @daveondemand_tv. Read his blog, “Dave on Demand,” at www.philly.com/dod.
TV Series Finale Desperate Housewives Sunday 9 p.m. on 6ABC