Toronto
3 min

Fear is in your neighbour’s swimming pool

Is Desperate Housewives a gay man's nightmare?

Credit: Xtra files

What a difference a decade makes. In the 1990s we had Sex And The City. In the 2000s we have Desperate Housewives (9pm, Sun, CTV/ ABC). I’m not a big believer in karmic cycles but what we seem to have here is a major case of TV reincarnation, with Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha reborn as Susan, Lynette, Bree and Gabrielle.



It’s the same deal, really: four female friends who are far more bound up with each other than they are with the amazingly dull guys they date, marry and pursue. All that’s changed is the situation and the morality. Unfortunately that’s a big “all.” Seldom has a show been so hip and so reactionary at the same time.



Sitting around Toronto these days, watching all the coupling, careering and cocooning that goes on, I sometimes feel as if I’ve been time-warped back to the 1950s. Watching Housewives I know it.



It’s not just that the wives are having way less sex than their single counterparts, or that there are no homos, or that the series’ sole slutty character, the Samantha- reincarnation known as Edie, is now a rank outsider, or even that adultery is greeted with a rather large degree of, shall we say, ambivalence. It’s the tone of the whole thing, the weird mixture of satire and nostalgia. Housewives wants you to know that upper-middle-class suburbia isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – and that it’s a pretty nice place to live.



Housewives, created and executive produced by a gay man, mocks traditional family life mercilessly. “Families should always hug,” says a predatory mother-in-law catching her reluctant daughter-in-law in a savage embrace. “No matter what they feel about each other.”



But beneath the knife-edge satire, there’s an astonishing nostalgia for a world that never was, or at least hasn’t been for at least 50 years. All four of these women are home during the day and none of them seems to worry about money. Even the single mom doesn’t and she has a daughter to support and no visible source of income.



But at the same time their lives are riddled with terror. The series is only 10 episodes old and already we’ve had one murder, a suicide, a hit-and-run and loads of seething frustration not to mention a wife who turns tricks in the afternoon. This is the stuff of every afternoon soap, but here the horror is woven into the gloss of the show, as much a part of its allure as fashion was on Sex And The City. Nobody mentions suicide bombings or genocide, but nobody has to. Here the terror lurks next door, possibly as close as the bottom of the neighbour’s swimming pool.



Gone is the giddy innocence of Sex And The City. The two shows are structured the same way, with a narrator delivering explicit talks on the theme of each episode. But the themes are quite different. Gone are Carrie’s meditations on love, marriage and singledom. In their place are thoughts on trust, competition and betrayal sprung from the mouth of a suicide. (Really. Housewives’ narrator is a dead woman.)



In short, Housewives seems to be channelling all the fears and anxieties of the post-9/11 world, both the nostalgia for a kinder simpler time and the simultaneous fear that there is no such place, not even at home. It’s like taking a trip back to the ’50s hoping for Leave It Beaver and finding yourself in front of the McCarthy hearings instead.



Housewives isn’t the only show channelling contemporary paranoia. Over at Lost, the season’s other big hit, you have a group of beautiful people stranded on a stunning tropical island and what do they do on their island paradise? Well, mostly they worry. Worry about weird fears and uncertain threats and the fact that they are not alone. It’s like one of those B-grade thrillers from the ’50s where the visitors from another planet were a stand-in for the Russians except that here the threats are even more amorphous, everything from giant polar bears to a unknown disease that wiped out another group of castaways to a glum stand-in for the devil who, in a weird South Park kind of joke, claims to be from Ontario. Now that’s channelling the paranoia: “This just in, folks: Terrorist hordes streamed across the Peace Bridge today, destroying downtown Buffalo.”



If you’re scared of Ontario, you’re scared of everything.



And in both Lost and Housewives, people really are. When Lynette starts to worry about her ultra perky new nanny, her friend Bree – a Martha Stewart nightmare in a prim-necked blouse – tells her not to trust anyone. Lynette obeys and gets a nanny cam, which she installs in a cookie jar.



Needless to say, Housewives is very funny and very sharp, as sharp as one of Bree’s killer smiles. That’s what has made the show one of the few bona fide hits of the new TV season. That and the fact that it allows you to indulge the truly guilty pleasure of wishing you were a ’50s-style housewife.