'Desperate Housewives' Thriving With Truthful Portraits

ABC’s white-hot “Desperate Housewives” has been deservedly praised as a worthy successor to “Sex and the City” for the way it presents a view of modern American womanhood through the prism of four different archetypes.

There’s Lynette (Felicity Huffman), the corporate career woman-turned-mom (times four) who still pines for the business section of the newspaper; Susan (Teri Hatcher) the wife and mother who never lost her figure but still lost her husband to a younger woman after 14 years of marriage; Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), the model who chucked the glamour of the catwalk and photo shoots for a rich husband and big house in the suburbs; and Bree (Marcia Cross), the happy homemaker with a pasted-on smile whose life is crumbling inside her spotless house.

But in many ways, “Housewives” is just as much a dissection of the state of marriage in a stressed-out age, and the warts-and-all portrait it paints is richly textured. None of the characters and none of the relationships, even the legally divorced ones, is totally fabulous or entirely horrible. The zeitgeist-capturing writing on “Housewives” was demonstrated nicely in the dinner-party scene in the Oct. 17 episode, “Pretty Little Picture.”

It’s a scene that will be remembered for some time to come for the line, “Rex cries when he ejaculates,” delivered with daggers by Bree to her table of guests. But the real power of the moment derives from how well the writer of the episode, Oliver Goldstick, and director Arlene Sanford set the stage of Bree’s moment of vindictiveness toward her husband by sketching out in the preceding 30 minutes just how she and Rex got to that point.

The drama in “Housewives,” which owes more than a little of its look and feel to 1999’s Oscar-winning saga “American Beauty,” turns gracefully on a dime thanks in large part to its talented ensemble cast. And that cast is to be commended for being brave enough to lay off the soft focus and pancake makeup. When Susan and Lynette are having bad days, their faces look appropriately haggard. That’s a refreshing change from many of the hard-as-steel superwomen found in primetime these days.

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