How Will We Remember ‘Desperate Housewives?’

With the news that this will be the last season for Desperate Housewives, not particularly surprising news (the ratings have been decent but soft, and a show like this is very expensive to produce the longer it goes on) we lose another member of the near-legendary class of 2004-5, the season that is sometimes considered the last great season for broadcast TV hour-long drama. ABC turned itself around in 2004-5 with three new dramas, Desperate Housewives, Lost and Grey’s Anatomy, and pretty much lived off those shows for the rest of the decade. (Boston Legal also premiered that season.) Fox finally came up with its own answer to the CSI-style procedural in House. UPN, which still existed at the time, debuted Veronica Mars.

ABC’s two big fall 2004 dramas, Desperate Housewives and Lost, both started big and maintained their popularity for quite some time, but they followed somewhat different trajectories. Lost lost some viewers as it got harder to follow, but actually increased its pop-cultural impact as it went on: networks are still trying to find a new Lost, a show that will draw big audiences while getting people arguing over what comes next the way cable dramas routinely do. Desperate Housewives had most of its impact in its first season, and hasn’t had the kind of influence Lost did: there have been a few attempts at reviving the prime-time soap in its wake, and ABC did at least one successful show (Ugly Betty) that found a similar mixture of soap and camp. But the disappointing second season really seemed to turn Desperate Housewives from a huge, influential show into one that had a lot of viewers but not a lot of cultural currency. Lots of people still watched it, though the second season drove away a chunk of its audience. But it never got back to where it was in 2004-5.

That first season, though, was an impressive achievement. It was almost like another ABC hit that started huge and burned out quick, Batman: it worked on two levels, as a drama and a send-up of its own dramatic genre, and could appeal to multiple audiences in multiple ways. (Like Batman and still another ABC show, The Greatest American Hero, Desperate Housewives entered itself in the comedy category for the Emmys.) It’s a hard tone to maintain, and the second season couldn’t manage it. While the show managed to survive and keep its audience by going “back to basics” and bringing back some of the first season’s style, but it couldn’t get back the freshness of the approach; that was over. It could be entertaining, though, and was a repository for some types of comedy that were no longer fashionable in sitcoms: Joe Keenan, no longer getting much half-hour work after Out of Practice was canceled, brought some of his theatrical wit to Desperate Housewives from the third season on.

I sometimes have a feeling Desperate Housewives could wind up being remembered more fondly than we think, because shows where the first season was the best often have an innate advantage: the first season is usually the first one people watch when they’re checking the show out in other media (DVDs, Netflix, other forms yet to be seen), so a show where the first season was already great (say, Cheers) has a big leg up over a show that took a year or two to really find itself. Housewives could wind up being represented in more people’s minds by the season that represents it most favourably.

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