Here is a true programming phenomenon: an out-of-the-blue oddball formula that premieres and shoots right to the top of the ratings charts.
It has none of the tried-and-true (translate tedious and mind-numbing) formulae--not a procedural, not a sitcom, not a drama, no cops, doctors, lawyers or mafioso. It's about a group of women, but it's not Baywatch. These women are, after all, older desperate housewives. What's going on here?
What we have here is a very clever translation of the work of one of our great film makers adapted for the small screen. Without question, the inspiration for Desperate Housewives is Tim Burton's film Edward Scissorhands. Think about it for a minute. Take Edward (Johnny Depp) and his Maker out of Edward Scissorhands, and you have Wisteria Lane. Far out? No way.
The most important giveaway is that the theme music is by the very great Danny Elfman, and the episodic underscoring is by the superb Steve Jablonsky writing in Danny Elfmanesque Lydian mode.
For those of you non-film or music geeks, Elfman scored the Spiderman movies, the Batman movies, all of Tim Burton's movies, the theme music of The Simpsons, the Men in Black films, and lots more. Elfman is one of the world's greatest living symphonic composers. Comparing his body of work thus far to John Williams, for example, composer of George Lucas' films and many Spielberg films, Elfman stands musically on a level above. Jablonsky's underscoring, replete with pizzicatto violin string-plucking and other Elfman-like touches, in the Lydian mode (which as musicians explain to me simply means that the do-re-me scale as played on the piano is altered so that the fa is not played on the black key, but the white), creates a deeply emotional impact, in the case of Desperate Housewives, a feeling of darkly comic secrets and ironic story turns.
The essence that Tim Burton, and Desperate Housewives, draws from Elfman, whom some of you may remember as the leader of the group Oingo Boingo, is that of a slightly oddball world.
This is one of the primary keys to the show's success.
Then there are the narrations that run through each episode. Have you thought about these voice over interludes? They're hardly typical of episodic television. And they're written in a very deliberate style--designed to make the viewer feel like a voyeur--and they're delivered in a semi-whisper--really soto voce--that evoke another archetypal form every one of us knows intimately: the comic book. These voice overs are the words in the boxes at the top of the frames of every comic book.
These are the elements that account for the success of Desperate Housewives, period.
The rest of it is mediocre soap opera, modestly written and acted like a daytime soap.
In fact, the show has enough flaws that it will become a passing phenomenon unless the flaws are soon corrected.
The men on the show, with the single exception of Doug Savant, are terrible actors who all look alike, and they look like potato-faces. Here you have a group of seemingly interesting women going ga-ga over some of the least attractive men of prime time TV.
And the desperate housewives themselves? Of course Teri Hatcher is the star. She is the only one who is genuinely pretty, as millions of men have known for decades. Marcia Cross, like Savant a graduate of Melrose Place, I find so hard to look at I usually look away when she's in close-up. She looks like an alien. Everybody else is nothing.
And with plots like mothers playing detective and sons running them over and driving off, this show is going to be in serious trouble once the novelty wears off.
Is Desperate Housewives a 10 year biggie? Never. Too bad for ABC. It's a very clever combination of audience-proven ideas that look fresh. But to keep the show alive for perhaps two more seasons, there need to be cast changes and some more intriguiging plots.
Imagine watching the opening credits of Spiderman...the names appearing over the web spun over a black background, the rousing brilliance of Elfman's score, and then Peter Parker gets bit, and the rest of the movie is about him falling over fences trying to peek into the window to see Kirsten Dunst nude. Except it's easy to climb over the fence.
Have fun watching while it feels fresh--Desperate Housewives is going to be a flash-in-the-pan unless they prevent it from becoming a redundant bore by bringing in better writers and some serious male actors.