VITAGLIANO | AFA Journal News Editor
It is a phenomenon in its own right, like other hugely popular
television shows that seem to strike from out of nowhere like a
bolt of lightning.
The new comedy/drama Desperate Housewives, which airs Sunday
nights on Disney-owned ABC, attracts almost 23 million viewers a
week making it the second most popular show on network TV
behind CSI (CBS). At this years Golden Globes, Desperate
Housewives won the award for best TV comedy after just
its first half season.
According to a cover story by Newsweeks Marc Peyser
and David J. Jefferson, it is "the juiciest show to hit TV in years."
It has, they noted, hit the top five in television ratings faster
than any new drama since NBCs ER debuted in 1994.
And in true Hollywood style, one television executive told Newsweek
that viewers can expect an "attack of the clones," as copycat
dramas are already being circulated in an attempt to mimic the success
of Desperate Housewives.
What does the success of Desperate Housewives tell us about
the state of our culture, and what notes should the church be taking?
Wisteria Lane is the fictional suburban
setting for the ABC hit, and the series focuses on five housewives
and the various family members, friends and neighbors in their lives.
Marc Cherry, the shows openly homosexual creator, writer
and executive producer, told Newsweek, "All these women have
made some kind of choice in their lives and are in various stages
of regretting it. Thats where the desperation comes from."
There is certainly plenty of desperation on Wisteria Lane. One
of the five housewives, Mary Alice, commits suicide in the first
episode and becomes the narrator who periodically frames the story
The other four wives also have problems of their own. Lynette is
a one-time business-world wiz-kid turned homemaker stuck in the
house with wild, out-of-control sons; Gabrielle is cheating on her
wealthy husband, having an affair with the high school boy who mows
their lawn; Susan is raising her teenage daughter alone, after her
husband Carl divorced her for a younger woman; and Bree is a perfectionist
who deceives herself into thinking her marriage to husband Rex is
Desperate Housewives is cleverly written with crisp pacing
and compelling story lines sometimes bordering on being downright
suspenseful. It is often funny, and the acting across the board
is top notch, allowing the often pathetic plight of some of the
shows characters to elicit sympathy from the viewer. The housewives,
with the probable exception of Gabrielle, are likable, although
What many critics of the show will probably point to, however,
is the amount of sex. And make no mistake, there is plenty of that.
Beyond the fact that all of the housewives are attractive, as author
Myrna Blyth, former editor of Ladies Home Journal, points
out, "[A]t least once an episode one of the housewives manages to
turn up in Victorias Secret underwear."
There is the seemingly required club scene, complete with gyrating,
minimally-clad dancers; wives seducing their husbands; a prostitute
who services a straying husband, Rex, who has a fancy for bondage;
the fornication between Susan and handsome, single neighbor Mike;
and the adultery between Gabrielle and John. All of this sex makes
Desperate Housewives a steamy hour of television.
It is precisely the shows
sex quotient that has piqued the interest of some culture critics,
who see a bit of irony here. As they see it, the big fans of Desperate
Housewives and shows like it apparently include
many of the voters in the "red states" that reelected President
George Bush. That is, the so-called "values voters."
A couple of weeks after the election, for example, New York Times
media reporter Bill Carter wrote a column following his interviews
with TV executives, and basically charged values voters with hypocrisy:
"Many who voted for values still like their television
sin," he said in the title of his piece.
Carter wrote: "So if it is true that the publics electoral
choices are a cry for more morally driven programming,
are so many people, even in the markets surrounding the Bush bastions
of Atlanta and Salt Lake City, watching a sex-drenched television
drama [like Desperate Housewives]?"
Why so many, indeed? Blyth, who admitted that she was "hooked"
on the show, praised its entertainment value for women. "Now weekends
are more frantic than ever, especially for families with kids,"
she wrote in National Review. "After two days of ferrying
children to soccer games and ice-skating lessons, attending church,
cooking Sunday dinner for grandparents, and overseeing the homework
that never gets done till just before bed on Sunday night, moms
all over the country are collapsing on the couch, grateful for a
fix of gloriously entertaining chick-TV." (Emphasis added.)
Could it be true that, as Blyth asserts, churchgoing women across
America are watching Desperate Housewives? Doesnt she
think it strange that Christian women would spend their Sunday nights
watching a series in which illicit sex, betrayal and murder are
As Carter explained, "The divide between what people accept as
proper in public and what they choose to enjoy in their private
lives is, unsurprisingly, nothing new in the history of the world
or this country."
Or, perhaps, in the church.
power of culture
Whether or not Christians are a significant
part of the Desperate Housewives bandwagon, there can be
no doubt that the moral worldview that flows through the pale blue
tube in the living room and out of the other varied spigots
of the entertainment industry is having a tremendous impact
on our culture.
In fact, some believe the Desperate Housewives et al.
of network TV and cable will ultimately carry the day. New York
Times columnist Frank Rich has made no secret of his loathing
for the evangelical community and its ideals. Rich believes that
it is the much more libertarian beliefs of the "blue states"
those which voted for John Kerry that are taking hold throughout
"Everything about the election results and about American
culture itself confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerrys
defeat notwithstanding," Rich said."Its blue America, not
red, that is inexorably winning the culture war, and by a landslide."
In terms of entertainment, Rich said, "Excess and vulgarity, as
always, enjoy a vast, bipartisan constituency, and in a democracy
no political party will ever stamp them out."
Despite the fact that Richs argument inadvertently pairs
"blue America" with "excess and vulgarity," our culture does seem
to be trending away from traditional morality perhaps even
speeding away from it.
In an essay for Time, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at
The New Republic, pointed to the current popularity of such
"gay"-friendly television hits as Will & Grace and Queer
Eye for the Straight Guy, which demonstrate the increasing acceptability
of that lifestyle. The general populations collective "shrug
of the shoulders" concerning homosexuality is a monumental change
in cultural attitudes in just over a decade-and-a-half.
Social conservatives, Cottle said, "cannot escape the worldview
of blue staters. Every time they go to the movies or turn on the
television or open their childs school books, theyre
reminded that traditional values aint what they used to be."
Thus the victory attributed to values voters in the 2004 election
may have been only a temporary setback for "blue" culture. In getting
Bush reelected, Cottle said the cultural conservatives "may have
won the battle, but their prospects for the broader culture war
Marking the difference between the competing moral perspectives
in even more stark fashion, columnist Katha Pollitt said in The
Nation that "in the long run equality and tolerance and liberal
sexual mores will win out over repressive Christian moral
Gospel or nothing
It would be a mistake, however, to say
that Desperate Housewives is without a moral compass. While
sex is constantly exploited by the show, there is a form of morality
expressed in the interplay of the characters.
For example, Edie, a sexpot divorcee who also lives on Wisteria
Lane, is plainly portrayed as the neighborhood slut. The adulterous
relationships of Gabrielle, Carl and Rex are all likewise presented
in a negative light.
Blyth even finds a moral lesson in the name of the street on which
Desperate Housewives characters live: Wisteria Lane.
"A wisteria, by the way, is a pretty vine, though also a creeper
that can take over and ultimately kill a garden. Get the symbolism?"
But morality has never been mankinds problem. All cultures
have maintained some sort of moral foundations or they have
America is no exception, and Desperate Housewives provides
a glimpse into our nations prevailing view of good and evil.
For example, goodness is defined in a scene where Paul, the surviving
husband of Mary Alice, has hired a private investigator to discover
who is threatening to blackmail him over some dark deed committed
in the past. He explains to the man: "Before my wife shot herself,
we lived a life that I was proud of. We loved each other, we had
values, we went to church. We gave to charity. We were good people,
Good people. They are defined as people who love their family,
have values, go to church, and help in the community. In other words,
humanism. This is a moral worldview built on human effort, on man-made
standards of right and wrong. It is the morality of postmodernism,
with its easygoing relativism, its malleable standards of conduct,
and its squishy spiritual beliefs.
Of course, the church is supposed to be about the business of preaching
the Gospel, which casts to the earth all humanistic morality, and
views good deeds as nothing more than putting a veneer of rouge
and lipstick on a corpse. We are sinners in need of a Savior. Period.
There are no "good people."
So the truth of the matter is that the success of Desperate
Housewives and shows like it demonstrate that
America is, in fact, a desperate nation. It just doesnt know
it yet. It is up to the church to give the culture the sad prognosis,
and then present it with the cure.
Thus we find the church in America on the verge of her most glorious
hour or her most ignominious defeat. Either she will preach
the true Gospel and strike at the roots of the postmodern tree bearing
such bitter fruit, or she will abdicate her calling and sit in the
recliner, remote in hand, imbibing the same swill as those trapped
A desperate nation watches and awaits her decision.