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by ED 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 year’s Golden Globes, Desperate Housewives won the award for best TV comedy – after just its first half season.

According to a cover story by Newsweek’s 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 NBC’s 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?

The sexed-up suburbs
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 show’s 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. That’s 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 lines.

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 going well.

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 show’s characters to elicit sympathy from the viewer. The housewives, with the probable exception of Gabrielle, are likable, although obviously flawed.

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 Victoria’s 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.

‘Values voter’ hypocrisy?
It is precisely the show’s 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 public’s electoral choices are a cry for more morally driven programming, … why 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? Doesn’t she think it strange that Christian women would spend their Sunday nights watching a series in which illicit sex, betrayal and murder are simple entertainment?

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.

The 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 the culture.

"Everything about the election results – and about American culture itself – confirms an inescapable reality: John Kerry’s defeat notwithstanding," Rich said."It’s 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 Rich’s 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 population’s 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 child’s school books, they’re reminded that traditional values ain’t 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 remain dim."

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 values.’"

The 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?" she said.

But morality has never been mankind’s problem. All cultures have maintained some sort of moral foundations – or they have perished.

America is no exception, and Desperate Housewives provides a glimpse into our nation’s 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, Mr. Shaw."

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 doesn’t 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 in darkness.

A desperate nation watches and awaits her decision.