Hail The Motherland

Splendor in the grass: Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) and her gardener (Kyle Searles) smell the sweet nectar of human affection
Desperate Housewives
8:00 p.m. Sundays

Was anyone actually panting for a Teri Hatcher career renaissance? I assumed Hatcher had bulldozed any residual Lois and Clark goodwill by appearing in those asstastic Radio Shack commercials with Howie Long. God, it was like watching the lizard baby from V trade quips with a CPR dummy. Now Hatcher has a new show, Desperate Housewives, which aims to fill the yawning void left by Sex and the City.

It may seem preposterous to draw parallels between a network soap about starched suburban mommies and a cable soap about Cointreau-swilling libertines. But then, is that comparison any more absurd than the idea that real suburban mommies sitting on their stained couches would ever identify with their more promiscuous city sisters? Watching Desperate Housewives, in fact, is like seeing what would happen if Carrie and the gang settled down in Connecticut only to see their lives take a sharp turn into the suburban gothic.

Suburban gothic, you say? Picket Fences fans, welcome home: On Housewives, the omniscient narrator, Mary Alice (Brenda Strong), is dead. Her recent mysterious suicide is the talk of Wisteria Lane, the upper-class street that's home to a clique of attractive, desultory wives and mothers whose secrets are far juicier than average.

There's Bree (Marcia Cross, whom you totally remember from Melrose Place), an immaculate Stepford wife with a drape of Rita Hayworth hair. She's having marital difficulties, but can't stop fixating on her clockwork household. There's Lynette (Felicity Huffman), harried mother of four children under age six. (Have you noticed that red-haired kids are always cast when the role calls for "obnoxious"? I'm calling for reform.) There's single mom Susan (Teri Hatcher), who is fallible but likeable and angling for a man. There's the requisite blond gold digger Edie (Nicolette Sheridan), whose palatial house has recently burned down; she's unaware for now that Susan was the accidental arsonist. Finally, there's gorgeous Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), a kept woman who wears leopard-print headscarves and boinks her teenage gardener. (That is, until his offering of a single rose is trumped by her hubby's gift of a gleaming convertible. New wheels beat genuine sentiment any day.)

It all seems relatively fluffy, except that Mary Alice appears to have offed herself over a horrible secret, Mary Alice's bereaved husband makes a creepy late-night trip to fling a trunk into the lake, and Susan's hunky, seemingly benign new neighbor is lurking into the role of Resident Psycho. The first few episodes have delivered enough spookiness to give Housewives an edge, but not too much to detract from the pretty art direction and domestic subplots.

Though we're meant to identify with Susan to some extent, the show doesn't force any particular allegiance. Bree seems villainous, almost alien, in the first episode, but by the second we find ourselves admiring her mastery of home and hearth. (Even Bree's marriage counselor champions her cause once she mends his blazer.) Lynette might seem like a harridan, but one can't help but secretly cheer when she punches her clueless husband or dumps her kids on the side of a road.

Perhaps the best aspect of Desperate Housewives is its note-perfect depiction of a suburb suspended in the Populuxe era like a marshmallow in a crystal bowl of Jell-O salad. Sure, there are still upscale communities with a retro aesthetic, but Wisteria Lane is meant to feel like fantasy. Every detail is spot-on, from Bree's pristine outfits to the Pyrex measuring cup that Susan accidentally leaves amid the charred remains of Edie's house. This is a pastel wasteland that's subtle enough to remain identifiable: There's a tablespoon of American Beauty for every teaspoon of Edward Scissorhands.

One wonders if the show can follow up on the promise of its addictively bittersweet first episodes without overcooking the plot. If the writers can pull off that coup, this quirky new show could be better than Sex.

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