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Wednesday, November 23, 2005

'Desperate' Times

The complete first season of Desperate Housewives is now out on DVD and is sure to be found under more than one Christmas tree this year. After a phenomenally successful first year, the inevitable backlash seems to have started in the US, as the second series continues to underwhelm critics and audiences.

Whilst the show’s creative merits are now under scrutiny, this first series played an interesting role in the culture wars that surfaced during last year’s presidential election. When this show launched in September 2004, America was in the midst of a nasty, bitterly-contested presidential election. ‘Family values’ and moral virtue dominated the “debate” about who was fit to lead the nation – Bush or Kerry.

No doubt looking to ride on someone else’s success, Laura Bush professed herself an avid fan of the show. The First Lady is without a doubt the most popular person in the Bush White House but her critics couldn’t help but smile at the irony of Laura counting herself amongst the show’s fans. To them, she resembles Marcia Cross' character Bree Van der Kamp: the ultimate Stepford Wife, all smiling and perfectly coiffed, with no agenda or ambitions beyond raising her family, gazing adoringly at her husband and defending the Bush policies, no matter how catastrophic and ill-planned they are. Indeed, her recent astronomical approval ratings across the whole political spectrum speaks volumes about what some Americans believe is the appropriate and desirable role for women, mothers and wives in America today.

Desperate Housewives’ dark, irreverent and caustic look at the ultimate suburban manifestation of the American Dream is remarkable considering the cultural climate in which it was being produced. Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US has swung more and more to the right, as evidenced by the decisive endorsement of George W. Bush in last years’ election. The political and social vision espoused by the Christian fundamentalists that have such a powerful voice in the Bush White House appeals to vast numbers of people in a traumatised nation, that was attacked so viciously for reasons that few understand and has since been existing in a world where fear and uncertainty pervade all aspects of life.

This fear and uncertainty has found expression – some would say opportunistic exploitation – in the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence and in the passing of new laws and regulations that curtail more and more freedoms. In such a climate, where all the comfortable certainties of the post-Cold War Clinton Era are suddenly gone, increasing numbers of Americans have consciously returned to the basic fundamentals that they feel they can control: namely family, morals and their religion. Whilst nearly everyone on both sides of the political and cultural divide have recognised and embraced the importance of family and the return to their faith, some have been more enthusiastic and fervent than others – and it so happens that these are the ones that have the conducive ear of the President and the powers that be.

Many believe that the liberalism of the 1990s has incurred the wrath of God and that America is being punished for the Clintonian support of gay rights, a woman’s right to choose and increased secularism in all aspects of American life. The sex scandals that plagued the Clinton Presidency, whilst largely dismissed as partisan attacks and jokes in Europe, were and are viewed with extreme distaste in the States. Many Americans are happy in the knowledge that such a thing would never happen in the Bush White House – although the Iraq war and the CIA leak scandal (amongst other dishonours) has shown us that far more serious cheating and deception is taking place there.

Be that as it may, a puritanical streak has entered the cultural life of the US and has installed an unofficial set of moral guidelines for what is acceptable viewing in this new, ‘cleaned-up’ America. Janet Jackson’s infamous ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the 2004 Superbowl had the country up in arms and incurred record fines for the networks. Suddenly all networks were cleansing their shows and broadcasts of all swearing and gratuitous nudity and violence, even when it’s an integral part of the show’s story, like in hospital drama ER. Even Steven Spielberg’s WWII epic Saving Private Ryan had to have vast portions of its violence edited out in order to be screened on NBC – surely the most extreme move yet in the censorious climate of Bush’s America. (Censoring bloody scenes of war on US screens? Not in Bushworld, surely?!)

The show is a fantastic example of the contradictory attitudes towards sex that is an essential component of American society. Sex has always been treated as a double standard in the US: it’s used to sell everything but there will be hell to pay if it’s mentioned or displayed on screens. This is a country where the modern precedent for a Presidential high crime and misdemeanour is lying about a blowjob – but not lying about the reasons for sending US troops into battle!

That attitude was in evidence in one advert used by the shows’ makers. A cheeky (!) promo for Desperate Housewives, that also served as a crossover ad for Monday Night Football, featured the outrageous Edie walking into the changing room of a football team and disrobing in front of an African-American player.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) immediately initiated an investigation into the ad and slapped Housewives’ network ABC on the knuckles. ‘Family-oriented’ companies such as Kellogs, Tyson Foods and Lowes pulled their advertising contracts from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney), after intense lobbying from the American Family Association, a self-proclaimed “traditional values” group.

But, proving that there really is no such thing as bad publicity, advertisers have been spurting Hydra-like as soon as others have pulled out. What’s more, a 30 second ad for the show now costs $300, 000 - more than double the original price than when the ad slots were originally sold in May 2004. On top of that, the show continued to draw in weekly audiences averaging at 25 million. Over 30 million Americans watched the last episode of the series – which is nearly the same amount of viewers who tuned into the last ever episode of Everybody Loves Raymond. Raymond had been on for nine years and had built up huge critical and popular support. It’s remarkable for any show to trump an established series like that in its first season. (Ray got the last laugh though by beating the Housewives to the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in September).

In addition to its cultural impact, the show also threw a lifeline to struggling TV execs. ABC was the big TV winner of last year, possibly even of the new century so far, having launched Housewives and Lost to huge global success. With the demise of television behemoths like Friends, Sex and the City and Frasier, and with an all too pervasive network trend towards legal/police dramas and mind-numbing reality TV shows, it was feared that no new series could attract massive audiences and capture the imagination of viewers at the same time. These two shows tapped into the formula that keeps modern viewers hooked: mysteries, gimmicks, cliff-hangers, sex, sensationalism, the creation of a sense of an event, the ‘must-see’/’water-cooler’ factor.

So before the second series arrives on these shores along with the backlash, keep in mind the role this show played in cultural debate in the US, if only for a little while. Any show that subverts or slyly attacks the notion of the American family deserves credit for getting away with that. The alternative is the so-unbelievably-hilariously-nauseatingly-awful-that-it-must-surely-be-a-joke Seventh Heaven so thank your lucky stars!


Dave said...

"But, proving that there really is no such thing as bad publicity, advertisers have been spurting Hydra-like as soon as others have pulled out."

-that is such a great line.

Seán Kenny said...

All this post-9/11 'wave bye bye to your civil liberties' insanity has spread here too; why the hell do we have to take our shoes off in Dublin airport?