Sunday, May 29, 2005

TV: Desperate Houswives or Charmed, who's got the more encompassing view of women?

Bored and boring housewives versus three witches? Which show is more realistic?

For those who aren't aware Desperate Housewives mhas generated a lot of favorable jaw flapping. It's been discussed (in water cooler terms) everywhere.

Having never seen the show, we haven't wasted anyone's time (or common sense) in praise of the show. But when we decided to do two reviews to make up for no review last edition (we appreciate all the e-mails that came in saying how much you missed the TV review), we
wanted to get them out of the way early and since people had been e-mailing about Desperate Housewives, we figured we could grab that and Charmed -- both of which were airing their season enders last Sunday.

Desperate Housewives wants so hard to be trendy. (Maybe as much as the jaw boning trendies want it to be trendy.) But it's nothing but a Republican idea of trendy which a friend summarized best on Saturday afternoon when she stated it thusly: Jump on the latest trend, committ whole heartedly to it and when it passes act like you were never into it.

No surprise, the creator is a Republican. First off, let's dispense with the jaw boners idea that he had anything to do with the success of The Golden Girls. For the record that sitcom ran from 1985 until 1992. Marc Cherry was a writer starting in 1990 when the show was running on fumes. (And those who remember the final year know how obvious and unfunny it became.) He was one of at least eleven writers while the show was on it's last legs. He didn't create the show (Susan Harris did) and he didn't enliven it. One could argue that, as with Social Security, all that happened was a Republican came along to try and destroy it.

He'd save his real damage for Golden Palace, the hideous spin-off of The Golden Girls that was a minor blip on TV screens. As one of two writers (and a producer) give him full credit for that disaster which lasted twenty-three episodes but don't allow him to leech off the work of others and claim he's somehow responsible for the success of The Golden Girls. (Susan Harris wisely avoided the TV Titanic that was Golden Palace.)

From there he went on to write and produce other single season shows such as the Friends rip-off entitled The Crew. So let's stop acting like he's got this amazing talent. His only real talent appears to be grasping that the time was ripe for a Peyton Place rip-off.

Hearing people speak of how "daring" this show is or that "even with infidelity it's popular in 'red' states," shocks us. It's a preachy, small minded, moralistic show. The actresses do the best they can, some fair better than others, but it's for the small minded set that loves the scandal in a small town shock (only now we dub it "suburbia" instead of "small town").

The show lacks a Mia Farrow or Ryan O'Neal to keep you riveted. It doesn't even have a Barbara Parkins which is surprising because Nicolette Sherridan used to be so much fun on Knots Landing. Here your jaw may not drop the way it did when she showed up on Will & Grace (looking like a truck had run over her face) but you won't see anything approaching the playfulness she utilized as Paige on Knots Landing. She seems to think she's graduated to Donna Mills territory. She hasn't. (Her character's more like Laura in the pre-Donna Mills Knots Landing -- someone who's supposed to shock you but instead just leaves you bored.)

Terri Hatcher is back on TV. We'll applaud that. Hatcher's probably never going to be a great dramatist or comedian but she has a likeability that shouldn't be overlooked. As an actress, she works best in the Grand Marshall role. Don't give her any heavy lifting, let her just be the centerpiece and warm America's heart. Even the bad writing of the season ender allowed Hatcher to do that.

Marcia Cross would love to put forth the icy glamor of Grace Kelly (or even Kim Novak), instead she continues to come off like Patty Hearst. Which leaves us with Eva Longoria who may be the only strong actress of the cast. (Alfre Woodard joined the cast in the episode we watched. Woodard is a strong actress. So why was she utilized about as well as Diahann Carroll on Dynasty?)

This is a soap opera and Longoria's talents may only be suited for that genre but there's no denying that she's the only reason to give a damn about this dumb show. Eyes darting here and there, registering a small, semi-hidden smile, she never lets the audience down as she remains fully committed to her character.

Sparks were apparently supposed to fly when Hatcher refused to let Sheridan into her home (more on that in a bit). They didn't fly unless your idea of sparks is hearing Sheridan hiss "bitch!" The scene wouldn't have worked as part of a subplot on Dynasty. And despite the large number of camp lovers watching this show, it's not Dynasty. The women are akin to the women of Dallas. They're little things to be petted on the head. (Longoria has the Sue Ellen role, how long before her character Gabrielle is "cut down to size" the way Sue Ellen so often was? We're sure it's in the works.)

A show with many female leads might be expected to actually have them be movers and shakers. Other than sexually (and even then . . .), they're not. They're reactors. The season finale played like one long reaction shot. (Overly long.)

Let's talk about what led up to the "amusing" exchange between Sheridan and Hatcher.
A young male, apparently unhinged, shows up and holds Hatcher prisoner of her own home.
(Oh how many Republican males got off on that!) This would have been insulting on Dallas (where women truly did nothing) but after Melrose Place, it's downright irritating. Amanda wouldn't have put up with that crap, she would have shoved a knife in his face, threatened to kill him and hiss that she'd plead insanity as her self-defense. (In fact, Amanda did just that on one episode of Melrose Place.) We certainly can't picture earthy Jo just sitting around her home as she was terrorized. Not even the on-the-wagon-and-off-again Allison would have been that lame.

But here we are, post-Melorse, with time suspended as Hatcher plays the victim. (To steal from Addams Family Values: "all your life.") What a rare china doll Hatcher's Susan is.

A lot of talk is wasted on the "irony" of the show. Apparently the term didn't, in fact, die post-Sept. 11th; only the meaning did. This isn't irony, this is a throwback.

Why is it popular? Here's a secret the reviewers never seem to note. Women have been vanishing as TV viewers since the eighties. Network executives don't want to cater to them, which is why you get so much male bonding crap each fall. But even a bad show with women can do well. It's weird because when you think of all the rip-offs a Miaimi Vice or some other male dominated show will inspire, note that there's never a cry of "Murder She Wrote is a surprise hit this year, so I want five versions of it pronto with female leads!" Or Murphy Brown. Or Designing Women. Or The Nanny. Go down the list. A male dominated show that's a hit is aped repeatedly as everyone try to cash in on the cycle. Female dominated shows that are hits exist in a vacuum.

In fact, the actual reality is that a female show is far more likely (as with Designing Women and Cagney & Lacey) to have to depend on a write-in campaign from viewers to keep it on the air when similar rated shows with male leads rarely see the same struggle. If Joey, which destroyed Thursday nights for NBC, were Phoebe and having the same ratings problems, it would probably mean bye-bye Lisa Kudrow. Instead Joey's returning this fall. Look at NBC's fall line up. While boasting male stars like Benjamin Bratt, Dennis Hopper and Jason Lee, the best they can offer for women is Martha Stewart and Amy Grant. These are female stars?

So let's be really clear, the TV backlash that Susan Faludi addressed in Backlash hasn't gone away. Desperate Housewives easily fits into the Backlash category. The women exist in John Updike-land where jobs, when had, are hobbies. They await something to be done to them unless they're actual actors in their own stories but the only acting they're allowed is sexually acting out. This is a miserable show. It's badly acted, it's badly written and it actually looks ugly. The lighting and camera work features none of the glamor of Melrose Place or Dynasty.
(It's as though it's shot on videotape -- which it may well be. And Sheridan -- what happened to her? -- really needs a lot of care to be taken when she's being filmed.)

Besides allowing Hatcher to play woman-in-peril (physically, she looked to us like she could have smashed the young psycho to bits), the season ender also informed us of the "big secret" everyone's been wondering all year long. Why did Mary Alice die?

Well, apparently she took in a child from a drug addict and when the drug addict cleaned up her act and wanted her son back, she killed the woman. That's the deep dark secret. Watching, you're meant to side with Mary Alice. Apparently, it's a class thing. (Losing Isaiah explored the same topic in a much more complex manner.)

What about the men? Other than young Jesse Metcalfe, there's not a looker in the bunch. When Doug Savant is being brought back to TV (Matt from Melrose Place) you know you're in trouble. A great deal of time was wasted by this supposed female dominated show with shots of Jamie Denton and who we think was Steven Culp in the desert. And of course, young psycho.
Again, not a looker in the bunch other than Metcalfe. These are your typical TV males.

The show was a hit this year. We'd argue that the soap format is always popular. (Even Titans did better than Ed on NBC in the ratings though Ed was allowed to live on and whine on for additional seasons.) For those not interested in the body-wash of the WB and Fox (body-wash because the cast is so young it's hard to qualify them as "soap operas"), Desperate Housewives gave them something to watch on what's been a dead TV night for years. Then the chatter started on how great this show was. It's not. It's like watching a young kid play Barbies. That's all the actresses are.

So what was Charmed like? Neither of us have watched the show very often since they killed off Shannen Doherty's character so we were a bit surprised to find that Charmed actually seemed to have found its footing again. Rose McGowan is the third sister Paige (as everyone knows and has been since 2001).

The biggest complaint about the show that we heard before watching the season ender was that with Doherty gone, every episode had turned into Spotlight: Alyssa. Apparently, she's ridden a horse nude, played a genie and assorted other roles. This episode was one that featured all three actresses equally so we can't speak to the need to push Alyssa Milano (who plays Phoebe).
Milano's not a bad actress, but we do understand the criticism since the show is called Charmed and not The Amazing Alyssa!

Holly Marie Combs continues to provide the emotional bedrock that she's been doing from the start. As Piper, she's the one that has a little more on the ball than the others. In the original cast, Combs did that while Doherty acted as leader and went off on angry snits (not a criticism, we loved seeing Pru lose her cool) and Milano's Phoebe was left to be the flake. With Doherty gone, Milano's apparently taken on some Pru qualities and Rose McGowan's Paige is left to be the flake.

In last Sunday's episode, they worked like a strong ensemble. This is a crime fighting show (albeit a supernatural one) so they're often in jeopardy but they're not victims whimpering helplessly. "What are we going to do?" is the regular question when faced with assorted demons and other supernatural creepies. And then, they do it.

"The power of three" is oft repeated on the show. But it underscores that the Halliwell sisters are about empowerment and working together. They explode at each other from time to time and they aren't paragons of virtue; yet, when the chips are down, they're there for each other. So where's the cover on that?

Charmed may be the longest running hour-long drama with multiple female leads. Not that there's a great deal of competition for that distinction; however, they have surpassed Charlie's Angel's five seasons. The show debuted in the spring of 1998 and is coming back for fall 2005. With the same cast.

At the end, under attack from Homeland Securtiy (we're not making that up and Charmed is a lot more on the ball than most give it credit for), Combs, Milano and McGowan disappared into other actresses playing Piper, Phoebe and Paige (to walk away from the house and escape Homeland Security). We took it as your typical season ender where the next year begins with the leads on the run or hidden away in another area (how many times did Buffy the Vampire Slayer pull that trick?). But when talking to people during the week who would ask what we'd be writing about, we kept hearing, "Charmed was cancelled, right?" or "They're bringing back the show but with those younger women playing the parts of Piper, Phoebe and Paige."

No and no. The show is on the fall season, the WB site displays the three actresses. But considering that Buffy and Dawson's Creek long ago left the WB, it's understandable that some would wonder about the show's status.

If there's a problem with the show (other than the Spotlight: Alyssa which, again, happened on episodes we never saw), it's the male cast.

Only the good die young on this show when it comes to the males. The bad and boring live on and on. Which explains why Brian Krause continues to play Leo but Julian McMahon's Cole was long ago killed off as was T.W. King's Andy.

But year in and year out, Krause remains -- looking exactly like the chubby, middle-aged male TV producers are so fond of casting. Leo's a drip and he goes soggy long before his eyes moisten on cue in nearly every scene.

But Leo's not the one of the Charmed ones and not a bad actor, just not an actor, so let's move on.

As usual (especially for the season finale), the Halliwell sisters are facing down their potential destruction as they go up against an enemy that appears unbeatable. For those who tuned out completely after Pru was killed off, Piper now has two children. Piper has to face reality of what will happen to them since, to yet again save the world, she's about to risk her own life. The three sisters take them to Piper and Phoebe's father (Paige is a half-sister -- don't ask). The scene where they explain they're leaving the boys with him was strong TV. The scene that followed, where Piper is telling the boys goodbye was excellent TV.

This was Holly Marie Combs' big moment and she has the talent to pull those off. But equally impressive was the way Milano and McGowan played the scene. They could have allowed melodramatics to kill it. Instead they went for the quiet heart of scene and underscored that.

A lot of complaints came in from friends about how the focus on Milano had destroyed their enjoyment of the show (in the various Phoebe dominated shows -- which by the way apparently included a Phoebe Is a Mermaid! episode). And there was a great deal of hostility expressed about Milano for this. If this scene were any clue, take it up with the writers. Milano didn't attempt to dominate it and her performance was all the more moving because of it.

Now we can picture some of the e-mails coming in, "You're acting like Charmed, or this scene, was the equivalent of Shakespeare!" We're not saying that. Charmed is a TV show and has its share of junk. But for a TV show, it also has its share of effective moments. Furthermore, we'd argue that it's past time that Combs or Milano got an Emmy nomination. (McGowan's good and has found her way in the role but she's often the comic foil and that's not usually noted in the lead categories for drama.)

The show's eighth season begins this fall. Over eight seasons, Combs and Milano have played comedy, drama and fantasy. They've done a job worth noting. Do we think they'll be Emmy nomiated? No, we're sure there's some HBO actress playing a one note character that will take the nomanation that could have gone to a show that airs on the WB. However, you don't last eight seasons as a lead in a drama on just a smile.

Which brings up an important point. The people talking up Desperate Housewives? They're steering you to a fad. That's all the show is. The backlash on this, from straight men, has already begun. The goose will provide far less golden eggs for ABC in the future. A number of people we spoke to, finding out how much we detested the show, offered the opinion that it was past time the truth was spoken about this piece of crap.

Others may see the role of TV critic different than we do. We think it's supposed to tell you what we think is worth watching and what we think isn't. A lot of the ink wasted on Desperate Housewives (especially by The New York Times) hasn't been about informing you of a solid show, it's been about chasing down a fad.

There are reviewers that do that in other fields. For instance, there were surely some who praised Barry Manilow in the seventies as music's savior. But a critic is supposed to cut through the hype and, honestly, we're seeing a great deal of what should be critics posing as "trend spotters." With a TV show, a viewer will invest a great deal of time. They may bond with a show and stay with it until the end. This isn't fashion -- e.g. "What's the hot new look this spring!" Yet a lot of the print wasted on this show has been that kind of "critiquing." "Everybody's talking about it!" they breathlessly pant.

We don't feel that a review is based on the water cooler talk of a show, we review the actual show and we're saddened by the fact that so many these days have moved away from that.

Desperate Housewives had it's moment of attention. This was it's time to be The Sopranos (for those with shorter memories), it's all down hill now (short of a radical revamp of the show). And maybe the trend reviewers feel good about turning people onto a show, the same types who probably checked in for the last episode of Seinfeld only.

This shift in review tone didn't take place this year. It's been going on for some time. It's the reason that "buzz" shows like Dawson's Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer got a lot of publicity while Charmed has been largely ignored. Dawson's Creek ran dry as soon as Kevin Williamson checked out on the show. Buffy's last solid season was while it was still on the WB. (Despite the Times' simpering editorial -- yeah, editorial! -- on the end of the show in season seven.)

While "trendies" oohed and awed over the over-rated Katie Holmes' back and forth between Pacey and Dawson or tried to insist that Buffy was just "darker" on UPN and not that it flat out sucked (it sucked), Charmed existed largely under the radar. Angel, to focus on the WB, never achieved any impact ratings wise (other than when it had a Buffy cross-over which reminded us of those Bionic Woman and Six Million Dollar Man crossovers -- unsatisfying) and critics treated it like it was art. We'd argue that partly derived from the fact that a lot of male reviewers needed to play catch up because they couldn't praise Buffy (due to title and female lead) so they showered Angel with praise it never earned. (Hint, when a show has to constantly ditch it's cast, it's usually a sign that something's not working.) Congratulations to the trendies, Joss Whedon can pretend that he made art with Angel and continue down the same crap road (as he has).

So while trendies were bending over backwards to justify the usual lesbian-dies (homophobia) of Buffy or the usual cowing of the female lead (Buffy works at a McDonald's type place and is depressed -- and depressing to watch) or whatever else they thought was good water cooler talk, they neglected to focus some of that excessive attention on Charmed.

It's not great writing. It is strong acting and the three leads rise above the writing each episode.

Season after season, it has presented female leads as actors in their own lives, not reactors, not passive victims. Four sisters (counting Pru who never shared space with Paige) have fought demons and each other yet always managed to pull it together despite everything else that was going on in their lives. Their paid careers, such as they are, can be described as hobbies. But that's due to the fact that unlike the Desperate Housewives, they actually have a purpose -- saving the world.

Saving the world. Let's repeat that because while a show like Desperate Housewives portrays women as narcissistic, self-serving and self-focused, Charmed has repeatedly addressed the issue of sacrifice for the larger good.

Watch for the trendies to move on to addressing the water cooler talk on other shows next fall. Ten years from now, someone will stumble across an old newspaper or magazine and wonder, "What the hell was Desperate Housewives?" And maybe you'll look back and wonder why supposed critics focus on the "ziegiest" moment of Desperate Housewives as opposed to the actual quality of the show (more to the point, the lack of quality)?

The show doesn't even qualify as a guilty pleasure. There's no wondering how short Heather Locklear's skirt will be this episode, or wheter Joan Collins and Linda Evans will physically battle it out before the season winds down, or what hell Donna Mills has in store for Joan Van Ark? The only excitement about the show comes from the trendies who try to treat this crap that Peyton Place did so much better as "ironic."

Irony is something that is the opposite of the literal meaning. (We paid attention during Reality Bites, if not during English Comp.) There's nothing ironic about Desperate Housewives. Even the title is dead on accurate. Let's hope these trendies are getting goody bags from ABC because if there's no payola going on, then they're just bad critics.
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