Water Cooler

September 12, 2004

In Search of Our Next Big Topic of Conversation

Peter Stone/ABC
Marcia Cross on ABC's prime-time drama "Desperate Housewives."

IT'S been a long time since married women made much of a mark on television. Yet suddenly the fall season is all Emma Bovary all the time.

Wives are being traded on the Fox reality show "Trading Spouses," swapped on the ABC version, "Wife Swap" and driven to despair - and seduction - on an ABC prime-time dramatic series, "Desperate Housewives." UPN has a slightly more uxorious sitcom about a man who remarries his ex-wife called "Second Time Around," while CBS is tolling the bell for the betrayed wife in a made-for-TV movie called "Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman."

It could be coincidence. Or the kind of lockstep network brainstorming that last fall wrought three different shows about young girls who hear voices. ("Joan of Arcadia" was renewed; "Tru Calling'' and "Wonderfalls" slid back into oblivion.)

Or it could be the next big television thing. By the late 90's, cable, pay-per-view and digital channels had supposedly ushered in a new post-network era that splintered viewers by niche. Yet despite this development, or perhaps because of it, the opposite has come to pass: as television choices multiply, viewers seem all the more hungry for a shared experience. For the last five years, each season has produced at least one show that became a so-called "water cooler" phenomenon: not just a hit, but an It show.

These are the shows that spark giddy debate at the office, on the bus and in the supermarket and quickly become a point of debate in the national conversation. (And eventually the subject of weighty critiques in this newspaper and others.) The true mark of an It show is its catch-phrase, the memorable mantra that takes off and just as quickly grows stale, from "Is that your final answer?" on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," to Donald Trump's "You're fired" on "The Apprentice."

Whether relying on trades or swaps, the latest reality show craze exchanges wives from comically disparate households. The plot summaries tend to sound like tabloid headlines. The first episode of "Wife Swap" goes like this: Pampered New York Heiress Swaps Roles With Rural New Jersey School Bus Driver and Wood Chopper.

Originality is obviously not the main selling point. Instead, breakthrough shows present an eternal truth (or deadly sin) in a new, slightly titillating configuration. Certainly, both take-my-wife reality shows blend a classic human failing - grass-is-greener envy - with the current TV obsession with makeovers and house trades. (The playful hint of adultery doesn't hurt, either, particularly at a time when Newsweek puts "The New Infidelity" on its cover.)

Last season, the It show was "The Apprentice," Donald Trump's reality series. The premise was deceptively simple: "Survivor" relocated to the Manhattan rat race. In 1999, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" put greed into a prime-time game show format. Lust came out of the closet in shows like "Temptation Island," while dating competitions like "The Bachelor" married the primal Cinderella myth to today's obsession with speed dating and Internet hookups.

An It show can cast a spotlight on dim corners of the American subconscious. "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" put the makeover craze together with television's embrace of gay life. ("Will & Grace" had already market-tested viewer tolerance, but it is a measure of how daring "Queer Eye" first seemed that NBC tried it out on its sister cable network, "Bravo.")

Reality shows are still new enough to have an advantage over scripted dramas and sitcoms, but not always. On HBO, "The Sopranos" became an It show by placing banal suburban family malaise and job stress into a startlingly brutal mafia setting. "Sex and the City" became a bellwether show about single women partly because its breezy, bawdy humor was a fizzy cocktail that blurred the lines between self-reliance and loneliness.

The housewife, however, has not been the centerpiece of a hit television show since ''Roseanne" ended in 1997. Like fashion or nationalism, television themes never go away. They just return in a recycled form.

And the swing of the pendulum is particularly timely given the undercurrents of this election year. The country is once again examining wifely roles through the prism of the candidates' wives: Laura Bush and Teresa Heinz Kerry are pitted against each other in a replay of the Barbara Bush/Hillary Clinton clash. This time, however, the issue is not career woman versus stay-at-home mom. Mrs. Heinz Kerry did not have a career of her own when she was married to Senator John Heinz, the heir of the ketchup fortune. She began running the Heinz family foundations after her husband's death in 1991.

Instead, it is the women's style of wifeliness that contrasts so starkly: Mrs. Bush is the calm, self-effacing helpmate; Mrs. Heinz is the high-strung, powerful consort. They are not the two faces of feminism as much as they are dueling notions of femininity.

They would be ideal candidates on "Wife Swap." (How would Mrs. Heinz Kerry handle a weekend at Crawford, Tex., and could she resist the temptation to snatch a mojito from the twins' lips?) Instead, the candidates' families - wife for wife, daughter for daughter - are in a smack-down contest for voters' approval.

Reality shows are often dismissed as contrived and degrading, but actually both the ABC and the Fox depiction of wives are more enlightened than that of the scripted drama "Desperate Housewives." Because most of the real wives try hard and mean well, they are heroic. Even the most pampered and ridiculous housewives have redeeming moments when they struggle to run another woman's home.

"Desperate Housewives" is instead a glossy night-time soap opera that takes a coy, satiric look at four discontented women in an affluent suburb. (Stepford jokes abound.)

The series has its comic moments, but it is somewhat atavistic. It takes a sour, retro look at the female condition - marriage is either boring or cruel and men are dull or beastly. Even the narration, delivered by the dead friend of the four main characters, has an old-fashioned feel - a mishmash of "Sunset Boulevard" and "A Letter to Three Wives."

"Desperate Housewives," which stars Teri Hatcher, Nicolette Sheridan and the wonderful Felicity Huffman, has the makings of a hit. But "Wife Swap" and "Trading Places" have a better shot of becoming It.

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