There are shows you watched once upon a time and still think back on fondly, there are shows you spent years watching and now wonder what on earth you were thinking, and then there are shows where you can’t always be sure whether they were good or you just convinced yourself they were.
“Desperate Housewives” falls into the latter category for me. It debuted in the fall of the 2004-5 TV season, an all-time great year in network TV that also gave us “Lost,” “House,” “The Office,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Veronica Mars,” among others. And it was an enormous hit right out of the gate, and I was swept up in both the hype and its place in this great freshman class, even though I generally have little use for soap operas. But I also think that, at least in that first season, “Desperate Housewives” aspired to be more than that, and often succeeded. It was commenting on and satirizing the various soap clichés even as it was cheerfully racing through all of them, and at times it managed to invest its suburban satire with real humanity.
Or maybe I’m just remembering it more fondly because “Desperate Housewives” is coming to the end of its final season – and, more importantly, because ABC is using these final “Housewives” episodes to launch “GCB” (Sunday at 10 p.m.), a new soap that wants so badly be this decade’s “Desperate Housewives,” but that plays more like a bad parody of it.
Based on the Kim Gatlin novel “Good Christian Bitches”(*), adapted by “Steel Magnolias” screenwriter Robert Harling, “GCB” is the umpteenth show this season (“2 Broke Girls” and “Charlie’s Angels” were among the many otherS) to feature a character whose life is ruined by their connection to a Bernie Madoff type. In this case, it’s Leslie Bibb as Amanda, whose late Ponzi schemer husband leaves her broke, humiliated and forced to move herself and her two teenage kids back to the wealthy, status-conscious Dallas neighborhood she abandoned years earlier.
(*) It’s one of two shows ABC picked up for this year with the word “bitch” in the title that the network then wimped out on. (The upcoming sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apt. 23” is the other.) At one point, they even redubbed it “Good Christian Belles” before deciding on this weird acronym which suggests a CBS crime procedural more than a Texas soap.
Though Amanda is the sympathetic heroine as an adult, we learn that as a teenager she was the meanest of mean girls, and took special pleasure in tormenting the four girls who grew up to be the community’s queen b’s – and who have now made it their mission to make Amanda reap what she once sowed.
That clique is made up of Kristin Chenoweth, Miriam Shor, Jennifer Aspen and Marisol Nichols, and with the exception of Nichols, they’re all playing women who could be charitably called caricatures. Chenoweth’s Carlene – a plastic surgery addict who sings lead in the church choir and passes judgment from on high atop her diamond-studded stilettos – is the most unpleasant of the bunch, but virtually all the women (and most of the men) Amanda encounters on the homefront are ridiculous, two-dimensional and awful.
Even Amanda’s mother Gigi – Annie Potts in designer ensembles from a department store whose name conveniently/lucratively features into half the plots – is an over-the-top snob except for those moments when the show wants you to think she actually cares about Amanda and the kids. (And if those abrupt, clumsy pivots work at all, it’s because Potts is so good.)
There’s a place on TV for a good campy soap, full of back-stabbing, bed-hopping and all the rest. Not my kind of show, usually (unless there’s something extra, like “Desperate Housewives” had at the beginning), but I have no problem with their existence. But good camp tends to have some deep affection for its various cartoon characters, where “GCB” seems to have nothing but contempt for Carlene’s posse, their husbands, and everyone who isn’t Amanda, her kids, and possibly the other waitresses at the Hooters knock-off where she finds employment.(**) Carlene, for instance, is a hypocrite who talks like a puritan, dresses like a hoochie and excuses it by explaining that she’s been saved, then tries to swindle money for a charity she calls “For Children With Something.”
(**) Putting your leggy blonde lead into a skimpy outfit is a way of pandering to a demo that’s not going to watch this show unless under threat of torture, divorce or “I’ll watch ‘Deadwood’ with you if you watch this with me.”
If the show seems to hate these people and this world, why on earth would anyone at home want to spend time watching them? It’s aiming for the same comic target “Housewives” used to hit, but in such a shrill, frantic way that none of the jokes come close to landing.
Based on the downward plunge all TV ratings have taken since that incredible ’04-’05 season, ABC will be lucky if “GCB” can approximate the modest numbers “Desperate Housewives” is pulling today (under 9 million a week, compared to close to 24 million in that first season). Quality wise? Again, I’m still not sure how much I would enjoy those early “Housewives” episodes if I went back to watch them today, but I know that I cringed through nearly every minute of “GCB.”
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org