What is it with suburbia?
Meant as an ideal compromise between city and country, the suburbs wind up loathed or spoofed — even by people that live there. From John Cheever to "The Stepford Wives" to "South Park," that pretty spot halfway to heaven is the object of scorn and exposé. Now it's the turn of ABC's superb new series "Desperate Housewives," debuting at 9 p.m. Sunday.
Equal parts social satire, soap opera and mystery, "Desperate Housewives" is the scary, hilarious synthesis of what happens after you live happily ever after. It's as if the women of "Sex and the City" had gotten their wishes and were dealing with the consequences.
As we see from the first helicoptering shot, "Desperate Housewives" is set in a place of winding streets and lovely houses with front porches, gleaming wood floors and fireplaces. It has no McMansions, but the genteel stink of money is unmistakable.
Viewers have a narrator for the excursion. Her name is Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) and she just happens to be dead when the show begins.
In silken tones, Mary Alice recalls the day she surprised the neighbors of Wisteria Lane with her untimely decision.
"I performed my chores. I completed my projects. I ran my errands," she tells us. "In truth, I spent the day as I spent every other day, quietly polishing my life until it gleamed with perfection."
That's a brilliant introduction. In "Desperate Housewives," suburbia is the external manifestation of our quest to get everything just right and assume that happiness will follow. No wonder we have a love-hate relationship with the place.
But happiness is a sometime thing for the women of Wisteria Lane. We meet Lynette (Felicity Huffman), the career woman who's given up her job to raise the kids, currently numbering four.
In a hectic moment at the store, Lynette runs into a former co-worker. "Don't you just love being a mom?" asks the woman. Lynette pauses as the unseen Mary Alice comments, "For those who asked it, only one answer was acceptable, so she lied."
Sprinkled throughout the action in "Desperate Housewives," Mary Alice's sly and wry observations dismantle Wisteria Lane's facade.
Trophy wife Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria) is an ex-model who snagged a mergers and acquisitions executive (Ricardo Antonio). When her husband proposed, he had tears in his eyes, but, "She soon discovered this happened every time he closed a deal." She's now having an affair with the gardener.
Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher), having burnt perhaps one too many macaroni-and-cheese-dinners, was dumped by her unfaithful husband and is raising their daughter (Andrea Bowen) alone.
Now, she's making a determined bid for newly arrived single man Mike Delfino (James Denton). But she must compete with Edie (Nicollette Sheridan), Wisteria Lane's predatory slut.
Perhaps the most delicious character is Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross), the inevitable Martha Stewart stand-in known for making her own clothes, doing her own gardening and reupholstering her own furniture.
"Everyone thought of her as the perfect wife and mother," Mary Alice purrs. "Everyone, that is, except her own family."
In subsequent scenes, Bree's family rebels and her husband, Rex (Steven Culp) requests a divorce. Bree quickly will scotch it by serving a salad that sends Rex to the hospital in the throes of allergic arrest.
Was it deliberate? We don't really know. And that's part of the thrill. To the normal conventions of soap opera, "Desperate Housewives" adds two subversive layers.
The first is a tongue-in-cheek look at the busy work of suburban life juxtaposed with piercing revelations of the inner treadmill existence. The former reaches heights of hilarious exaggeration so we can comprehend the latter: fear, boredom, disappointment.
And just so "Desperate Housewives" doesn't ever get to be a drag, cloudy questions that have nothing to do with metaphysics begin to gather over the residents of Wisteria Lane.
Why did Mary Alice kill herself? Why is her husband digging underneath the built-in pool late at night? And why is that nice, eligible bachelor Mike carrying a revolver and giving cryptic telephone updates to an unseen third party? Is he really just a plumber?
In Sunday's final scene, the women are packing up Mary Alice's clothes when a note flutters to the ground. They gather around to read it and are shocked at the contents.
"Oh, Mary Alice, what did you do?" asks Susan, as a concluding helicopter shot whisks us away from Wisteria Lane.
I intend to stick around and find out. Cleverly written and conceived, executed by a terrific cast of lovely veteran actresses, "Desperate Housewives" is a fanged pleasure from start to finish. It's impossible not to watch.