Start looking out for the time shift, TV viewers, because I hereby predict that you'll see it again: A show that's several seasons old and flailing resets itself by jumping to the future. Yes, it's an easy way out of a creative rut. Euripides would probably call it cheating. But the gambit worked for "Battlestar Galactica," it worked for "Lost," and tomorrow night proves that it works for "Desperate Housewives," too.
The ABC series launches its fifth season on Sunday at 9 with a much-heralded five-year leap. We're still on Wisteria Lane, of course, and because the characters always looked slightly-out-of-time, there's nothing noteworthy or jarring about the fashion or the hair. What's different is the focus. In recent years, "Desperate Housewives" lost itself in a string of weird and vaguely ghastly mysteries involving sons locked in basements and daughters crushed by cabinets - plus some bouts with high melodrama in the form of cancer and rogue tornadoes.
Now, we're back to a show that's largely (and loosely) about family dynamics and female bonding, topics that never get old, and seem especially relevant now. Yes, this is the mainstream-network version of those debates, played out in stereotypes about the social-climbing wife, the scheming Martha-Stewart type, the neighborhood bimbo. But there is, undeniably, something about these characters and performances that sticks.
The first two episodes center on Gabrielle, still living with blind Carlos, but suddenly struggling with money: He's working as a masseur, and she does her own vacuuming. They have two daughters, one of whom is overweight, and Gabby turns out to be as bad a mom as you'd expect when it comes to putting her daughter on an exercise regimen.
Lynette, meanwhile, seems fully in remission, and now struggles with being the mother of twin teenage boys. In the season's second episode, she discovers the joys and perils of social networking, and Felicity Huffman gets a chance to be funny again.
Bree has become a catering-company entrepreneur, with designs on becoming a cookbook mogul. She's willing to step on anyone in the process, but her business partner Katherine (Dana Delany, officially part of the fold) isn't inclined to let it happen. Nor is Bree's husband, Orson, who's still in the picture, half-pathetic and half-menacing.
Susan, unsurprisingly, finds new and implausible ways to be unhappy and neurotic, despite being surrounded by attractive, loving men. And Edie is back on the block with a creepy new husband named Dave, played by Neal McDonough.
His character, whose sins include but apparently aren't limited to cat-napping, promises to be this season's element of mystery. In coming weeks, we'll see if the writers can show some restraint, or whether they'll bog down the drama again with visions of dead children and standoffs with guns.
Of course, even that would be true to the original "Desperate Housewives" spirit; this show wouldn't be itself if it didn't struggle with a split personality, wondering whether to be a soap or a mystery. But so far, at least, this season promises to be less about plot than personality. That doesn't mean the show is perfect - it never was - but it's better, and that's a big relief.