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With 'Housewives,' dysfunction is delightful

You could interpret ABC's "Desperate Housewives" as an assault on the wives and mothers of suburbia, seen living in frustrated servitude to their families. Or you could interpret it as an ironic homage to them, a camp-tinged expression of sympathy for the psychic tolls of living inside a detergent commercial.

Or you could not interpret the show at all and submit to its marvelous tonal elasticity, as it stretches from sharp satire to dishy soap opera to tragique tribute and back again. The series, which premieres tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 5, borrows many familiar notes from the pop-culture iconography of Pedro Almodovar, Tim Burton, John Waters, "Melrose Place," "Blue Velvet," "A Letter to Three Wives," and "American Beauty." But thanks to the vision of creator Marc Cherry, it's also unique, fresh, and quite entertaining. Along with "Lost," another ABC show, it's one of fall TV's best newcomers.

The series's opening encapsulates its many notes, as well-coiffed housewife Mary Alice (Brenda Strong) finishes her chores and errands, takes out a gun, and shoots herself. The camera zooms in on Mary Alice's pool of blood, then cuts seamlessly to a spilled Bloody Mary in a neighbor's home. The sequence is mysterious and somber, but it's mostly funny. The soundtrack music is light and happy throughout, the visual pun on blood is amusing, and Mary Alice isn't really gone, anyway. It's her voice we'll hear narrating all the events that unfold on Wisteria Lane throughout the series, a la Glenn Close in "Reversal of Fortune."

Mary Alice's neighborhood friends had no idea she was in trouble. These women don't trust one another; they're "frenemies," in "Sex and the City" parlance, and they struggle to maintain appearances. The show is often a lampoon of niceness, capturing the contempt and sorrow that plays at the corners of the women's smiles. The most superficial of them is the relentlessly cheery Bree (Marcia Cross), a Martha Stewart Living clone from hell. According to her son, Bree "acts like she's running for the mayor of Stepford." Cross, so winningly insane as Kimberly Shaw on "Melrose Place," is perfect as the housewife obsessed with perfection.

Felicity Huffman, from "Sports Night," also makes a welcome return to series TV as Lynette, who gave up a high-powered career to care for her four children. She's disappointed in her choice, but she remains as tough as the mother on "Malcolm in the Middle" as she jumps into a pool fully dressed to retrieve her petulant triplets. Teri Hatcher of "Lois & Clark" is Susan, the emotionally bruised divorcee, who's competing with Nicollette Sheridan's Edie for a new bachelor on the block. And Eva Longoria's Gabrielle is compensating for her bad marriage by sleeping with a teenage gardener.

The women's existential angst is offset by the overly upbeat look of "Desperate Housewives." Wisteria Lane looks like an artist's rendering of the American Dream, with its freshly painted homes, white picket fences, and exuberant tulips. Filmed on the same back lot as "Leave It to Beaver," the show presents us with TV's idealized view of suburbia. It then reminds us that these blissful exteriors are little more than window dressing.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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