The best thing about "Desperate Housewives" has always been its title, and the worst thing has always been its tone. The show never seemed to know what it wanted to be: campy commentary on suburban life, deep melodrama about domestic pressures, or mildly suspenseful whodunit. A quirky piece of slapstick always seemed to give way to something serious, like a hostage crisis. And the problem was wrapped up in that sassy voice-over from deceased Mary Alice Young: Did she symbolize the heartache of domestic life, or reflect our morbid wish for more interesting neighbors?
Last season, the writers seemed to lean toward the latter, and their efforts to make Wisteria Lane sound exciting grew ever more absurd. Amid the accidental billionaires, personality-changing amnesia, and teenage sons turned male prostitutes, the show's ratings slipped a bit. Perhaps American viewers were finally getting a headache.
Based on tomorrow's fourth-season premiere, the writers seem intent on bringing the show - at least slightly - back to earth. The plot is mainly driven by emotions here: Gabrielle and Carlos's renewed love interest, Bree's shame at her teenage children's mistakes, Lynette's efforts to keep her cancer a secret. The twists largely center on hormones and babies.
It feels a bit unnerving that a show once heralded as a showcase for women of a certain age has resorted to making so many of them pregnant. Yet that's a recurring theme: pregnancies real and, in the case of Bree, inexplicably faked. Meanwhile, the show maintains its split personality in maddening ways: We're supposed to poke fun of suicide, in a plot involving Edie (Nicolette Sheridan), then pull our hankies to face Lynnette's cancer head-on.
Felicity Huffman, as Lynette, has the acting chops to pull off her character's realistic desperation. But the subplot seems a waste; this show has always succeeded best as comedy. Susan's neuroses wear thin quickly, but Teri Hatcher's twitches do provide for some happy relief - there's a very funny sight gag tomorrow night involving a gynecologist. And Marcia Cross's Bree is far more fun when she's protecting the integrity of her fake pregnancy suit than when she's moaning about her own maternal mistakes.
The criminal intrigue isn't likely to disappear, given the entrance of yet another mysterious neighbor (Dana Delany) with another mysterious secret. (The other much-touted arrivals, a pair of gay men, don't appear in the premiere.) And the show's other perpetual theme - the supposed benefits of female friendship - continues to feel tacked-on. Tomorrow's least-realistic moment comes when the four main female characters sit down together and, in total seriousness, pledge their emotional support. Please. They aren't friends. They're only neighbors. And "Desperate Houswives" would make a lot more sense if that fact were acknowledged.
It's possible for a series to shift tone seamlessly, of course; "Six Feet Under" veered between drama and comedy for years, with help from some brilliant dream sequences (and with one episode-long wrong turn into absolute darkness; if you were a loyal viewer, you know what I mean.) It's impossible to think about ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" without conjuring memories of the HBO series. It's not just the use of actress Rachel Griffiths, who tamps down her sultriness here to play a much more subdued, if no less neurotic, suburban wife. It's also the way a father's death serves as a catalyst, and the way the siblings keep managing to convene around the family kitchen table.
But the Walkers of "Brothers & Sisters" are more aggressively ordinary than the Fishers of "Six Feet Under," and that probably explains the show's mainstream success. This nighttime soap, which premieres its second season tonight at 10, cajoles us into thinking that our own family matters have epic - or, at least, TV-worthy - significance. If life were truly fair, after all, we'd all have soundtracks playing in the background, turning family squabbles into light comedy by setting them to staccato music.
Tomorrow's episode deals heavily in that staccato, though it also offers Sally Field - who won this year's best-dramatic-actress Emmy for her role as the family matriarch - multiple opportunities to emote. The plot, as Field suggested in her truncated Emmy speech, centers on the family's stress over youngest son Justin, deployed to Iraq.
It plays out in paint-by-numbers melodrama, with each plot turn more obvious than the last. And when things do get campy, it seems wholly accidental - such as the way Rob Lowe, who plays a Republican senator, has grown so tan that he's starting to look like George Hamilton. Or maybe that's wishful thinking. This show has a way of making the viewer feel desperate for more self-mocking fun.