More than 40 years after June Cleaver, TV has again discovered the American housewife. She may wish it hadn't. In ABC's Desperate Housewives (Sundays, 9 p.m. E.T.), a suburban mom (Brenda Strong) wakes up one morning, does her chores, then shoots herself in the head. Her suicide leads her friends to question their own unhappy lives, from the career woman mired at home with her unruly kids (Felicity Huffman) to the maniacally perfect Martha Stewart wannabe (Marcia Cross).
Housewives is already a critics' darling for its mordant humor and terrific cast. But it trades on a dated image of ticky-tacky suburbia that Hollywood has been spoofing for decades. (One character makes a batch of ambrosia, the marshmallow-studded salad that is as au courant in today's upscale 'burbs as a beehive hairdo.) And there's something smug and icky about a bunch of TV professionals essentially implying that if their female suburban viewers only realized how empty their Susie Homemaker existences were, they would blow their brains out.
At least give Housewives credit for looking at what our unrealistic ideals of domesticity do to women. Those ideals still rule on two new reality shows, Trading Spouses on Fox and Wife Swap on ABC, which give two moms a chance to run each other's homes. Both shows are a hoot, but they also judge women entirely in terms of their housekeeping skills. On Swap, a millionaire with four nannies tearfully realizes she needs to spend less time at the spa and more with the kids: "I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me!" Even Lifetime ("Television for Women") now airs a series called How Clean Is Your House? Meet the TV women of fall 2004: damned if they dust, damned if they don't.