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October 6, 2004

Desperate for good TV? Get Lost in ABC's fall slate

In the era of the reality show, the art form of the scripted television show has been nearly destroyed. With a few exceptions (24, Arrested Development, The OC, and the shows of HBO) TV has been barren of good scripted shows, especially the anti-reality subgenre: the well-written, guilt-inducing, absurd, interesting, trashy television show. That ABC has pulled out of its hat not one but two different shows possibly worthy of the phrase "promising" is an impressive trick.

For starters Lost, brought to you by J. J. Abrams of Felicity and Alias, takes everyone's favorite desert island fantasy and rubs it in your face like Divine with fresh dog shit. Think Gilligan's Island meets Lord of the Flies, but with the guy from Party of Five (the one with the beard). Here's the set up: mysteriously a plane crashes onto a mysterious island in the middle of the Pacific and a only a rag-tag group of strangers survive. Hilarity ensues. Abrams fills the cast of survivors, and the island, with every quirk he can think of. You like a medical show, how about a medical show with ad hoc tools … on a beach? How about rock stars—they're hip these days—how about a European rock star with a smack problem played by a former Hobbit … on a tropical island beach? Or maybe you like the Discovery Channel; animals are more your thing. Then how about an unseen mysterious carnivorous creature that eats men alive, and a puppy, and a polar bear … in a dangerous jungle on a maybe-not-so-deserted island? OK, none of that grabs you? How about Survivor, but without the irritating grin of Jeff Probst, and now with kids, and siblings, and a Korean couple … on a strange and mysterious desert island? Surprisingly, the pilot is refreshingly interesting, mysterious, and humorous. Really, it was surprising. Did I mention the pregnant lady? Or the crazy beach backgammon man in the rain? You have to watch it to get it.

I confess that I've always been a strange television watcher. When I was a kid I used to regularly watch Sisters with my sister before we watched Saturday Night Live, and the former was more influential than the latter. I still giggle when I hear someone talk about Winnetka. In any event, I suspect the pitch for ABC's other freshmen drama, Desperate Housewives, went something like this: "Think Sisters and The Stepford Wives, but the women aren't in Stepford, they live on Wysteria Lane, and they're not sisters, they're more like the Sex and the City girls, but they're married. Melrose Place meets Picket Fences, with a dash of Twin Peaks." Despite the pitch, Desperate Housewives, if the pilot is any indication, promises to be its own cultural reference point in the future.

The opening scene sets the tone: Mary Alice Scott (Brenda Strong) voices over her day in an exquisite Martha voice. Mary Alice serves breakfast, does her laundry, works on her projects. "I spent the day as I spent every other day," she tells us, "quietly polishing the routine of my life until it gleamed with perfection. That's why it was so astonishing when I decided to go to my hallway closet and retrieve a revolver that had never been used." Lovingly looking at a portrait of her family, Mary Alice blows her brains out, and continues to narrate the show.

At the following wake we meet the central characters, briefly sketched in flashback. Bree Van De Kamp (Marcia Cross) is the perfect Martha-clone. She spends her life trying to improve her family's lives, and they in turn hate her. Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) is the hot timid single mom new to the dating scene…who still manages to walk around in a tank top with no bra. Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman) is the former businesswoman turned stay-at-home mom to four of the most irritating children ever—which might be OK, but she hates being a mother. Rounding out the group is Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), the miserable former model who hates her husband, but loves his money and so fucks the gardener on everything worth anything in their house.

I know that this sounds, like, awful, but I swear it works. In the pilot, at least, the show seemed intent to be as silly as it wanted to be, and the end product was worth it. The caveat being that you need to like the kind of show where—when the voice-over says that things lie deeper under the surface—the camera actually moves under the surface of a pool. Quiet lives of desperation, indeed.

In the fight against the reality onslaught of reality television, scripted shows have had to go to new levels to keep in the game. Plots have grown absurd, resembling soap operas more than anything else. "Quirky," "talky," "kinky," and "surreal" seem to be the new watchwords in scripted television, and sometimes it's still worthwhile. It's hard to tell with out watching more episodes (these might be flukes, and both shows might not work over time) but these are very promising pilots. Personally my bet is that Desperate Housewives will outwit, outplay and outlast Lost, but that's another story. Anyway, good for ABC for letting these shows get this far.