“Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson is a science fiction short story and the final story in her collection In-flight Entertainment. This story is written in diary format and is a critique of the apocalyptic dystopian genre.
“Interesting” of the title is classic understatement. The comedy achieved by the irony and satire in this story is dark.
FEATURES OF THE APOCALYPTIC STORY
Apocalyptic stories tend to focus on the experience of a small group of characters, perhaps on one. This makes use of a particular cognitive bias — we are more saddened by the story of an individual than by the story of a population. When we are unable to feel empathy because the magnitude of disaster is too great, this is called psychic numbing.
THE MYTH OF THE SELF-RELIANT INDIVIDUAL
“Diary of an Interesting Year” critiques the idea that individuals are capable of looking after ourselves, given sufficient willpower, hard work and grit.
One reason that isolated characters seem appealing is that, ironically, they are reassuring. They give the comforting impression that anyone could thrive in isolation as they do.
The great loners embody an idea of freedom from the vagaries and stresses of social life (e.g. Robinson Crusoe and similar survival stories, often set on islands)
Famous hermits, both in real life and in fiction, are always male. They tend to be young, fit and healthy with no family responsibilities to speak of.
But even in stories, they are not wholly self-reliant.
These stories are often set in the wild. The wild is a source not only of sensory stimulation, but also of interspecies sociality. (Robinson Crusoe had a dog, two cats, some goats and a parrot, and later a human companion.)
Real, relentless isolation is not at all romantic. Indeed, it is far worse than the stress of social life.
A growing body of psychological evidence indicates that supportive social contact, interaction and inclusion are fundamentally important to a minimally decent human life.
How does Helen Simpson subvert and invert the reassuring modern Romanticism we’ve come to expect of apocalyptic tales, even those tales full of death and destruction?
The narrator is a woman rather than your typical able-bodied Magyver archetype. This woman is not a shell-like fantasy of a woman but a real woman with real woman problems. She is terrified of pregnancy and cleaning her menstrual rags is one of her tasks. A few writers such as Meg Elison (The Book of the Unnamed Midwife) have put women front and centre in apocalyptic tales, but this is still rare enough to feel like an inversion. (This Reddit thread of comments really highlights the issues writers have writing female main characters in an apocalyptic setting. Many commenters think the main character is overly concerned with women’s issues and generally unlikeable — two accusations rarely if ever levelled at male characters in desperate situations.)
In straight apocalyptic tales, members of a group often come together in times of crisis. They do have their own in-group conflicts but those arguments tend to be focused on the here and now of the story, because everything that happened before this terrible moment is rendered insignificant. But in this story, the narrator has a long-standing issue with her older, academic husband — he is always going on about the apocalypse. This continues to irritate her. The same old rift won’t just die because of an apocalypse. Simpson juxtaposes and combines massive, life-and-death problems with the same workaday, run-of-the-mill problems within the same diary entry, ultimately showing that humans find it very difficult to rise above our immediate situations. “Oh, shut up,” says the narrator to her husband. She tells her diary they should put ‘I Was Right’ on his tombstone. Ironically, he does end up dead and death indeed shuts him up, forever. Though “See Saw” by Katherine Mansfield is a very different kind of short story, the characters in Mansfield’s story show the same petty aspect of human nature. But Mansfield achieves this by putting her characters into a utopian setting rather than into a dystopian one.
Apocalyptic stories are mythic in structure, either Robinsonnades (mentioned above) or Odyssean (characters go on a journey). In “Diary of an Interesting Year” the characters have no luck staying put. There are very unromantic reasons for this — sewerage overflow is one. So they set out on a journey. In a classic myth narrative, characters will meet stock characters along the way — some will be enemies, others helpers. But in this story there are no helpers. Moreover, enemies aren’t your classic villains, rather, enemies are other desperate people competing for the same scarce resources.
G held me in his shaky arms and talked about Russia, how it’s the new land of milk and honey since the Big Melt. ‘Some really good farming opportunities opening up in Siberia,’ he said through chattering teeth.
Although the narrator’s husband has been proven correct about the apocalypse — which is terrible — the diarist narrator wife paints a picture in which he is pleased he is at least correct. This is all he’s got to cling to. In this story, neither the happily deluded nor the Cassandras ‘win’.
The husband reminds me of every single character I’ve ever seen on Doomsday Preppers. The assumption behind those shows is that it’s possible to survive with adequate preparation and self-defence. This is a comforting idea for those with the resources. But in “Diary of an Interesting Year” the husband’s vague fantasies of self-sufficiency don’t pan out, because self-sufficiency is very, very difficult.
We met a pig this morning. It was a bit thin for a pig, and it didn’t look well. G said ‘Quick! We’ve got to kill it.’ ‘Why?’ I said. ‘How?’ ‘With a knife,’ he said. “Bacon. Sausages.’ I pointed out that even if we managed to stab it to death with our old kitchen knife, which looked unlikely, we wouldn’t be able just to open it up and find bacon and sausages inside. ‘Milk, then!’ said G wildly. ‘It’s a mammal, isn’t it?’ Meanwhile the pig walked off.
In apocalyptic stories the main character usually rebels against the status quo by exposing its flaws, escaping the world entirely, attempting to take it over, or initiating a new set of rules. But these characters are low on Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes. At first they seem hapless, until we step back and realise that in the same situation we’d be no better. This is, in fact, the point.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “DIARY OF AN INTERESTING YEAR”
Unlike straight narratives, the satire does not invite reader identification with a ‘hero’ or ‘main character
The narrator has no long term desire other than to survive each day. Anything more would turn her into a more noble hero, and she is not that. She is an ordinary person, plucked out of comfortable urban/surburban life in a rich country with no survival skills.
Throughout most of the story, plans don’t turn out. Even the things stories have taught us should be simple turn out to be nigh on impossible. For instance, throwing oneself about to induce termination:
Can’t sleep. Very bruised and scratched after today. They used to throw themselves downstairs to get rid of it. The trouble is the gravel pit just wasn’t deep enough, plus the bramble bushes kept breaking my fall.
The Battle where the narrator defeats her main enemy is left off the page, presumably because the narrator can’t bear to write about it.
November 7th. It’s all over. I’m still here. Too tired to
After many abuses, the narrator realises she has the strength to defeat her abductor. This plan works, showing she has experienced a character arc. Using trickery, she is able to kill M. She also arranges things that he kills the baby inside her via another beating.
This month I wrote a post on Teaching Kids How To Structure A Story. Earlier in the month I looked at a wordless picture book, The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. Today I continue with a selection of mentor texts to help kids see how it works. Let’s look closely at Father Christmas, a seasonal picture book by the same author-illustrator. It’s not Christmas here, but it’s never wintry at Christmas Down Under. I prefer to read wintry books in our actual winter. This is just as much a winter tale as it is a Christmas one. Father Christmas is also a very British tale. You’ll soon see why.
At first glance, this picture book also seems to break the main rules of storytelling. It works because it is short. Father Christmas is partly making use of a comedic structure rather than classic dramatic structure.
STORY STRUCTURE OF FATHER CHRISTMAS
WHO IS THE MAIN CHARACTER?
What’s wrong with him?
Sometimes the foreign translations of a picture book give you extra clues about the story. The Japanese title means ‘Father Christmas The Cold-blooded Creature’ (or ‘Person who feels the cold easily’). The Japanese publishers put the thing that’s wrong with him right there in the title. More specifically, this is his shortcoming. He doesn’t like the cold. But I’d say his shortcoming is a little different.This is not your usual Jolly Santa, the guy most kids are exposed to — the man who lives to give. This Father Christmas’s shortcoming is that he’s grumpy by nature. Or is it really a shortcoming? Is he really that grumpy?
This is a comment on a specific cultural milieu — this old man is proficient in the art of grumbling. He is cranky as a matter of habit, not because he has all that much to complain about. This is grumbling almost as a mantra to self, a reminded that although things may be terrible now, they may get better later. Father Christmas is grumbling to no one in particular, but he is drawing us in with his grumbling. We are invited to grumble along with him as a form of phatic communion. At the end of the story he has broken the fourth wall by directly addressing the reader, so we know we were supposed to hear him grumbling. He was inviting us to feel the cold with him, creating the weather as the mutual enemy to bring two characters (him and us) closer together.
This feels very British to me.
WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS WANT?
Father Christmas wakes up dreaming of a summer beach so we know right away that he wants to be on holiday somewhere. Sure enough, in another book in the series, Raymond Briggs takes him off on holiday. I haven’t read that one, though I’ve no doubt he grumbles about everything while on holiday, too.
His opponent is the cold weather. Father Christmas expends a lot of energy just keeping warm — tending to the fire, looking after the animals (who can’t be out in the elements), filling his belly with hot cups of tea.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
We already know what Father Christmas does at Christmas time because this is a well-known cultural narrative. He delivers presents to children all around the world. We watch him do this, but Raymond Briggs’ new spin on it: Father Christmas considers this work, just like anyone else doing shift work on a freezing cold night would feel like they are doing work.
As you can see already, this is another mythic structure, in which the main character goes on a journey. This is not your classic mythic structure, however. Father Christmas is a modified version of that — known as a home-away-home story. A character leaves home, has an adventure, then returns home again. This home-away-home story usually takes place over a single day, and the child (or childlike) character usually goes to sleep at the end.
In general, a series of minor big struggles end in a big one. But sometimes, when there’s no fight or argument or near-death experience, the story includes something that stands-in for a big struggle.
In Diary of a Wombat, Jackie French used the ‘accumulation’ technique, where several objects pile up/come together.
Raymond Briggs uses a variation on that. After visiting a number of ordinary houses to deliver presents, including a caravan which he has trouble getting into, Father Christmas visits the Palace of Westminster, presumably to deliver presents to the most important children in the land. We have an accumulation effect going on, but it isn’t a piling up of objects. Instead, it goes from ‘ordinary to extraordinary’, or ‘ordinary to grand’. This stands in for the big struggle scene, which exists to let us know the journey is coming to an end.
WHAT DOES FATHER CHRISTMAS LEARN?
Nothing. Because this story is comedic, not dramatic. Father Christmas is the ultimate recurring character. He appears year after year and never changes. Therefore it makes sense if he doesn’t change. It also makes sense if he’s a bit grumpy about that. Which is the gag.
However, the story still works as a complete story. Why?
In lieu of a character arc, in which Father Christmas learns something, we see Father Christmas on an emotional arc. When Santa gets up he’s grumpy because there’s so much work ahead of him. But over the course of his day he overcomes many small hardships, stopping in between to enjoy his snacks. Finally at the end he is happy to be home, but before bed he’s unhappy again, because he knows he’ll have to do it all again next year. The unrelenting nature of work would appeal to adults more than to children, I’m guessing. This story therefore appeals to a dual audience. Young readers also know what it’s like to do something they don’t want to do, and everyone (in most parts of the world) knows what it feels like to be uncomfortably cold.
HOW WILL LIFE BE DIFFERENT FROM NOW ON?
It won’t, but Father Christmas is home safe in bed, which is enough to close the story on. It’s not original, but it works, time and time again.
FURTHER NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE
Did you pick up the main ways in which this story is not typical dramatic structure?
The only opponent is the weather. Usually there is a human opponent, or a monster as well.
The main character doesn’t learn anything.
His life won’t be any different from before. He’s basically an automaton.
This is because the story is a comedy. Here’s the thing about comedic structure: It only sustains its audience for 5-10 minutes before we tire of it. That’s why comedic structure can work in picture books. They’re short. When Father Christmas was adapted into a short film, and by short I mean over 20 minutes, the script writers wisely decided to combine two of Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas books. There is simply not enough in this picture book to sustain 20 minutes’ worth of entertainment.
Desperate Housewives ran for eight seasons from 2004 to 2012. This show is a great example of a ‘cozy mystery’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAbKBUJ4NRY
Taglines are for the marketing copy.
Season One: Everyone has a little dirty laundry…/Secrets. Romance. Murder. All On One Street.
For maximum narrative drive the premise should be all about the plot. A premise that works will contain some sort of contrast.
“Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor.”
The contrast in this logline is that ‘friends’ have ‘secrets‘ in the ‘suburbs’, an arena we generally associate with ‘knowing everybody’s business’ and ‘nothing interesting ever happens’.
GENRE BLEND OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
drama, mystery, satire
When Desperate Housewives first aired in 2004 it was the tone which drew me in. I hadn’t seen anything with quite that balance of 1950s housewife satire, comedy and mystery. It’s easy to forget that now because we’ve since seen a number of TV dramas with a similar vibe:
The women on this show aren’t real women — nothing like it. An excellent example of the ‘unreality’ of the characters can be heard in the audio commentary to episode 15, season one. Marc Cherry is especially proud of his writing of this episode (and it was the first time they shifted to their new, more expansive set), so he guides DVD owners through the episode they called Impossible. In this one, John’s roommate Justin blackmails Gabrielle into having sex with him by becoming their new gardener. Gabrielle turns the gardener down, both for sex and for free garden work with obvious strings attached, but her husband lets him in and he surprises her while she’s in her own bathroom upstairs. The male writer and producer tell us on the audio commentary that actress Eva Longoria did an excellent job of ‘taking control of the situation’ but was ‘rooted to the spot’ for the first few takes, terrified at the prospect of finding a well-muscled young man confronting her for sex in her own space. The scene is meant to be played as comedy. Longoria’s acting made it somewhere there, but I did watch this episode the first time thinking that it’s not good comedy material, and a ‘real woman’ would not react with Gabrielle’s bravado — not with genuine bravado — in that particular situation. From my perspective, the male writer on this occasion simply did not understand how terrifying this scenario would be for a woman, and seemed a bit mystified about why Eva Longoria had trouble acting her part in it.
The men are archetypes, too. Even the children are preternaturally scheming/mature/creepy, harking back to a time before the concept of childhood existed. In this ways and many others, Desperate Housewives is a series of fairytales.
The show was originally pitched with ‘comedy’ in its genre blend but none of the networks were interested. When it was re-pitched as ‘satire’ suddenly it found a home. Networks had assumed it was just another soap. But they realised the audience was ready for a ‘self-aware’ version of the daytime soap, and changing the genre from ‘comedy’ to ‘satire’ did the trick.
OTHER SHOWS SIMILAR TO DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
Suburgatory is another show aimed at teens using the suburbs as a horror arena, though it is heavier on the comedy.
Desperate Housewives was created by Marc Cherry, who had already achieved huge success with Golden Girls (1985). You may or may not already know that he then went on to create a show called Devious Maids (2013). Cherry apparently came up with the idea one day when watching the news with his mother. They were watching a clip about a mother of five who drowned them all one day. Cherry said, “Who could do something like that to her own kids?” and was surprised to hear the response from his own mother, “Oh, I’ve been there.”
Devious Maids, by the way, looks similar but with an Upstairs, Downstairs flip. I’m not sure if the Cherry-Lifetime collaboration achieved a Desperate Housewives vibe, and its cancellation suggests they didn’t, but judging by the intro sequence, it seems that’s what they were aiming to reproduce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BxUeTGf4NiU
The Black Widows has been marketed here in Australia as the Nordic Desperate Housewives. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g-bVA5kuu8I
But in my opinion nothing has come close to Desperate Housewives, yet. Love it or hate it, it does what it does really well. The following is a close look at Season One.
Pretty Little Liars for one was pitched as ‘Desperate Housewives For Teens’. Like Desperate Housewives, there is a cast of four distinct female archetypes who are friends. There is also a slight supernatural overtone to the story, with a dead person pulling strings/narrating omnisciently.
are friends by virtue of them having been positioned in close proximity to each other. Each of the women is nothing alike. Instead, each stands for a different ‘virtue’:
Aria = artsy
Spencer = clever girl
Hanna = It Girl
Emily = sporty girl
The marketing machine behind The Spice Girls also knew what a great formula this is. The audience has a ready-made story for each girl, and we don’t require much information to get us started.
Though we also see this dynamic in stories for adults, it is common in children’s literature to find that ‘the’ main character is in fact made up of a group, and each in the group makes up a different potential facet in a child reader. We see it in series such as Winnie-the-Pooh to the Famous Five.
In Ann Brasheres’ The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants we even have the narrator explain that each one of the four main characters is completely different — it’s as if we make up different parts of the one person. So, yeah. Just like Winnie the Pooh.
Desperate Housewives also makes use of the Dead Girl Trope. Being a parody, does Desperate Housewives subvert it, or reinforce it? This can be argued both ways.
Something I’m wrestling with right now is whether subverting the Dead Girl trope is the way to go, or should we be trying to push back against that kind of mode of storytelling and not make everything a mystery that can be solved? I think there are Dead Girl shows that do subvert a lot of tropes. Pretty Little Liars and a lot of really silly teen shows like Riverdale, in [their] pulpy-ness and how over the top they go and how many rules they break, do in some ways undermine the rules of the Dead Girl show. They make it so they’re not really solving any problems, they’re not coming into any existential answer. They’re just winding their way through this maze that’s been created by violence and misogyny. It’s more like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland than Sherlock Holmes.
How to describe the vibe? This Nancy Drew cover seems to epitomise the inspiration. Many in the target audience will have grown up reading such books — groups of nice girls wearing sensible, pretty clothing, surrounded by mystery and light horror. Everything is not how it appears.
Desperate Housewives has a fairytale vibe, and because fairytales have been read by children since the era of the Grimms, fairytales put an audience in mind of storybooks for children. There is plenty Desperate Housewives shares in common with children’s books:
The utopian facade, though in a children’s book the utopia is often a genuine idyll. Desperate Housewives is filmed on a set, not on a real street so absolutely everything we see on Wisteria Lane is ‘fake’, as well as carefully planted there. The creators describe Wisteria Lane as ‘hyper-real’.
The calm, all-knowing narrator, explaining truisms to the audience in a soothing, before-bed kind of way
Though it’s not a strictly followed rule, episodes tend to open in the morning and are drawing to a close once we start to see conversations at bedtime, even if the episode itself spans several days. Many picture books work on a 12 hour clock, starting with the child getting out of bed, ending with them back in bed and ready for sleep.
Suburbia makes an excellent horror arena. The more perfect the lawns, the more things are rotten beneath. Audiences have learnt to expect that.
A great part of our day in the writers’ room is spent saying, ‘We’ve done that…’ We did towards the end start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left? We’re not really in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.’ […] Faced with the challenge of volume Desperate Housewives found itself, like many, grasping for sensation. The annual ‘disaster’ episode became a ritual and over eight seasons a tornado, a fire, a plane crash and a riot all hit Wisteria Lane.
Bob Daily, Executive Producer
Which brings me to Biblical allusions, because whether intended or not, these massive disasters are reminiscent of the deadly plagues of Egypt.
BIBLICAL ALLUSIONS IN DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
It becomes clear as the seasons progress that the series is an exploration of the seven sins, though it should be obvious from the start that the apple is symbolic. This is Eve being tempted in the Garden of Eden. Eden, of course, is the perfect suburbs, and if these women were not each plagued by her own fatal flaw, Wisteria Lane really would be an idyll.
AD/HD DRUGS = THE POTIONS FROM A FAIRYTALE
Lynette’s storyline focuses quite a lot on the politics of AD/HD, drug abuse and education in America. The real world background to this plot line is that during the 1990s there was a lot of scaremongering in the media about the dangers of AD/HD medications for children. This came almost entirely from a single religious group. You can probably guess which one. Yes, it was Scientology. But like the vaccination ‘debate’, the debate over the ethics and safety of stimulants for children gained much coverage and scared a lot of people. If a child genuinely has an AD/HD neurology, there is a 95% chance that child will be helped by taking the right drugs. The literature doesn’t give such a high statistic because there are also children who are medicated who do not have a genuine AD/HD profile. (I get that stat from my wonderful AD/HD daughter’s pediatrician.)
At the time Season One of Desperate Housewives was written, the creators were cashing in on the scaremongering of the Church of Scientology. The audience doesn’t need any real reason for Lynette to just decide not to medicate her boys. We all know why she doesn’t because we’ve all seen the same media. If it weren’t for the realworld scare campaign, audiences would see no good reason for Lynette not to medicate her children. Of all the drugs given to children, AD/HD medication is the most heavily researched. It is an old drug, and several generations of children have been lucky enough to benefit so far. Giving AD/HD medication to a child with AD/HD is similar to giving a child glasses, and the effect is just as stark. AD/HD does not make a creative child less creative, turning him/her into a type of zonked out zombie; it allows naturally exuberant and creative AD/HD children to focus for long enough to put that creativity to good use. However, when we see Lynette tire out her boys by having them dig a massive hole, we see them subdued and lifeless for their observation visit to the fancy private school and we get a strong hint of what medication is meant to do to them.
Desperate Housewives has not been helpful in the fight to get kids who need drugs properly medicated. For instance, the writers make no distinction between ADHD and ADD, which are two separate neurologies. The dialogue between Lynette and the Ritalin-popping supermom does accurately convey that if an adult without AD/HD takes the drugs it’s like drinking an entire pot of Turkish coffee.
The public school teacher who threatens to kick the twins out of the entire public school system exemplifies how many assume teachers approach a parent whose children are short on executive functioning, though this character is good for drama. The boys themselves seem not just like children with AD/HD, but actively scheming and mischievous, whispering to each other in the back of their mother’s car. Generally, children with genuine AD/HD are trying their hardest to be compliant. The writers are doing one of two things: Either they’re suggesting AD/HD are true horrors, or they are showing us that Lynette is an ineffective parent whose six-year-old boys already see her as the opponent.
As the season progresses, the fairytale element of the Ritalin becomes clear. Lynette is a trickster who arranges a playdate with a medicated AD/HD child’s mother, then goes to the bathroom to steal his meds. Later, she goes for a session of acupuncture. When the Chinese acupuncturist pulls down a jar of herbs from the top shelf to help Lynette with her sleep and stress it is clear that the acupuncturist is a stand in for a girl’s trip to the knowing witch who lives in the middle of the forest.
STORY STRUCTURE OF DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES
An interesting thing I started to notice about Desperate Housewives is that after every recap of the previous episode we get a mini-story before the main one, much like in the Pixar film Up. The writers call it the ‘teaser’.
Example from Season One, Episode 7:
The story opens with a fully-formed short story about Martha Huber’s garden. Jealous [PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS] of the perfectionist Bree’s [OPPONENT] lawn next door, it doesn’t matter what Mrs Huber does, whether she water it diligently or cover it in smelly but potent fertilizers [PLAN], she cannot get it looking as good as Bree’s. One day [SWITCH FROM THE ITERATIVE TO THE SINGULATIVE], a jogger dies on Mrs Huber’s lawn. Mrs Huber has an idea for revenge. She secretly drags the dead body into the middle of Bree’s beautiful garden of hydrangeas. [BIG STRUGGLE] When Bree discovers the body she calls an ambulance. When medicos arrive to pick up the body, their gurney destroys both garden bed and beautiful lawn. We see from the looks on their faces that Bree is disappointed and bewildered while Mrs Huber is smug and avenged [NEW SITUATION].
In Episode 8 we don’t so much get a fully formed story as intro so much as a backstory of Bree’s early life. This is to show us that Bree has been brought up to be a Good Girl, and now that her son has run over a neighbour’s mother-in-law, her morality will face the ultimate test.
Bree — Bree is the most closely connected to the setting. She is at first presented as the archetypal Stepford Wife. Just like the perfect suburb they all live in, Bree keeps her house perfect. She can turn her hand to anything related to the house and children. She is undoubtedly a conservative Republican Christian. Hints are dropped to that effect. Bree avoids absolute cliche — or perhaps she epitomises it — by the fact she is a gun nut, a member of the NRA and owner of three weapons. As her husband points out, she is capable of looking after her own self. But Bree is held hostage by her own perfectionist tendencies. Like Chekhov’s planted gun, when we learn she owns not one but three, we know she is capable of snapping. She points out to her friends, “Who really knows what’s going on behind closed doors?” which of course makes us wonder what’s going on behind hers.
Gabby — Gabrielle is bored. As she explains to her teenaged gardener toy boy, Carlos gives her everything she wanted. She just didn’t want the right things. She doesn’t realise it herself but she needs to be kept occupied. She can’t even really enjoy shopping, since Carlos buys her expensive gifts and there is no challenge in it.
Lynette — Lynette is not so much ‘bored’ as harried. She is the mirror reflection of Gabrielle. We picture Lynette when Gabby’s mother-in-law advises her to fill her days up with children, then she won’t have any time to wonder whether she’s happy or not. Lynette is harried and unfulfilled. She didn’t realise until it was too late that she doesn’t really like the job of mothering. But Desperate Housewives can only go so far with this. They have to show that Lynette really does love her boys, and the Mama Bear comes out at times, such as with the clueless traffic officer who tells her that her job is to control her own kids. She does bend over backwards to get them into private school, though it could just as easily be argued that she sees this as a personal challenge. Lynette needs to find fulfilment doing something other than wiping, mopping and breaking up fights.
Susan — Susan is an adorable klutz. Bella Swan has similar attributes. This seems to be a surefire way to garner the sympathies of some of the audience. In fact, Susan comes across calamities so often there is almost a supernatural element to her misfortune, as if she were cursed at birth by the thirteenth witch. Despite the fact that she must be a hugely successful children’s book illustrator to continue living in that big house, she is presented as an ineffectual divorcee. She uses her teenage daughter as a confidante in what would be, in real life, called emotional incest. The relationship between Susan and her daughter is quite similar to that between the Gilmore girls. The daughter is far more together and sensible than the needy mother, who doesn’t seem to have a best friend other than her daughter. If anyone needs a man to ground her, Susan does.
For maximum narrative drive the hero in each plot line must overcome extreme odds to accomplish a specific and difficult goal. There are four heroes in this drama and each of them has her own distinct desire line.
Bree — Bree wants to live a Pinterest life (though Desperate Housewives predates Pinterest). Let’s just call it a picture book life. (It’s no accident she lives on the same street as a picture book illustrator.) More than that, Bree wants to appear perfect. If she appears perfect to others, that is basically the same as being perfect. She would be happy with that. However, her husband is not. He craves a relationship with a rounded person with flaws, not with the cardboard cutout of a Campbell’s Soup commercial.
Bree is my favourite character, though I do not share her outlook on life in the slightest. I think I respect her because unlike the other main characters, she’s living true to her own moral code. (This will be sorely tested, but even then, we can still understand her motivations.)
Bree’s goal of appearing perfect moves further away when: Her husband announces he is not happy and he wants a divorce.
Gabby — Gabby manufactures a challenge; her challenge is to continue having sex with the gardener behind the back of the macho, violent Carlos. This is her desire line for season one.
Gabby’s goal of meaningless sex moves further away when: Her mother-in-law comes to stay. With her middle-aged-woman’s sixth sense she realises Gabby is having an affair with someone, so chaperones her everywhere. This leads to much comedy and friction as Gabrielle thinks of increasingly ingenious and underhanded ways to get rid of the woman.
Lynette — wants to get her boys a good education but absolutely definitely does not want to homeschool. That’s the outer goal. Her inner desire is to find fulfilment. Lynette finds fulfilment by looking competent in the eyes of other adults. If she can’t be the CEO, she can at least find her place at the top of the private school mom pecking order.
This goal moves further away when: The public school system threatens to kick her children out of school unless she medicates them for ADHD. She makes clear to her husband that she’s not up to homeschooling them for fear of killing them, so the next goal is to get them into a fancy private school. She manages this by hook and by crook. Lynette is now plunged into the fascinating and uber-bitchy world of snobby private school mothers. Her new goal is to keep the boys there, and because she does not believe in medicating their boys for their ADHD
Susan — When the handsome and available Mike moves into the neighbourhood in the pilot episode, Susan sets her sights on him — or rather, her daughter does, since Susan isn’t really capable of making any goals on her own. (This character trait is later ignored when she sets upon the mission of finding out the mystery of Mary Alice’s death, in which case she’s like a dog with a bone.)
Susan’s goal of finding happiness with Mike moves further away when: The brassy neighbourhood ‘slut’ sets her sights on Mike, and set up an unspoken rivalry, turning the man into the pawn in the middle. Since the pursuit of Mike isn’t a very meaty plot line, even with Edie as opponent, Susan’s klutziness sees her burn Edie’s house down. She now has another opponent in the nosy, manipulative middle-aged neighbour who finds her measuring cup as evidence and tries to blackmail her with it.
An opponent refers simply to the character who stands in the way of a hero’s desire. Opponents differ from episode to episode. Some come and go; others are sustained over the entire season and beyond. Each main character has at least two main opponents.
Bree — Bree’s husband, next her own son. The daughter seems to be an ambivalent peacemaker for the most part. The psychologist isn’t helping her cause either.
Gabby — Gabby’s husband is shown to be a violent man who could easily turn his violence upon her. The mother is also a bit of a gangster mother and makes an excellent comical opponent.
Lynette — At times her husband Tom, who stupidly suggests she homeschool, Lynette finds a more sustaining opponent in the private school queen bee.
Susan — It’s perhaps strange that a klutz like Susan Mayer has the largest number of opponents, but remember this is partly because the romance between her and Mike isn’t quite meaty enough, and there need to be many reasons why she and Mike can’t simply get together right at the start of the season. Therefore, consider Mike Susan’s ‘love opponent’, in a very similar dynamic to any found in a rom-com film. Susan’s ex-husband and the young, new girlfriend present as opponents at first, but when Lynette suggests Susan let go of her baggage and move past stupid can kicking rivalries the audience is no doubt relieved to see Susan take that advice. The audience has seen ex-husband rivalry before, and besides, the issues between Bree and her husband make for a far more interesting take on the divorce story because we get to see a break up from its embryonic stage. There’s Edie of course, who is a fun opponent because she treats man-hunting as a game. It’s hard not to like Edie. Many probably like Edie more than they like Susan. Likewise, Susan has a knack for getting the fictional older ladies off-side. Several of them are not charmed by her klutziness. One bribes her; another won’t let her borrow her car.
We don’t see the characters making plans, or even talking about them very much. They are all trickster characters. We watch a scene and realise, “Ah, I know what you’re doing here.” It is satisfying to watch this even if we morally disapprove. Especially if we morally disapprove.
Bree — As far as she can understand, if she keeps a perfect home and garden, no one has the right to complain about anything. Her plan is always to do more and better. Bree is always wearing a mask. We see her try on a different mask in the bedroom, because she (correctly) senses that her husband is secretly kinky. As soon as the hotel date goes wrong, Bree switches from her Tiger In The Bedroom persona back into her Perfect Housewife persona. Bree’s plan is not working and she loses her family. This is Bree at her lowest, but the camera doesn’t show us that. We are shown circumstances conspiring to bring her children back to her. Andrew wants his mother the night he runs over Mrs Solis the elder.
Gabby — Gabby has no problems getting her mother-in-law back into gambling so she can steal one ‘last’ moment with her gardener.
Lynette — We realise as soon as Lynette wants to use the bathroom that she is planning on stealing another child’s Ritalin. We also understand in that moment that she has planned this playdate for the express purpose of stealing it.
Susan — Susan is the least successful trickster. She is really, truly bad at it. She is the mirror image of Bree on this point. Bree would never fall through a ceiling while snooping — we have already seen Bree successfully snoop at the psychologist’s office.
Bree — Even when in big struggle, Bree looks her best and remains calm. Dinner at the fast food place where she learns her husband is leaving her, being affronted at the psychologist’s office, a cringe-worthy dinner party with the neighbours in which she gets the upper hand, an unsuccessful attempt at sex with her husband, locking her own children out of the house in a well-coordinated plan to get them back.
Gabby — Gabby’s big struggles are both ridiculous and real-world serious. When her husband assaults her, it’s serious. But most of the time even the arguments she has with Carlos is somewhat funny, as these characters declare they love each other while scheming and manipulating the other in a high-stakes game of chess.
Lynette — Having a bust up with the PTA Bitch, arguing with her husband about his suggestions she homeschool, losing it with the traffic officer, and memorably, coming down off Ritalin and hallucinating. She ends up sitting in a football field, a space we most closely with her archetype, The Frazzled Soccer Mom. Lynette’s big struggles are linked to child-rearing in most instances, and it’s almost always with other mothers. For instance, I’m reminded of the big struggle scenes from Courage The Cowardly Dog when Lynette bounces on an inflated castle while in a showdown with another mother about who brought head lice into the school. In Courage, also, big struggles often take the form of childhood games — squash, food fights, a train heist with a toy train. This allows us to find the big struggles funny.
Susan — Accidentally setting Edie’s house on fire, a big argument with her neighbour, then with Mike, falling over before making it onto the mechanical bull; Susan Mayer’s big struggle scenes are sometimes borne of ‘unpractised’ bitchiness and at other times occur as a result of her clumsiness. Susan is an inconsistent character, though the writers have created Susan knowingly. Edie points this out (lampshades this set of traits) for the audience when she accuses Susan of being adorably klutzy but actually pretty scheming. Susan’s flaws are also pointed out by Edie’s guy who ends up sitting on the side of the road with her after a second flat tyre.
In a long-running comedy series it is impossible for the characters to learn from their own mistakes. If they did, Susan would no longer put herself in calamity’s path, Bree would loosen up, Gabby would become genuinely altruistic and Lynette would somehow find a successful work-life balance.
Why does almost every series that doesn’t regularly refresh its characters have a life span of only two to three years? […] Characters have only one story, and all attempts to counter that are a lie. Soaps and series are lies — great and glorious ones if the lies are well told, but lies nonetheless. Soaps and series are partly a product of market economics, born from a desire to attract viewers and sell to them — but equally, like sequels, they tap into an audience’s desire to prolong the lives of characters they adore. As with those we love in real life, we want our fictitious friends to live forever. Authors and television executives recognize this and acknowledge too that it’s much easier to attract people to the readily familiar, the tried and the tested. And so the lie is told again.
Drama demands that characters must change, but the audience by and large — ‘we’, let’s be honest — insist they stay exactly the same. […] Deep down we expect film franchises to wane, but drama series are by definition a returning medium; they must reproduce to survive. Series characters can’t get to the end of their journey or the story is over, so their creators face the same dilemma as Hollywood but massively amplified. […] Stubbornly two-dimensional, they exist outside time and space […] Most of us have been frustrated by long-running shows were ingenue characters never seem to learn from their experiences, or equally annoyed when they do learn and stop being the character we first fell in love with.
John York: Into The Woods
Though I haven’t watched subsequent seasons I hear Bree does in fact have quite a character change — the most stark of all the women, which makes her the most ‘main’ of the main characters.
But generally, the characters of Wisteria Lane do not learn from their mistakes. If they did, show over. However, in true fairytale form, these characters and their flaws exist to teach the audience a lesson. In other words, in fairytale form the viewer is the one meant to have the anagnorisis. Not in this spoof version, however. It’s expected the audience already knows these life lessons. Despite the storybook structure the audience are not children. At the end of each episode the dead storyteller narrator explains the Moral Of The Story. A viewer who takes this seriously will feel talked-down-to — it’s important to regard this as fairytale satire.
Mary Alice Young = Charles Perrault
It isn’t easy giving up power admitting that we might need help from friends and neighbors, deciding that a loved one might know what’s best for us, giving up our better judgment for a slightly darker agenda, but for some the hardest kind of power to give up is the power to control their own desires.
Mary Alice Young
In fact, if you take a look at the storyteller narrator’s quotes all in a row, you’ll be struck with how trite they sound. The Mary Alice opening and closing lines are outlining, as if for an English literature class, the morals of age-old fairytales. If you’ve ever read the fairytales as transcribed by Charles Perrault, you’ll know that Perrault literally spent the last paragraph of a story outlining the moral in exactly this way.
These moral lessons are conservative, each and every one of them.
Keeping secrets is a lonely business. That’s why we all search for someone to confide in: an ally who will understand, an advisor who we can trust, a friend who will never judge.
Mary Alice Young
Generally in straight (non-satirical) adult fiction we’ll be asked to consider whether that’s really true. A common ideology of children’s stories is that secrets are always bad. (One exception to that is a recent book called Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolkwhich, interestingly, she initially wrote intending an adult audience.)
The quotes from Mary Alice also function as a teaser, and are therefore broken into four parts:
Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom. The painful truth about the state of a relationship , the ugly cost of challenging authority , the sad fact that life’s colors aren’t always rosy , then are those who refuse to accept these important lessons. They simply wait to teach a lesson of their own .
Since this is a continuing series, the final episode of Season One must both satisfy and intrigue.
We are satisfied because the mystery of narrator Mary Alice becomes completely clear in the final episode. Everything is explained regarding this enduring mystery. The character we knew was going to die does die.
It also intrigues because there is a brand new family on the street and they obviously have a secret of some kind. Each of the four main characters has a new beginning ahead of her and we want to know what will happen to them.
Bree — Bree is about to enter a new phase of her life now that her husband is dead.
Gabby — So is Gabby, pregnant and about to say goodbye to her jailbird husband.
Lynette — Lynette is being pushed back into the workforce. How’s that going to go?