While there are many great shows out there, only a few of them have a perfect beginning—the kind that draws you in immediately and leaves you wanting more. In 25YL’s Perfect Pilots series, we will be looking at pilot episodes we think are flawless. This week Martin Hearn looks at the pilot of Desperate Housewives. Got a pilot you think should make the list? Let us know!
“My name is Mary Alice Young. When you read this morning’s paper you may come across an article about the unusual day I had last week. Normally there’s never anything newsworthy about my life but that all changed last Thursday. Of course, everything seemed quite normal at first. I made breakfast for my family, I performed my chores, I completed my projects, I ran my errands. In truth, I spent the day as I spend every other day: quietly polishing the routine of my life till 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.”
With those words, Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) then kills herself, and just over a minute into the pilot episode of Desperate Housewives we’ve been thrown into one of the biggest TV mysteries of all time: why did Mary Alice commit suicide? Was her normal suburban life really too much to deal with or was there something far more sinister going on? We all love a good mystery as we want to spend our time obsessing over it, talking about it with others, and trying to be the one who figures it out first. This is one of the reasons why Desperate Housewives has one of the most perfect pilot episodes ever: the instant mystery. It immediately hooks you and makes you want to keep coming back to the show week after week.
Marc Cherry came up with the idea for the show after watching the real-life trial of Andrea Yates, who had confessed to drowning her five children in a bathtub. It was revealed that she had been suffering for some time from severe postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, and schizophrenia. Cherry watched the trials with his mother, and during them he said, “can you imagine being so desperate that you would want to do that to your own children?” To this his mother replied, “I’ve been there.”
The idea that women like Andrea could lead the lives they wanted, being a wife and mother, and still be filled with moments of insanity and quiet desperation is what inspired Cherry to begin writing the show. This is the theme that continues throughout the whole season and is something that’s affecting each female character on the show. They all have their secrets, they all have their struggles, and they don’t always speak up about them until it’s too late. These struggles are teased to us when each main character is introduced. Mary Alice narrates the show from beyond the grave (making occasional appearances through flashbacks) and teases each housewife’s problems based on what food they bring to her wake.
[An aside: despite not being the pilot episode we got on our screens, did you know that another unaired pilot was filmed starring Twin Peaks‘s own Sheryl Lee as Mary Alice Young? But that’s a story for another time…]
Lynette Scavo (Felicity Huffman), who brings fried chicken, was once a high-flying corporate executive who reluctantly gave up her career to be a stay-at-home mom to her four children. Her life has actually become so hectic that she doesn’t even bring her own fried chicken; it’s from a fast food restaurant. Gabrielle Solis (Eva Longoria), who used to be a runway model and had developed a taste for rich food and rich men, brought along a spicy paella. As Mary Alice says, “She likes her paella piping hot, however, her relationship with her husband was considerably cooler.” Bree Van de Kamp (Marcia Cross) brought baskets of muffins that she baked herself, as she was well known for her cooking, her sewing, doing her own gardening, and upholstering her own furniture. She’s thought of as the perfect wife and mother and she makes sure that’s just what everybody sees when they look at her. Sadly, her own family sees anything but this and are extremely unhappy. Susan Mayer (Teri Hatcher) brings the only thing she knows how to cook, yet rarely makes well: a dish of macaroni and cheese. She’s a struggling single mother whose husband has traded her in for a younger model: his secretary. Other iconic character introductions include neighborhood gossip Martha Huber (played superbly by Christine Estabrook) and notoriously promiscuous neighbor Edie Britt (Nicolette Sheridan).
The character introductions feel so unique and well written that I was instantly intrigued by each and every one of them. I had seen the actresses in various other roles before the show started—Brenda Strong in Twin Peaks, Teri Hatcher in Lois & Clark, and Felicity Huffman in The X-Files—but I was most excited at seeing Marcia Cross as I remembered her amazing performance as the psychotic Kimberly Shaw in Melrose Place. Female-led dramas were few and far between here in the UK so it felt like a complete breath of fresh air that we finally had something new and exciting to get lost in. The show had taken dashes of humor from shows like Sex and the City and The Golden Girls and whisked them together with the mystery stylings of Twin Peaks and The Stepford Wives. The influences of other shows are definitely evident on screen but it still feels like something totally new and different. Prior to it airing here we didn’t know much of what Desperate Housewives was about other than what was teased to us in this amazing teaser trailer created by David Lachapelle.
After the opening scenes of the wake, little of the remainder of the episode is spent focusing on Mary Alice’s suicide. Instead we are introduced to the other housewives’ main problems and secrets. Lynette is struggling to raise her children alone, with her husband Tom not seeing how much she needs help. Gabrielle is feeling neglected by her hard-working and often absent husband Carlos and has begun an affair with their teenage gardener. Susan is terribly alone and ready to step back into the dating world with neighborhood newcomer Mike but her attempts are thwarted by Edie.
And then we come to my personal favorite housewife: Bree. Her husband Rex doesn’t like the person she’s become (neither do her children) and doesn’t want to be with someone who makes his bed before he uses the bathroom in the morning, acts like a perfect suburban housewife with her pearls and spatulas, and says things like “we owe the Hendersons a dinner.” So he asks her for a divorce, prompting her to mistakenly put onions in his food due to the distraction. Rex is allergic and ends up in the hospital where he says, “I can’t believe you tried to kill me,” to which she brilliantly responds, “Yes, well, I feel badly about that.” She retreats to the hospital bathroom to arrange flowers but instead spends the time sobbing silently at herself in the mirror for five minutes, but when she emerges she’s once again perfect. This is exactly what the show was about: people struggling behind closed doors and keeping up the pretense that life is fine.
The show ends with more mystery being added to Mary Alice’s suicide. As her friends begin to pack away her clothes and personal belongings they stumble across one of the most famous blackmail notes in TV history. Reading “I know what you did. It makes me sick. I’m going to tell,” we (and the housewives) begin to realize that there is a lot more to her suicide than we first thought. As Susan asks, “Oh Mary Alice, what did you do?” the episode ended and we were left to sit pondering for another week what on earth she had done.
21.6 million people in the US alone tuned into this pilot episode (which won three Emmys) and almost as many came back the following week to see what would happen next. The Desperate Housewives pilot is one of the costliest pilots in TV history and was one of the shows that would save the failing ABC network, alongside other new shows like Lost and Grey’s Anatomy. Despite Lost being more remembered and talked about these days, it was ultimately Desperate Housewives that was the defining breakout show at the time. The show itself may have lost its way a few times in later seasons (with a couple of forgettable mysteries and characters) but you can’t deny how huge it was in the beginning, especially with the first season picking up a further three Emmys, two Golden Globes, and two Screen Actor’s Guild Awards. It’s perfect and still, without a doubt, holds its own to this day.