Change and Decline in US TV Drama: Conclusion

Part 3: Desperate Housewives, Mad Men and Conclusion

Spoiler Alert

Coming to more recent television dramas, we see that change in little doses can also be dangerous – or indeed helpful. In looking at Desperate Housewives, which last year concluded its eight-year run, it’s difficult not to notice that few television dramas have so quickly fallen flat. A take on the American Beauty genre, Desperate Housewives started off with the same message that Twin Peaks director David Lynch wanted to give in his series. As Lynch said of his view of America: “My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”


That was Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and that was also Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, to some degree influenced by the former. As most television-literate people know, it revolved around four housewives, each of them desperate in their own way, and the darkness that lurked underneath. The first season’s story arc, which focused on the reasons for deceased housewife Mary Alice’s suicide, was painted with bright colours, loveable characters, and equally deliciously unexpected twists and turns. We eventually discovered in the season’s finale that the supposedly innocent, warm-voiced and angelic Mary Alice had committed suicide because of guilt; years later she had accidentally killed the biological mother of her adopted son, a former drug junkie who had come back to claim her child from his new parents.

From then on there was a Desperate Housewives trend: every season would have a new mystery. The trouble was, however, that if this mystery was not of interest, then the season might just collapse. Season 2 remained hugely intriguing, not because of the mystery – regarding the new family’s disturbed son being locked up in the basement – but because of the other housewives’ individual storylines. When perfect housewife Bree Van de Kamp discovered that her fiancé and former pharmacist George Williams had actually been responsible for her beloved first husband’s murder, television produced one of its strikingly engrossing scenes where the mentally disturbed George calls on Bree for help, having deliberately taken an overdose. She pretends that she has called an ambulance but instead, much to the joy of the viewers, she watches him die. That was the stuff – and the mixture of darkness and light – of which Desperate Housewives was made.

And then came subsequent seasons. Season 3 survived on a thread, although barely. Suddenly the charm of manic characters was wearing thin. Season 4 was better, introducing the mystery of new neighbour Katherine Mayfair, her adopted daughter and the secrets that lay therein. But from Season 5 onwards there was a farce. Marc Cherry made the decision of a time leap five years in the future, resulting in major changes in the characters’ lives. Another ‘evil’ character was brought in, the new husband of major character Edie Britt. But since we realised he was a maniac from Episode 1 of the season, there was little point to watch the rest, where, as predicted, it was revealed why and how he was a maniac, and eventually he died.

Individual episode story arcs were now not as exciting as suicide and guilt, but focused more on things like squabbles that took place between Bree and Lynette because Bree was more successful and Lynette was jealous. Season 6 became impossible to watch when we were actually led to be convinced of the likelihood of a plane flying in to Wisteria Lane, the residence of all the major characters, and randomly killing some of them. Last year Desperate Housewives finished with another spectacularly unbelievable and farcical story turn when, just as Bree was about to be sentenced for the murder of a man she didn’t kill, the aging and terminally ill neighbour Karen McCluskey claimed that she had single-handedly killed the huge, heavy Latin American man – and the jury believed her.

Turning to excess humour, one might argue, is not the way to go in order to continue the success of a television drama – but neither is excessive darkness. One continuing series, however, has almost changed history by gaining viewers throughout its fifth season – and this is Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men.

The reason why a series like Mad Men is capable of getting better after five years is, quite simply, because nothing ever really happened in it in the first place. Typical shots we saw in Mad Men involved its main character, Don Draper, sitting and thinking. In the following episode again he would be deep in thought. Occasionally another major character like Peggy might do something strange, like put on weight for no reason and suffer a major inferiority complex; and a recurring theme was Pete Campbell not feeling like a man – especially with the presence of Don in the office.


Mad Men is set in a 1960s advertising agency, and most of its storylines revolve around advertising campaigns. The little room that was left in early seasons for everyone’s private lives was filled with dreary, usually pointless stories; Don would cheat on his wife Betty, and then he would feel guilty about it, and then he would think. But his thinking, because it was usually visual and not verbal as in the case of Tony Soprano, did little to keep hold of the viewer’s attention.

In Season 5 the show turned a new leaf, and although there were still episodes about Pete’s inferiority complex and Peggy doing something weird, events actually started to happen. Perhaps the rise in ratings inspired Matthew Weiner to focus the series on more of a mass audience; perhaps it was just a coincidence. Season 5 saw the suicide of pitiable Englishman Lane Pryce after Don found out that he’d embezzled a large amount of the agency’s money and asked him to leave; the show’s only interesting female character Joan agreeing to literally sell herself for the agency’s gain, and Peggy, who for all her strangeness had been loyal to the agency, leaving it in favour of its rival.

What do all of these examples have to say about change and decline in American television drama? They can certainly be related, and often be each other’s cause. Just as in life, change is not necessarily a bad thing, and can even boost a show’s quality. Does it make a difference if the show’s creator leaves? It does. And, in a weak comparison, evidently if it had not been Proust who had written the last three volumes of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, they would have probably gone unrecognised. But television drama, not being that kind of high art, works differently. It can survive with other, unknown writers. It is largely managed by the actors, who, it has to be argued, by the third if not second year know their own personages better than anyone else in the world – even their creator. Viewers tend to hold change responsible for the decline in interest and in ratings. It certainly can be. But all of that depends on artistic decisions, decisions in the hands of various executive producers and head writers. Is change a bad thing, or is sameness? Both are good and bad. The rest of it is luck.