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Lost vs. Desperate Housewives: The Monster Wins

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It’s probably an exaggeration to say that you’re either a Lost person or a Desperate Housewives person—considering the ratings, plenty of people must watch both. But I’m definitely a Lost person, and to know why you need only watch the season  premieres of both shows.

The Lost debut was excellent on a story level: it showed us what was down the island’s hatch while introducing a new, tantalyzing mystery. (And consider: there’s so much story on Lost that half of it —what happened to the castaways escaping on  the raft—was pushed off until this week’s episode.) But more important, it’s impressive how the characters have deepened and evolved over a year. Compare the season premiere with last year’s pilot, and it’s amazing how the relationships have deepened and complicated: the tense, science-vs.-faith rivalry between Jack and Locke, just for starters.

The Desperate Housewives premiere, on the other hand, shows the soap content to keep its characters skimming along at the same shallow level as always—entertainingly shallow, maybe, but shallow nonetheless. Watch the second-season premiere and last year’s pilot and you’ll find that you haven’t learned anything meaningful, in a character sense, about anyone. Lynette is still a harried supermom, just in the corporate world instead of at home. Bree is still deeply repressed; Susan is still a lovelorn wreck; Gabrielle is still scheming and countering her husband’s lies with her own; Edie is still an under-written bitch. Yeah, the stories change—somebody gets widowed, somebody’s husband goes to jail—but the women remain exactly the same, only more so.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the show’s insistence on making any supporting character even more caricatured than the five women. (This is another contrast to Lost, which has a dozen well-drawn leads and gives even bit players some mystery and dignity.) Case in point: after Bree’s husband dies, her subplot for the episode is set up as her mother-in-law arrives, leaning out of a taxi and wailing, "My life is over!"

Maybe I’m oversensitive, but is a mother wailing over her son’s death really such a gauche, comical inconvenience? Instead of doing anything real with the character, the episode simply set up yet another in-law conflict (like Carlos’ Mom last season). Indeed, it’s amazing how, on a soap about women, the female supporting characters are more stereotyped than the men. They’re dowdy, shrewish mother figures—women like Bree’s mother-in-law who judge and shame the lead characters. Or they’re traitorous, undermining superbitches, like Joely Fisher as Lynette’s new boss, who wears plunging necklines and brags condescendingly about how she gave up having children in order not to be a burden to her coworkers.

For a show that’s entirely about relationships and emotion, Desperate Housewives has few convincing relationships and no emotional range. Everything—an affair, a murder, the loss of a child—finally gets played out as a wacky lark, with that overused pizzicato string music plinking in to let you that it’s all just suburban satire as usual. People refer to Desperate Housewives as a dark comedy, but that’s really not true: because it defuses nearly everything in the end with the same kitschy wink, it never allows itself to get dark at all.

Yes, I know, it’s just entertainment. But as Lost shows, being "just entertainment" doesn’t have to mean turning your characters into cardboard cutouts. Desperate Housewives will probably  continue to be as twisty and fun as always this season—sure, I’m curious who Alfre Woodard has locked up in the basement. But a year ago, who would have thought that the most believeable of ABC’s new big dramas would turn out to be the one with the giant invisible monster?