The International Writers Magazine:On Teaching Desperate Housewives
Monday, 9am Screenwriting Seminar Level 2, a ten credit
unit that runs three times a week and is allegedly popular (because
like most TV executives, students think writing scripts is a doddle
and wouldnt require much effort). Indeed someone in my department
compared screenwriting to hairdressing and that sort of sets the
9.15am. I am still
alone. 10 am some drift in nursing hangovers, excuses, indifference
whatever. This is modern higher education, you take a register
but theres not much time left to discuss technique or character
development. Since most are studying film or media I am constantly amazed
at how few of them go to the cinema or read reviews or have an interest
in the subject at hand. (I have it on good authority that is a universal
Its not the Monday that is to blame; the same thing is repeated
on a Tuesday at 4pm, which clashes with lunchtime hangovers. (I reflect
on Blairs decision for 24 hour drinking all over the UK and wonder
if this sends the right signal to students.) Friday the
class starts at 9am, which is a pity as it clashes with the previous
night 6 pints for the price of one at the Union and the Tropical Beach
Party that follows.
Of course you could say that it makes my life easier to have empty classrooms,
but now they pay three grand to come here, there is pressure to get
them through the course or we can start looking elsewhere for a job.
Failure is no longer an option. So what to do to make screenwriting
more attractive? Sometimes I know lecturers take the view that well
at least they are being paid, if the students dont pitch up its
their lookout, but no longer. That pressure to pass them means that
you have to employ press-gangs to get them in or devise something so
seductive they will voluntarily pop in from time to time.
So what does a desperate bloke do in the depth of winter to make his
79 students engage with his credit unit? Invoke the power of Desperate
Housewives (devised by Marc Cherry). Surely this will get them interested?
We are talking February 2005. The American TV show is hot; everyone
is talking about it and by sheer coincidence I am teaching about the
thriller all semester. In theory, a comic, sexy thriller should be a
winner to grab them by the scruff of the throat. The prize, they get
to write a ten-minute script in the style of
and get credits for
it. Bliss. (This seminar series is supposed to prepare them for a
unit in the third year where students have the option of writing a 60-minute
TV drama or screenplay for 40 credits).
So do they flock in, filled with ideas and concepts? Well er
It seems Desperate Housewives clashes with half-price double
shots at the Get Wasted night at the Union.
If they cant watch real time, how about video? Too much of a fag.
Either way I show an episode in class to somewhat trashed 19 year olds
who can barely lift their heads off their chests.
There is, of course, a presumption on my part that if you are studying
film or media that learning something about screenwriting would be useful;
especially for those planning to make a short film in the third year.
I point out that all I require them to do at the end of term is write
a ten-minute thriller in the style of Desperate Housewives complete
with synopsis, scene and character breakdown.
All they have to do is watch the show a couple of times; theyll
get the feel for it, right? Its not rocket science
as they say, but neither is rocket science I hear these days.
course once we have actually all seen an episode, we can discuss
it. There is an immediate response. Males wont watch the show
because of the word housewife. Desperate is OK, it implies
fear, terror, pain, that sort of thing they will watch, housewife,
not ok, it seems that if they admit to watching the show somehow
their manhood would be threatened. (Young 19-year-old males are
so insecure these days perhaps Eva Longoria who plays Gabriella
is too strong for them now theres a debate).
The females show
some interest and for one brief glorious moment we can legitimately
discuss the importance of Gabrielles underwear for the success
of the show. Make no mistake, from repeated viewings of the entire series,
it must be stated in her contract that she has to strip down to her
underwear in every episode or viewers will simply switch off. Even Bree
strips down from time to time and clearly the show is structured around
clothing, on or off the female form.
My own particular favourite housewife, the cheating, bitchy but utterly
sexy Gabrielle isnt quite connecting with the females in the same
way. They seem to identify with Lynette, the ex-advertising executive
mother of twins so awful, drowning them would be too good for them.
They even bond with Bree Van de Kamp the anally retentive Stepford wife
whose husband can only get it up if he is er
whipped by the lady
down the road doing a spot of Belle De Jour. Try discussing sexual perversions
in your next higher education seminar, youd be surprised how squeamish
students can be. Betrayal is, of course, an excellent premise for a
revenge thriller, but this doesnt seem to cut much ice.
We discuss in class that everyone (except for the blokes) identifies
with a different female in the show. Its quite uncanny how calculating
the show is in sweeping up all the different types and synthesising
them into just a few women. Susan (Teri Hatcher) the klutz, who still
believes in love at 40 and is very particular about her coffee. Bree
who desperately wants perfection. Gabrielle who desperately wants sex
with anyone but her husband, and others who crave affection or attention
or like Lynette respect. The males in the show are all flawed in so
many ways and are there solely to be used or abused.
Of course, it is said that TV audiences are dominated by females in
most households so strong but imperfect women are considered
good, all men must be weak and vulnerable, certainly flawed.
I am sure someone has done a paper on this, but for now this is a general
observation. Robert Cottingham, a Portsmouth graduate specialising in
Woody Allen commented in Hackwriters.com that before this show came
on air .. it was thought that nobody wanted to watch women
older than their bra sizes, and nobody wanted to see the American dream
condemned as a lie. Desperate Housewives proved that
premise wrong. Shows about singles were passé. Now American housewives
could be sexy. Of course fifteen years ago we had Twin Peaks
by David Lynch that shook TV out of its complacency, but it was defeated
by its own whimsy. Can Desperate Housewives stay the course?
I am not teaching Desperate Housewives out of the goodness of
my heart. I am hoping theyll decode the programme and gain some
understanding of what really popular TV drama could be if they were
writing it. (As opposed to the usual UK tosh they watch such as the
dire Hollyoaks or the squalid Murder Investigation Team,
which both display the qualities that make up 90 percent of English
drama, hostility, squabbling, class issues, stupidity and massive quantities
of alcohol intakes. Which is why you dont see them on American
One hopes that other units taught here will arm the students of an understanding
of the subtext in societal substratas. But I am not so sure they
are doing the reading.
What do my students see in Desperate Housewives? Do they understand
the ironic tone; do they see that this is set-up for a perfect iconic
representation of American suburban life? Wisteria Lane is for everyone
a representation of success in American culture. Businessmen,
advertising executives, bored rich housewives, others clinging on to
the dream despite divorce, seemingly perfect kids who have everything
they want and more. The lawns are manicured, the garden boys are male-pins
ups and objects of lust, and everyone knows each others name and they
even socialise with each other. (Something that would considered surreal
in the UK upscale neighbourhood I think).
Do my students see below the surface? Do they understand why the show
is popular? Or why it is so subversive? Or do they take it at face value?
Certainly they are slow to pick up on the shows premise, that
under the veneer of social and financial security lies a writhing demon
of deceit and deception. The show is centred around a suicide and the
dead housewife Mary Alice Young (Brenda Strong) is the weekly narrator.
She is the supposedly perfect wife who suddenly, without warning, killed
herself. What it is about her creepy husband Paul and creepier son that
make neighbours flesh crawl. Anything to do with the baby they
dug out from under the swimming pool perhaps? Anything to do with blackmail
note she received the day before she died?
Gabrielles underwear is on show to almost anyone other than her
husband Carlos; (never waste a good-looking garden boy is her motto).
Susan the hopeless dreamer lusts after Mike Delfino (James Denton) who,
we discover, is an ex-con, cop killer, drug dealer, plumber, who is,
nevertheless charming and carrying a big secret. Mrs Huber is a blackmailer
who will get her comeuppance. Another woman, Edie (Nicollette Sheridan)
is a sex crazed real estate agent who rivals Susan for the attention
of Mike the plumber. She also finds it hard to be accepted by the street
because she isnt married. (And is an exhibitionist). Lets
not forget the children who flirt with drugs and homosexuality and one
son who cares nothing when he kills in a hit and run accident. Bree
(Marcia Cross) realises she has raised a monster despite all
her good intentions. Or what about the pharmacist who is trying to poison
Brees husband. Are there no good people at all? Behind every curtain
this is the real America seething with discontent. Have a nice day declared
between clenched teeth. The show is loved because no one is allowed
to be happy in paradise it satisfies a need to know that they
too share our disappointment with retail therapy and sexual promises.
Life, despite 50 years of Disneyfication, didnt turn out to be
a fairy story after all.
Its possible the roots of Desperate Housewives lie in a
long forgotten long running soap called Peyton Place (author
Grace Metalious). 40 years ago it was considered risqué and shocked
a nation that men ran off with others wives. It began as a novel (considered
trash by many, but read by more), became a film in 1957, then inevitably
a TV Soap series in 1964. Ryan O Neal and Mia Farrow got their
When you get the big house in the suburbs you are supposed to be happy,
not murdering your neighbours to keep them quiet. Certainly not creeping
around their homes when they are out and accidentally setting fire to
them as Susan does in Desperate Housewives. Each week the show
has a new revelation, a new level of unhappiness or confrontation, but
interlevened with a nice level of wit and self-mockery.
The task I set my students was to take an element from the show and
make their own thriller, using this iconic inversion. The woman who
trusts too much, the husband trying to catch out the cheating spouse,
the secrets behind a perfect family based on a lie, or the sexual deviant
exposed. All of which is weekly fare in Desperate Housewives.
Just to make sure they got the message, we watched a boat load of ten
minute films, discussed pace, structure, how quickly you have to get
a story up and running and present fully formed characters. We even
checked out Thelma and Louise, which are a pair of really desperate
housewives (even though only one is actually married).
My concept is that in a thriller - something must happen, someone probably
gets a little bit scared and with luck we care enough to be worried
about their fate. Of course if Thelma hadnt taken that gun with
her she would have been raped and the story would have ended in the
car park. At best it would have been a film about recovering from trauma.
But she did take the gun and Louise used it. From that moment on they
It the same in most thrillers when you are told not to go through the
dont go, you know the truth is out to get you.
(If you want a lesson in really good screenwriting rent Kiss Kiss
Bang Bang - the best smartest screenplay in years).
Before students are allowed to write the script they have to pitch the
idea to their peers and get their approval. Did Desperate Housewives
have any effect? Did they clue into the idea that it was supposed to
be an incident in the lives of, rather than war and peace, hardly. Does
successful TV impact on student minds at all? Can they learn from success?
It doesnt seem so.
Seventy odd scripts later we have stories about drug deals going wrong,
drinking binges, mission impossible rip-offs, ghost stories, a superhero
with er no powers
and girls on shopping sprees. Like many staff
at the end of a semester, one wonders if there is any point to higher
education at all. Theres a sign outside my office Bang your
Fortunately another season of Desperate Housewives has begun
and already there is someone being held prisoner in the new neighbours
basement and hopefully Gabriella will cling to her underwear until the
baby shows. This year Im plotting to show dark intense European
films with lots of long philosophic conversations and many sub-titles,
thatll teach em. Betty Blue 101 here we go.
© Sam North Jan 11th 2006
Sam North runs the MA in Creative Writing at University of Portsmouth
He is the author of Diamonds The Rush of 72
and The Curse of the Nibelung A Sherlock Holmes Mystery Amazon
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