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Thursday, November 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Froma Harrop / Syndicated columnist
Desperate conservatives

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Every year there's a naughty new show on television. This year, it is "Desperate Housewives."

Conservative media watchdogs say it's the kind of morals-rotting sludge that good Americans have come to resent. And they've targeted the show's advertisers. At least two — Tyson Foods and Lowe's Home Improvement Centers — have dropped out.

But "Desperate Housewives" isn't going anywhere, except to the top of the ratings chart. It's been ABC's salvation, and other advertisers are lining up. If Tyson won't sell its chickens on "Desperate Housewives," Colonel Sanders will. Furthermore, the show isn't the cultural calamity its conservative critics contend.

"Desperate Housewives" is a dark comedy about pampered women living on a cul-de-sac of baby mansions. In material terms, they have the whole enchilada. Emotionally, they are miserable. Theirs is a world of adultery, rude children, mothers who lie and husbands who leave. One character is the voice of a dead housewife who put a gun to her head, for reasons we'll learn someday.

The American public, we are told, is fed up with this trash. Indecent television has become the main villain in the "values issue." But one thing needs noting: The very week that the people propelled President Bush to a second term — partly on his promise of cultural cleanup — 22 million Americans voted with their remotes for "Desperate Housewives." That must be worth a good 50 electoral votes.

Public hypocrisy? Yes, but I totally sympathize. If the pollster asked me whether "The Swan" was a morally reprehensible show, I'd say yes. But while one half of my brain is ashamed to be watching this thing, the other half can't wait for the commercials to end.

The conservative protests against "Desperate Housewives" are interesting because the show is pretty clean on language and nudity. The jokes are dirtier on "Everybody Loves Raymond." There are no scenes of "bachelorettes" licking whipped cream off of strippers' bodies. That idea got "Married by America" in trouble and earned Fox (Red America's favorite broadcaster) a $1.2 million fine from the Federal Communications Commission. "Desperate Housewives" is far less titillating than was "Dynasty." (The housewives' main frustration about sex tends to be not having any.)

Where "Desperate Housewives" offends the decency patrol is in its grim view of family life. The show portrays motherhood as "a worthless chore," charges the American Family Association. But the FCC can hardly sink its teeth into ABC for depicting dysfunctional families. If that's the case, there go "Hamlet" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

"Desperate Housewives" appeals to a broad female audience. Single women enjoy seeing how little they're missing. Feminists don't adore this program, but some give it a thumbs-up for casting women in their 30s, 40s and beyond. The characters may be messed up beyond belief, but women are so desperate to see TV females older than the Olsen twins that they'll settle for this.

By the way, conservatives are totally wrong that a show about messed-up families is necessarily bad for the institution of marriage. Real marriages and real children create conflict and anger. Mothers who'll watch "Desperate Housewives" can't help but feel good about their home lives, at least by comparison. And if they labor under the illusion that lack of money causes marital stress, this portrait of well-heeled misery will cure them.

Utopian family programs, like the old "Donna Reed Show," probably make more business for the divorce courts than their more cynical competitors. On "Donna Reed," all mom needed to do was apply some gentle discipline, and the children would robotically do the right thing under all circumstances. Donna's house was immaculate — even though there was no maid bustling about. Donna always looked stunning, and her husband was a 24-7 gent.

Whose domestic sphere doesn't look a shambles next to that? Learning that other people's lives come with warts makes people feel better about their own warts. That's what group therapy is about, and women were made for group therapy.

Let me add an advisory: Anyone looking for brilliant television ought not relinquish the remote upon finding "Desperate Housewives." It is neither great drama nor high comedy. But it's also no threat to your moral being. The show is bound to bore you before it does any harm.

Providence Journal columnist Froma Harrop's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

Copyright 2004, The Providence Journal Co.

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