Back in 2004, Desperate Housewives (with a little help from Lost) singlehandedly revitalized the fortunes of ailing television network ABC. In the process, the show also paved the way for a brand new genre: the dramedy. The show was an immediate hit right out the gate, and that’s no surprise, because this opening hour is spectacular.
The greatest thing about Desperate Housewives is that its creator, Marc Cherry, knew exactly what kind of show he wanted. The pilot’s tone is singular and unique, and the episode was quite unlike anything else on television at the time. In fact, the pilot’s script is tremendously sharp – every single line pops with wit and dark humor that’s just a joy to behold (the quotes section below is basically overflowing with gems). In addition, the pilot’s script wisely injects the show with a fascinating mystery concerning the suicide of a seemingly happy suburban housewife called Mary Alice. This mystery drives the show throughout its first season, and it supplies the entire year with a great deal of forward momentum amidst all the character development and plot twists.
Of course nothing would work if the show had a weak cast. Thankfully, every single member of DH‘s sprawling cast of characters is perfectly brought to life. Teri Hatcher is lovable as divorcee Susan Mayer, Eva Longoria is magnetic as the sexy adulterer Gabrielle Solis, Marcia Cross is astounding as the anal Bree Van de Kamp, and Felicity Huffman is hilarious as the frustrated mother Lynette Scavo. That’s not even mentioning the rest of the top-notch cast including the seductive Edie Britt (hysterically played by Nicollette Sheridan) and Christine Estabrook’s excellent turn as the sneaky Martha Huber.
And really this pilot fires on all cylinders. The comedy and drama contrast each other beautifully, and the cinematography does a superb job of bringing Wisteria Lane to life. This is a visually stunning show, and the way the camera moves and shifts between the various vignettes and flashbacks is dreamlike and captivating across the board. Moreover, the relationship between the ladies just feels very lived-in and realistic, and even more-so with Mary Alice who doesn’t exist in present day. Accomplishing all this in 40 minutes is no easy feat!
Finally, the pilot’s end scene is definitely a winner, with the women discovering a note sent to Mary Alice the day she killed herself with the words “I know what you did, it makes me sick and I’m going to tell.” The way the camera pans away into the sky is very ominous, as we move away from this haunting development into the picture-perfect suburbia once more. Remarkable stuff!
– Amazing opening teaser with Mary Alice’s voiceover about her normal life culminating with the housewife shooting herself in the head. There’s also one heck of a memorable transition to the strawberry jam that Huber dips her finger in (which we first assume is blood).
– Laugh-out loud moment: Huber calling the police to report the suicide, and then making the best of the moment and ripping off Mary Alice’s sticker from the blender so she can claim it as her own.
– How great are the opening credits? Adam, Eve and the apples – genius.
– I think it’s inspired that the show introduces all the ladies by showing them on the way to the funeral, each with their speciality dish that defines something in their personality.
– Another gorgeous transition: Gabrielle descending the steps of her house as we shift to her strutting down a catwalk. Talk about slick!
– I just love Bree arriving at the funeral with her muffins (and the appropriate instructions).
– The irony of Mary Alice in the flashback telling the girls not to give in and to be strong. Ouch.
– Splendid touch: Gabby cracking the walnut as the ladies discuss penises.
– The chemistry between Susan and Mike is immediately electric. Get together.. now!
– I practically cheered when Lynette got into the pool with her heels and physically dragged her kids out. And seriously those child actors? Pretty cute.
– Beautiful shot: the camera submerging beneath the pool as we see Paul Young creepily look down.
– The dynamic between Susan and her daughter Julie is so compelling. The latter is the one who does all the mothering, not to mention investigates Mike and tires to get her mom to have sex. What an unorthodox and hysterical relationship.
– Edie Britt’s entrance is a highlight. The music, the slow-motion running, Mary’ VO – wow.
– I gotta admit, Gabby sleeping with her gardner (Jon) after her husband demeans her is kind of gratifying.
– The fact that Rex doesn’t even defend Bree against her ungrateful children over dinner speaks volumes. I wouldn’t want to live in this household.
– I can imagine that so many women across the world related so much to Lynette being asked if she “loves being a mom” and her lie of a response. So good.
– Too funny: Lynette’s kids running over the old lady in the supermarket.
– The juxtaposition of the school bus driving by as Gabby sleeps with her underage boytoy- too good.
– Great parenting: Susan using her daughter’s science project to purposely clog her sink. Ever since Lois and Clark, I’ve been a fan of Teri Hatcher. She’ll always be the best Lois Lane!
– I love how the camera shows us the onions that Bree puts in Rex’s salad just for a moment. Attentive viewers will notice that Bree mentioned in the dinner scene that her husband is deathly allergic. Of course Huber was distracting her.
– Watch how Bree very methodically slices the bread in the restaurant and cleans the silverware. It’s all in the details!
– Mary Alice’s son Zack wakes up in the middle of the night and sees his dad digging something up in the backyard. Alice informs us it’s not the first time. Interesting…
– Lynette punching her husband when he says they don’t need a condom – so satisfying.
– The most heartbreaking moment of the hour: Rex completely annihilating Bree and calling her a plastic wife, and then she sobs in the bathroom only to come out completely composed. What a performance.
– Everything about Gabrielle trying to hide her affair from Carlos is a comedic treasure. The way she tips the waiter to ensure Carlos is drunk, the fact that she steals the car and drives back home to mow the lawn in her evening gown, and of course that piece of grass in her hair when she returns. Awesomeness!
– It’s a quick moment, but Huber mentions that someone’s macaroni and cheese (Hello Susan) poisoned her at the funeral. HA!
– Special mention goes to Danny Elfman’s outstanding musical score. It’s been copied a lot since then (to much weaker effect).
– How hilarious is Susan setting Edie’s house on fire and thinking she sent Mike to the hospital? Her relief when he arrives as they watch the house go up in flames is just so darkly funny.
– Susie forgot her measuring cup at the scene of the crime. Uh oh. Also, who throws wine on a fire?
– Unexpected last minute twist: Mike Delfino the innocent plumber is packing heat, and he’s getting “closer to something”. Hmmm…
– Susan’s final line (“Oh Mary Alice what did you do?”) is just right. I wouldn’t bookend this pilot in any other way.
Mary Alice: (VO) In fact, Lynette’s life had become so hectic, she was now forced to get her fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant. Lynette would have appreciated the irony if she stopped to think about it, but she couldn’t. She didn’t have the time.
Porter: What’s that?
Lynette: Santa’s cell phone number.
Porter: How’d you get that?
Lynette: I know someone who knows someone who knows an elf, and if any of you acts up, so help me, I will call Santa, and I will tell him you want socks for Christmas.
Mary Alice: (VO) Since her modeling days in New York, Gabrielle had developed a taste for rich food and rich men. Carlos, who worked in mergers and acquisitions, proposed on their third date. Gabrielle was touched when tears welled up in his eyes, but she soon discovered this happened every time Carlos closed the big deal.
Bree: Now, the basket with the red ribbon is filled with desserts for your guests, but the one with the blue ribbon is just for you and Zachary. It’s got rolls, muffins, breakfast-type things.
Paul: Thank you.
Bree: Well, the least I could do is make sure you boys had a decent meal to look forward to in the morning. I know you’re out of your minds with grief.
Paul: Yes, we are.
Bree: Of course, I will need the baskets back once you’re done.
Mary Alice: (VO) Susan Mayer, who lives across the street, brought macaroni and cheese. Her husband Carl always teased her about her macaroni, saying it was the only thing she knew how to cook, and she rarely made it well. It was too salty the night she and Carl moved into their house. It was too watery the night she found lipstick on Carl’s shirt. She burned it the night Carl told her he was leaving her for his secretary.
Julie: Mom why would someone kill themselves?
Susan: Well sometimes people are so unhappy, they think that’s the only way they can solve their problems.
Julie: But Mrs. Young always seemed happy.
Susan: Yeah, sometimes people pretend to be one way on the outside when they’re totally different on the inside.
Julie: Oh, you mean like how dad’s girlfriend always smiling and says nice things, but deep down, you just know she’s a bitch?
Susan: I don’t like that word, Julie. But, yeah, that’s a great example.
Susan: I mean, of all people, did he have to bang his secretary? I had that woman over for brunch.
Gabrielle: It’s like my grandmother always said — an erect penis doesn’t have a conscience.
Lynette: Even the limp ones aren’t that ethical.
Lynette: Tom’s always away on business.
Mary Alice: Do you ever worry he might?
Lynette: Oh, please, the man’s gotten me pregnant three times in four years. I wish he was having sex with someone else.
Susan: I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.
Susan: I made it. Trust me. (He starts to eat) Hey, hey, do you have a death wish?
Mike: No, I just refuse to believe that anybody can screw up macaroni and cheese. (He tastes it) Oh, my god. How did you — it tastes like it’s burned and undercooked.
Susan: Yeah, I get that a lot.
Mike: Huber told me about you. Said you illustrate children’s books.
Susan: Yeah, I’m very big with the under-5 set.
Lynette: (to her baby as she breastfeeds) Ease up, you little vampire.
Julie: How long has it been since you’ve had sex? Are you mad that I asked you that?
Susan: No, I’m just trying to remember.
Mary Alice: (VO) Susan knew he was lucky. An eligible bachelor had moved onto Wisteria Lane, and she was the first to find out, but she also knew that good news travels quickly. Edie Britt was the most predatory divorcée in a 5-block radius. Her conquests were numerous varied and legendary.
Mary Alice: (VO) Susan had met the enemy, and she… was a slut.
Mary Alice: (VO) And just like that, the race for Mike Delfino had begun. For a moment, Susan wondered if her rivalry with Edie would remain friendly.
Edie: Oh, Mike. I heard you’re a plumber?
Mary Alice: (VO) But she was reminded that when it came to men…
Edie: Do you think you could stop by later tonight and take a look at my pipes?
Mary Alice: (VO) Women don’t fight fair.
Gabrielle: Every time I’m around that man, he tries to grab my ass.
Carlos: I made over $200,000 doing business with him last year. If he wants to grab your ass, you let him.
Danielle: Why can’t we ever have normal soup?
Bree: Danielle, there is nothing abnormal about basil puree.
Andrew: Just once, couldn’t we have a soup that people have heard of? Like french onion or navy bean.
Bree: First of all, your father can’t eat onions. He’s deathly allergic. And I won’t even dignify your navy bean suggestion.
Andrew: Mom, I’m not the one with the problem here, all right? You’re the one always acting like she’s running for mayor of Stepford.
Bree: Rex. Seeing that you’re the head of this household, I would really appreciate you saying something.
Rex: Pass the salt?
Lynette: Not now, honey. Mommy’s threatening daddy.
Liz: Yeah, well So how’s domestic life? Don’t you just love being a mom?
Mary Alice: (VO) And there it was — the question that Lynette always dreaded.
Lynette: Well, to be honest…
Mary Alice: (VO) for those who asked it, only one answer was acceptable, so Lynette responded as she always did. She lied.
Lynette: It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
John: You know what I don’t get? What? Why you married Mr. Solis.
Gabrielle: Well he promised to give me everything I’ve ever wanted.
John: And did he?
John: Then why aren’t you happy?
Gabrielle: Turns out I wanted all the wrong things.
John: So do you love him?
Gabrielle: I do.
John: Well, then, why are we here? Why are we doing this?
Gabrielle: Because I don’t want to wake up one morning with a sudden urge to blow my brains out.
Susan: (to Julie) How would you feel about me using your child-support payments for plastic surgery?
Susan: Tell me again why I fought for custody of you.
Julie: You were using me to hurt dad.
Susan: Oh, that’s right.
Bree: If you think I’m going to discuss the dissolution of my marriage in a place where the restrooms are labeled “chicks” and “dudes,” you’re out of your mind.
Mary Alice: (VO) The sound that awakened my son was something he’d heard only once before, many years ago when he was quite young, but he recognized it instantly. It was the sound of a family secret.
Rex: I can’t believe you tried to kill me.
Bree: Yes, well, I feel badly about that.
Gabrielle: You guys check out Mary Alice’s clothes? Size 8? Ha. She always told me she was a size 6. Guess we found the skeleton in her closet.
Mary Alice: (VO) Not quite, Gabrielle. Not quite.
Impeccable dialogue and a unique tone means Desperate Housewives‘ debut episode is a perfect pilot in every way.
Note: (If you’ve watched the whole show, be sure to read my review of the series finale which I wrote all the way back in 2012 when I first started the site).