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Something strange has happened to television drama this fall: It’s gone giddy. Maybe the dominance of reality TV has sent producers running in the opposite direction, toward garish unrealism. HBO shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under have long used fantasy sequences to contrast characters’ dream-lives with their gritty waking hours.
But several of the most hyped new shows—especially those on ABC—dwell in la-la land full-time, practically courting preposterousness with every deliciously cartoony scene.
Boston Legal does for law dramas what Nip/Tuck did for medical shows: It sends the genre lurching away from earnest realism into pure fruitiness. A spin-off of the more traditional David E. Kelley series The Practice, Boston Legal pivots around two loopy, morally corrupt lawyers, Alan Shore (James Spader) and Denny Crane (William Shatner). It’s a partnership made in camp heaven, as those of you who watched The Practice last season already know. I had avoided The Practice for years, an aversion to David E. Kelley that dates back to the odious Ally McBeal—all those anorectic, miniskirted lawyerettes arguing cases about a woman’s right to be sexually harassed got on my nerves.
Thankfully, Boston Legal mostly reins in Kelley’s misogynistic tendencies, although the female lawyers (evenly divided between blondes and brunettes for diversity’s sake) are still expected to use their hot bods to distract clients and win cases. So far, though, they mostly serve as foils for the show’s male leads, who manage to integrate an archly queer-eye persona with distinctly straight macho-man behavior. “I’ve always prided myself on being nuts, but in this firm I find myself falling into the sane category,” Alan quips in the first episode, after a senior partner arrives for an important meeting naked from the waist down and is carted off to the loony bin. The wackiness carries over into some of the firm’s cases: One of Alan’s clients sues the producers of Annie for not hiring her daughter, a fierce little black girl with a blond afro. Treading the line between edgy provocation and politically dodgy parody, Alan brings in Al Sharpton to testify on little black Annie’s behalf. The reverend provides a booming oratory on why the world needs African Americans playing iconic roles (“Forget tomorrow! The sun needs to come out today!”), theatrics that provide perfect leverage since, as Alan points out dryly, “Controversy will close your play faster than you can say Trent Lott.”
Desperate Housewives, another ABC debut, also inhabits an odd hinterland between drama, comedy, and soap. Its mix of registers leaves you confused—especially because, although it’s theoretically set in the present, the series exudes a curious retro glow: Nearly all the female lead characters are homemakers or trophy wives, throwbacks to the same pre-feminist period when every perfect household was a facade hiding misery and terrible secrets. The show’s narrator, Mary Alice Young, is the embodiment of a Stepford wife—except that she’s dead, having blown her brains out in the first few minutes of the pilot episode. Now she looks down from heaven and heaps snarky judgments on her former soul sisters, the prickly white wives of Hysteria, I mean, Wisteria Lane.
Although its glossy production values and capable female cast suggest that Desperate Housewives would like to step into Sex and the City’s designer shoes, it’s actually much closer to Melrose Place. The presence of two Melrose alumni in the cast cements the connection: Doug Savant (a/k/a “Matt the gay guy”) plays a suburban dad while Marcia Cross (formerly known as hilarious bitch-doctor Kimberly Shaw) stars as Bree, a Martha Stewart-style homemaking control freak. Then there’s Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), a Latina model married to an oppressive businessman, and former high-powered exec Lynette (Felicity Huffman), a stay-at-home mom drowning in breast milk and loneliness. Clichéd local slut Edie (Nicolette Sheridan) turns up dressed like Carrie Bradshaw to woo the cute new guy in the neighborhood and invites him over to “clean her pipes.” (Not just aimless innuendo—he’s a plumber.) The series’ one concession to the 21st century is Susan (Teri Hatcher): She’s not a housewife at all, but a children’s book illustrator and single mom awkwardly trying to figure out how to re-enter the dating world. (With her perky boobs, that problem will surely solve itself.) Susan’s such a down-to-earth character she sometimes seems to have wandered off the set of another show altogether. Even more than Boston Legal, Desperate Housewives seems determined to jumble genres, juxtaposing nuanced characters and stagy stereotypes. The show even refers to its own fakeness, like when Bree’s husband despairingly proclaims, “I just can’t live in this detergent commercial anymore.”
The most hyped series of the season, Lost also plays it retro with its B-movie premise: Victims of a plane crash try to survive on a desert island inhabited by some kind of monster. But everything else about the drama feels extremely modern, from its kinetic careening camerawork and special effects to its ultra-realistic gore. Created by Alias maestro J.J. Abrams, Lost is TV drama on crack. Every time you start to settle in, the screen erupts with a fresh burst of adrenaline as we relive each character’s harrowing experience of the crash, watch them flee a mysterious creature, or feel the shock of a seemingly dead person springing to life.
Lost has serious chutzpah: Like Alias, it never shies away from ridiculous storylines and inanely complicated plot twists that don’t bear close scrutiny. Instead of Alias‘s pouty-mouthed fembot, Lost features Matthew Fox as Jack, a handsome young doctor who takes charge of the survivors faster than you can say “tribal council.” He removes shrapnel from a wounded passenger and leads a trek to find the plane’s transceiver. Why would a doctor know so much about transceivers? “I took a coupla flying lessons once,” Jack explains with a straight face. The series surrounds Jack with dozens of characters who will presumably turn nasty—or maybe they’ll be picked off one by one, à la Survivor. Sure, the flimsy logic makes my head hurt. But like Boston Legal and Desperate Housewives, Lost hurls itself into my living room with such zany intensity that I find myself succumbing to it, monsters and all.