Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.


These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

Linking the Ace Hardware home and Wisteria Lane

Following up on a post regarding an odd-looking home in recent Ace Hardware commercials and a comment on the post that the Ace home was located on Wisteria Lane in the TV show Desperate Housewives, here is another look at the home courtesy of Wikipedia:


While the Ace commercial made the house gave the house even more odd proportions in order to fit an Ace sign on the front, the house is still odd. Too many gables that stick out too far plus a really odd second story window that barely fits between the two gables.

Here is more about Wisteria Lane:

In preparing for the pilot, the Desperate Housewives production team searched a 30-minute radius of Hollywood for a suburb in which to film the show, but nothing was quite right. The production team initially looked into purchasing a block of actual houses for filming, however they felt the houses looked too similar and lacked character. So they went with Plan B – a studio backlot.

Only two studios in Hollywood have significant backlots, Warner Brothers and Universal. Warner Brothers had half a street, with houses on one side and a park on the other, but there was no sense of community, but Universal had Colonial Street – a collection of rundown house fronts that lined both sides of the street, and were close enough together to look good on camera.

The only problem was that the houses are only three-quarter scale. The team had to deal with the challenges of the unnatural – the houses being too small and too close and the sidewalks not as wide as the real thing, but the show is a parable and a slightly less-than-real look became an advantage, and added to the suburban perfection on film…

At first, the houses were just facades, with interiors built on a sound stage, but once Housewives was picked up, something unique was done for the show, interiors were created, including Susan’s kitchen and Mary Alice’s living room, and Gabrielle could go in the front door and into the main floor of her house. This created a unique filming style which allowed viewers to watch a scene inside a house and look out through the windows into the street – creating a real sense of community.

To help audiences identify the different characters quickly, the team devised a colour palette system based on the characters personality and traits. They looked for colours that were intriguing, and then matched them up, these colour palettes are carried out in each character’s house exterior and interior. For example Gabrielle Solis was set with warm orange-yellow tones to hint at her spicy Latino nature. Whereas Susan Mayer’s character has more feminine sensibilities, demonstrated by the use of pastel colours.

So perhaps the real problem with the poorly proportioned house was that it was a 3/4 scale. Still, even a full scale version of the house might look at little busy in the front.

Desperate Housewives takes place in a really deadly suburban neighborhood

Entertainment Weekly revealed part of the argument for the defense of the creator of Desperate Housewives against a suit from one of the actresses who was killed off in season 5:

Cherry’s attorneys also pointed out that Sheridan was never officially a series lead, and showed a seven-minute video of 48 deaths in the history of Housewives  – now in its eighth, and final, season – illustrating that shootings, stabbings, and car crashes are de rigueur on the suburban street.

Desperate Housewives is in a long line of suburban critiques where suburban residents are driven to all sorts of crazy acts because of their perfect-appearing yet ultimately stifling houses and families. In other words, this is a hyperbolic and distorted view of suburban life though it is the common image in books, movies, and television (see another example currently on Suburgatory). But this might be some kind of record for violence in even the stereotyped suburbs. Were this to happen in a real-life neighborhood similar to the kind of middle- to upper-class enclave depicted by Wisteria Lane, neighbors and local officials would have been on this issue a long time ago. Perhaps this run of 48 deaths is an odd convergence of two popular media themes: the trivialization of suburban life combined with the trivialization of violence.

American TV shows help limit extremism in Saudi Arabia

The cables Wikileaks has put out contain all sorts of interesting information. According to the Telegraph, some American cultural products, such as Desperate Housewives, The David Letterman Show, and Friends, are valuable forces in combating jihad in Saudi Arabia:

In a message sent back to Washington DC, officials at the US Embassy in Jeddah said the shows, starring Jennifer Aniston and Eva Longoria, were successfully undermining the spread of jihadist ideas among the country’s youth.

Such programmes, broadcast with Arabic subtitles on several Saudi satellite channels, were part of a push by the kingdom to foster openness and counter extremists, according to the cable…

The diplomatic cable was headed “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” referring to the US chat show host who is also being broadcast to a Saudi audience.

The May 2009 cable said: “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the US if they can. They are fascinated by US culture in a way they never were before.” American sitcoms and chat shows were said to be finding a popular audience even in remote, conservative parts of the kingdom.

I’m glad such shows can be put to use – but this probably wasn’t a use that American TV executives expected…

On a more serious note, this highlights how American cultural products can be exported to other countries. Whether these shows reflect “American culture” can be debated but they certainly can introduce new ideas and values. Our military power might be impressive but American TV, movies, music, and more often have their own powerful influence.

Quick Review: The Stepford Wives (1975)

I recently watched the original version of this film from 1975 as opposed to the 2004 version with Nicole Kidman and others. The movie starts with a family of four moving from New York City to the suburbs where the mother, Joanna, starts uncovering some of the secrets of Stepford. The film attempts to make some pointed commentary in two main areas: gender relations and suburbia. Some quick thoughts:

1. On gender relations. Released in the mid 1970s (and based on a book published in 1972), the movie clearly draws upon a growing feminist movement. The heroine is married to a lawyer and has two children but also has dreams of becoming a recognized artistic photographer. Her husband seems sympathetic but then is drawn into a secretive men’s club in Stepford. Many of the women in town are supposedly what men want in wives: women who clean, cook, care for the children, and generally aim to please their husbands in all they do. Of course, Joanna eventually finds why the women are this way and is horrified.

2. Closely tied to these ideas about gender is the setting. In the city, Joanna seems to find life but feels trapped in the suburbs and comments on the lack of noise. In Stepford, the men do the important work while the women are expected to do traditional female tasks. New York City represents freedom and choices; Stepford is about repression and servitude. The film is clear: suburbia may be good for men (particularly those who high-status jobs) and children but it certainly bodes ill for women.

3. The ending is not very hopeful. I imagine the filmmaker (and book author) thought the suburbs were dragging down life across America. Of course, this film is not alone in these thoughts; there are plenty of books(fiction and non-fiction), TV shows, movies, and more that present a similar perspective. It is not too far of a leap from this film to the world of Desperate Housewives.

4. I was reminded by this film how far movies have come since the mid 1970s. The pace of the film was rather slow with some longer scenes and many took place without any music in the background. (It is hard to find movies these days that are conservative with their use of music – today, it generally seems to be amped up in order to enhance the emotional pull.) The camera shots and angles seem primitive and some of the zoom-ins were clunky. The story still comes through but the presentation these days is much smoother and manipulative.

Though the film is clunky at points, it is interesting for its attempt at commentary in the mid 1970s.