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.