By Roger Friedman, 7/11/06

So the fine actress Alfre Woodard has had the last laugh on �Desperate Housewives.� The show brought her on to establish an African-American family, then trashed the characters and turned them into violent racist stereotypes. Woodard got written off unceremoniously as her character packed her bags and moved away.
But it�s no defeat. Now Woodard is the only member of the regular cast to get an Emmy nomination for the mislabeled comedy series.

Pretty funny, huh?

Woodard�s departure says a lot about how �Desperate Housewives� tanked this season. Her character, Betty, had to leave; her story made no sense from the very start. Her character was never integrated into the show, and her storyline had nothing to do with anything else going on at Wisteria Lane.

This is what they did to the phenomenal actress who had won four Emmys, been nominated for an Oscar (for 1983’s Cross-Creek), was known for series work in �St. Elsewhere� and film roles in �Passion Fish,� �Down in the Delta� and �Cross Creek.� They lured her in, then not only did they squander her, they tried to humiliate her.

What could be worse? Halfway through the season, one of the actors playing one of Woodard�s sons had to be dismissed for sexual harassment (maybe he was frustrated that his character was locked in the basement).
Woodard, friends confessed, was very unhappy by the time the cast showed up at the Golden Globe awards (in January of this year). By the end of the season, she must have been fuming.

In the final two-part episode, both of her sons beat a woman, one of them killing her. The other ran off with the underage white daughter of a neighbor and was subsequently shot dead.

So much for letting black people into Wisteria Lane. Next season�s big story has already been set up with the much the more �acceptable� Kyle MacLachlan. He will not be basement-bound, trust me.

But who�s laughing now? Woodard was the only series regular to get an Emmy nomination (the only other acting nomination went to Shirley Knight, who was a guest star in several episodes as Bree�s mother-in-law).

Granted, for a show billed as a comedy, her scenes were far from funny. But by the end of this season, “Desperate Housewives” was pretty deficient in the laugh department, considering the beatings, murder and a hit and run.

“Desperate Housewives” could be the one show that fell apart faster than �Twin Peaks,� and that�s saying something. (Note the actor mentioned above who provides the link to both shows. Why he should not be kept locked in the basement on ANY show – why he should BE on any show, in the basement or not – I do not know).

The big problem that the writers created for themselves was arguably at the end of the first season. They turned the show�s narrator, who had committed suicide and was thought to have been a victim, into a murderess and child snatcher (note: I don’t know who this is, and blissfully don’t care. I don’t get the fuss over this show. It is nothing more than a high-gloss The Supernatural Stepford Wives). . After that, there was no place to go but down.

In the second season, the narrator remained � even though she was hardly sympathetic � and the show went in half a dozen different directions at once. It remains unclear whether or not it can be fixed, but I�m sure the ABC execs are breathing down creator Marc Cherry�s neck right now. No Emmy nods � including writing and directing � speaks volumes.

At least Woodard can feel like she finished a job well done. Now she can go back to movies with her head held high and, I guess, her wallet a little fatter. And Wisteria Lane can resume its tales as a haven for the soulless.

I once asked someone who claimed to be a fan of this show two questions. Question #1: “What are the housewives so desperate about? I’ve watched the show, and they don’t act desperate.” The fan could not articulate a response. “I don’t know. Nice title, though, don’t you think?” Question #2: “What’s so good about this show?” “I love it.” “But why do you love it?” “Because it’s a soap opera.” (This was like playing twenty questions with a piece of bark.” “Well, I’ve seen some of it, and it doesn’t look any better than the daytime soaps. Is it?” “Yeah.” “Why so?” “Well, the acting is better. And that Eva Mongolia – she is SO pretty.”

OK. So maybe the acting is better. Not high praise, exactly, but at least that answer gave an inkling as to why at least this person liked the show. I’ve heard other reasons from “the company,” i.e. the critics – the show mixes the mordant with the mudane cleverly; it is a clever satire; the plot twists lift the show beyond the realm of the generic, blah, blah, blah. I tried watching the show and it went through me like yogurt.

But that was before Alfre. I love Alfre Woodard. Gosh, what was the first thing I saw her in? 1992’s Passion Fish, I think. She and Mary McDonnell (who, one would like to think, could only have guessed at what a great series Battlestar Galactica has turned out to be – not that the character written for her would linger in the memory at all were it not for her brittle talent) were terrific in that movie. I’ve never seen Ms. Woodard play a character to which she did not impute conviction, sincerity, and believability. And, of course, her star went supernova for me when she played Lily Sloane in 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact. She and Patrick Stewart engaged in a fiery verbal confrontation near the end of the film that may very well be the best such confrontation in the 40-year history of Star Trek-a history that spans 715 episodes and 10 movies. Watching the two spar with each other was a literal joy.

And so, when I heard that Ms. Woodard was joining the cast of Desperate Housewives (to be playing a character named “Betty Applewhite,” no less), I figured, “Well, at least the people who produce this show have some class, if nothing else. And I may even actually tune in to watch one day.” That day never came. Not because of anything stated or suggested in Mr. Friedman’s article; I simply never got around to it.

For the most part, I am glad. The series, from what I have seen of it and read about it, is beneath this great actress (who, by the way, is a better actress than Eva Longoria, Teri Hatcher and Marcia Cross – easily. She is probably even better than Shirley Knight and Felicity Huffman. Ms. Woodard is that rarest of acrresses today: the kind who can play any kind of role – even a “emoting” one – while managing not to draw attention to herself. Perhaps this is why she is so underappreciated).

While the series may be beneath her, somewhere, in the darkest, most obscured, tortured-into-cynicality, hopelessness, and despair-corners of our mind, we like to think that the cream can still rise to the top (shit, on the other hand, just floats). And somehow (not to imply that Emmy is an imprimatur of excellence or anything), to the extent that getting an Emmy nomination is AT ALL a legitimate recogintion of quality work (that’s in the eye of the beholder, as is my statement that it’s in the eye of the beholder, I suppose), the cream has risen.

Nonetheless, the way Ms. Woodard’s character was depicted and dispatched disgusts me – given that the show is supposedly “forward-thinking.” (It can be anything it wants, but what it cannot be is hypocritical).

I can almost picture it now – Marc Cherry coming to her, saying, “Sorry, we really made an effort to write a good character for you… We really tried saving that character…”

To which, if I were Ms. Woodard, I might be tempted to reply, “You didn’t even try. Where was your evolved sensibility then?”*

*Need I say what movie this line comes from? Go rent it. Once you hear the line, you”ll see why I made this entry.

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