Originally created 09/23/05

'Desperate Housewives' return Sunday



NEW YORK - With the return of "Desperate Housewives," scads of pressing questions will be answered. Or at least addressed. Or something. Please!

Ever since the hit ABC series wrapped its first season, fans have been marking time, itching to learn what lies ahead for Bree (Marcia Cross) whose husband Rex up and died on the finale.

Will the grieving widow have to defend herself against accusations by Rex's doctor that she - at one point a vengeful, cheated-on wife - is somehow responsible for his death? And what about George, Bree's creepy suitor? Can there be any doubt that this Bree-obsessed pharmacist tampered with Rex's medicine? When will the murderous scheme come to light?

But that's not all the show left hanging four long months ago.

Mike - the hunky plumber who dates Susan (Teri Hatcher) - was last seen walking into an ambush by unhinged teenager Zach, who was holding Susan at gunpoint while holed up in Mike's house. How will Mike save the day?

Oh, and by the way, how is Zach gonna take the news that he's really Mike's son?

These and other matters will be dealt with (hope, hope!) in the season premiere airing 9 p.m. EDT Sunday, as "Desperate Housewives" resumes the narrative juggling act that made this mystery/melodrama/boudoir comedy last year's most popular new show.

It joins no fewer than a dozen new dramas that take a similarly serial approach to their storytelling - and whose arrival on the schedule "Desperate Housewives" surely helped inspire.

By now you already know that Lynette (just-crowned Emmy winner Felicity Huffman) is going back to work and leaving her hubby to play Mr. Mom. Gabrielle (Eva Longoria) is expecting a child - maybe her husband's, maybe not - as her husband heads to jail. Susan's ex will get it on with Edie (Nicollette Sheridan). And Betty (new cast member Alfre Woodard) settles in with Some Sort of Secret only her teenage son shares.

In short, complications run wild on Wisteria Lane, where each answer seems to breed only yet another question.

Same for ABC's "Lost," which returned Wednesday with precious morsels of new info about that confounded hole as well as other issues challenging the island castaways - but left the audience panting for next week's handout.

Such are the unrequited appetites of viewers in this age of continuing story lines.

You recall how it began. In a major change from the self-contained episodes of most weekly dramas, prime-time borrowed the serial model of daytime soap operas a quarter-century ago for "Dallas," whose "Who Shot J.R.?" cliffhanger spurred a guessing game that consumed the whole nation.

Then, in 1980, the police drama "Hill Street Blues" took the complex structure of the soap opera world and married it with narratives of equal complexity. This kind of multithreaded drama caught on big, and only grew bigger as shows like "St. Elsewhere" and "thirtysomething" paved the way for today's "The West Wing," "24," "Alias" and "The Sopranos."

On Fox's new "Reunion" this season, six high school friends will age 20 years - one year per week - while a murder mystery enfolds them. And the same network's "Prison Break" will take viewers step by exhaustive step as a man lands himself in jail to bust out his brother, who is due to be executed in just 30 days.

On ABC's "Invasion," alien body snatchers descend upon a small Florida town (will they take over the world?). On CBS' "Threshold," aliens try to rejigger the DNA of the human race for their own peculiar purpose (will they take over the world?). On NBC's "Surface," strange sea creatures bob up all over the place (will they take over the world?).

You know the drill for the audience: that oh-so-gradual accretion of facts, those buried references to dislodge, the grand revelations booby-trapped with red herrings. There's always more to learn and you resolve, over time, to master it. Who can resist the potential payoff? After all, you build equity from your investment watching "Lost" in a way that close-ended hours of "Law & Order" or "CSI" could never provide.

Besides, serial TV might even boost your brain power.

Television is "demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year," Steven Johnson writes in his recent book, "Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter."

"Think of it," he proposes, "as a kind of positive brainwashing - the popular media steadily, but almost imperceptibly, making our minds sharper, as we soak in entertainment usually dismissed as so much lowbrow fluff."

But as you soak, you sometimes stew. That's the mixed blessing of serial TV. Fans of shows like "Lost" know all too well how there's an escalating burden, along with the reward, involved with keeping up. Hurley's lottery numbers! That toy plane of Kate's! How much minutiae can any viewer process?

And what about the ladies of Wisteria Lane, romancing and seducing, then withholding from the audience? Must every fact be so hard-won by the viewer? Must these "Desperate Housewives" be such a tease?