Only a few days into January, and already the media hype machine has cranked into overdrive, with the first "must see" drama series of 2005 starting on Channel 4 last night. Heavily promoted and extensively advertised, Desperate Housewives has been touted as a worthy successor to both Twin Peaks and Sex and the City - but is it truly a satire, or even remotely original television? It's certainly been a hit with audiences, more than 22 million Americans tuning in, and has gathered critical praise and a whole clutch of Golden Globe nominations. Following the fortunes of four women living on the same street in southern Californian suburbia, it's narrated by their absent friend Mary Alice, who inexplicably blows her brains out the week before the story starts.
Desperate Housewives certainly looks fantastic, all tracking shots, cranes, super-glossy interiors, loads of lip gloss and soft, warm sun. There is no doubt that the acting is of the highest order and all the production values are exemplary. But it's about as cutting edge as a packet of Symingtons Table Cream. Its success proves, just as the re-election of President Bush demonstrated, that Middle America rules the country and dictates popular taste. In spite of faux-daring dialogue (one woman's teenage daughter asks her how long is it since she had sex, while another clobbers her husband for trying to force her to have an unprotected bonk), Desperate Housewives never really starts to get to grips with the stultifying set of values that sum up suburban America, the ideals that propelled Bush back into the White House.
The fact that it upset organisations promoting "family life" and advertisers like Kellogg's (unhappy with the content) means that America is more easily shocked than at any time in recent history. British viewers will have found Desperate Housewives more anodyne than any episode of EastEnders, and I've heard far more explicit talk of sex on Radio 4's Woman's Hour before my elevenses. If nothing else, it proves that Britain and America have very different sensibilities. We are grown-up, sophisticated, knowing and capable of layers of meaning. Sadly, Desperate Housewives proves once again American popular culture is one-note - it tells you a story in a childlike, simple way and then clobbers you over the head with it time and time again. Subtle it ain't.
Before Bush's re-election campaign got under way, there were worrying signs that any dissent from public figures in the States meant they weren't patriotic. But since Bush's day of victory, what has happened to all those prominent Americans who were going to leave the country if Dubya triumphed? Michael Moore is now making a film about the health service, Alex Baldwin is still a US resident, and Barbra Streisand has been conspicuously silent.
Bush's re-election proved that most voters are not city- dwelling, sophisticated, well-read liberals, but suburbanites who watch mainstream TV and go to church. Americans have continued to buy into the dangerous concept that they are "fighting" a war on terror that can be won, and Bush is secure enough to despatch his brother Jeb, the much-criticised governor of Florida, as a special envoy into the tsunami disaster zone with Colin Powell.
But, if the level of political debate that emanates from America seems emasculated, that is nothing compared to the banal level of their popular culture. When some of the biggest grossing American films in recent years feature talking fish, I realise that there is not going to be a lot more creative happening on the small screen. Since the ground-breaking Twin Peaks 15 years ago, American television has steadily stagnated. …