Magazine article The Spectator

Shock Treatment

Magazine article The Spectator

Shock Treatment

Article excerpt

In happier times, Charles and Diana came to visit Washington. I was working there then, and a friend of mine at the British embassy described a lunch they attended. Our ambassador, Sir Oliver Wright, gave the Princess a detailed description of the US Supreme Court. It was, I gather, a fascinating talk, though perhaps slightly more exhaustive than the Princess required. As soon as he had finished, she said politely, 'Thank you, Sir Oliver,' before turning to my friend and asking, 'Please can you tell me what has been happening in the latest episodes of Dallas and Dynasty?'

He replied that you cither lived in a Dallas or a Dynasty household, but it was unlikely to be both. His was a Dallas family, and he was happy to bring her up to date with Southfork.

I sense that the same thing now applies to Desperate Housewives (Channel 4, Wednesday). You are a Desperate Housewives home, or you aren't. The ratings are OK, without being fantastic around four million a week, which is not bad for Channel 4 - but the people who like it, love it. It's a water-cooler show; you want to talk about it at work with other DH fans. It has the virtues of those great old American soap operas - strongly delineated characters (they don't have to be likeable, but they must be intriguing), dialogue so sharp you could cut cheese with it, and plot lines which stay just the right side of incredible. For the most part, the current stories are easily believed - teenage boy goes off the rails, wife's affair with a younger man is discovered, overwrought mum tries to steal someone else's nanny.

People in American soaps are usually rich, or comfortable, or at least a notch or two above the average viewer. This adds a frisson of envy to the mix. British soaps are about working-class people, Australian soaps about the middle classes. But everyone in Wisteria Drive is either well-off or wealthy. We like to sec, Hello!-style, into their lovely homes. At the same time there is the agreeable schadenfreude of observing once again that having a BMW and a 4x4 doesn't make you happy.

My own anxiety, based on this week's episode, is that they may have jumped the shark. This phrase comes from the teen comedy soap Happy Days, in which to revive falling ratings the producers had the Fonz jump over a man-eating fish. It's convulsive-shock therapy for a show on its deathbed. In Dallas it was Bobby realising that the previous series had all been a dream. In Dynasty it was the massacre. …

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