“Desperate Housewives” Tackles the Issue of Prisoner Reentry… (Not Kidding)
So, I think I may be the only person who still watches “Desperate Housewives,” the hot debut of 2004 that has more recently made an art form of jumping approximately three sharks per episode. In fairness, I actually had stopped watching it for a few years after college, but have returned to it since coming back to school. Spending all day reading books about slavery, prisons, rape, murder, etc. as I tend to do for my day job as a history grad student can really drive you to mindless television on your off time. Also, I actually kind of think it’s a good show, but that’s probably why I’m not a television critic for my day job.
Anyway, improbably enough, this whole season “Desperate Housewives” has been running a prisoner reentry subplot. The somewhat smarmy character Paul Young returns to Wisteria Lane from his stint in prison, angry at his neighbors for not supporting him during his trial and eager for revenge. He decides to get said revenge by purchasing a house under false pretenses and then turning it into a halfway house for recently released inmates. Since he doesn’t have enough votes in the neighborhood association to win approval for the plan, he has to resort to various tactics. In all honesty, I found this plotline somewhat difficult to follow. But the upshot seemed to be that Paul was engaging in what old-fashioned contracts cases that I learned about 1L year would call “sharp practices” in order to secure enough clout to implement his dastardly plan. (For the uninitiated, if you are wondering who Paul Young is, Wikipedia offers this helpful information: “On an interesting note, Paul’s deceased wife Mary Alice Young was the focus of the first season’s mystery, making Paul and Mary Alice the only members of the show to be the focus of two separate mysteries.” However, I would submit that this note is not actually all that interesting.)
In this past Sunday’s episode (which you can watch here on Hulu), this plotline came to a head. In this episode what starts as your typical NIMBY protest against a halfway house degenerates into a full-blown riot on Wisteria Lane, complete with property destruction, serious injuries, a terrorized child who incidentally has recently learned she was accidentally adopted, gunshots, some convincing visual evidence that Brian Austin Green has not necessarily made the most aesthetically pleasing tattoo choices since his days on “90210,” some drama between Vanessa Williams and Teri Hatcher, and more. Perhaps this was all meant to be a metaphor for how punitive policies wind up destroying the communities they’re meant to keep safe. The only problem with this theory is that Paul Young, while it is true that he did not commit the murder for which he was incarcerated (since that wasn’t actually a murder but just a woman cutting off her own fingers — long story), did commit another murder, as well as doing various other terrible things over the course of the show’s seven seasons and generally being a smarmy guy. So maybe the moral of the episode is just that you can’t trust anyone.
If nothing else, though, I suppose it’s a good sign that the genuine problem of prisoner reentry did get a few minutes of airtime on a network television show, in the form of Lynette Schiavo’s son naively questioning her as to where ex-prisoners are supposed to live if no one wants them in their neighborhood. This little conversation was actually somewhat deep for network TV discussions of prisoner reentry, granted that such discussions are virtually nonexistent and so the bar is not that high. As such, this exchange catapults “Desperate Housewives” ahead of “Gossip Girl” for this season’s most effective prison subplot on a mainstream TV show, mainly because the “Gossip Girl” prison subplot seemed to collapse the New York and Connecticut prison systems into one, but I only know that because I pay way too much attention to “Gossip Girl,” now that I think about it.