What do women really want?

I don’t know why people keep turning to TV shows created by men to answer that, but after four weeks on the air, ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” already finds itself at the intersection of pop culture and pop psychology, smack in the middle of the same public square where “Ally McBeal” and “Sex and the City” were both praised and pilloried a few years back.

It doesn’t help that “Desperate,” with 21 million viewers a week on Sundays – and 7 million more for its Saturday reruns – is a much bigger hit than either of those shows ever were: It just means that even more people will be weighing in on a show whose campy humor and even campier drama probably aren’t up to the load.

Among the unamused: Susan Reimer, a family columnist for the Baltimore Sun, who recently called the show, which follows the adventures and misadventures of women living on the same suburban street, “ABC’s newest reason for Muslims to hate us.”

But who needs Muslims when we have the American Family Association, currently crowing about its successful blackmail of former “Desperate Housewives” advertisers Tyson Foods, ConAgra and Kellogg’s?

Not that I think kids should be watching “Desperate Housewives,” which so far has dealt, however cartoonishly, with suicide, adultery and some characters’ ambivalence about their own children.

Still, I continue to wait for more of these groups to target, say, “CSI,” whose tendency to link sex with death makes it no more wholesome viewing for the pre-teen set, who seem to watch it in alarming numbers.

Even those who don’t shake their heads may be taking creator Marc Cherry’s little soap opera too seriously. Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik, for instance, recently wrote that “ABC’s dark-humored soap suggests that all is not well on Venus in 2004 – and that you underappreciate women at your peril, in TV and in life.”

Well, sure. But you couldn’t have gotten that from watching “Everybody Loves Raymond”?

Or even from talking to actual women?

A certain amount of media piling on is to be expected with the advent of any hit show, and “Desperate Housewives” offers far more opportunities for cross-promotion than the season’s other original new hit, “Lost,” there being only so much social commentary one can impose on a series about a tropical island inhabited by plane-crash survivors, wild boars and polar bears.

The funny thing about all this is that “Desperate Housewives,” in its own comic way, does have something to say about what women want, if only about what it is a lot of us seem to want to see on television.

My own theory – and you just knew I had one, right? – is that what “Ally McBeal,” “Sex and the City” and “Desperate Housewives” have in common is that they’ve shown us women who somehow found time in their busy lives to spend with other women. Even if a lot of the time’s wasted talking about men.

“Desperate Housewives” may be taking heat for those scenes in which Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), one of the women of Wisteria Lane, takes her yard boy to bed, but how many of its female viewers actually fantasize about sex with a teenager?

Not many, I’m guessing, given the percentage of the audience likely raising boys of their own (viewers who probably looked at the sock the yard boy left under his lover’s bed last week and knew – ewww – exactly what it would have smelled like).

No, the fantasy is that women who don’t work outside the home have time to hang around one another’s kitchen tables, playing cards or just dishing neighborhood gossip.

Like Ally McBeal’s paucity of billable hours and Carrie Bradshaw’s apparently flexible deadlines, this is a TV Land invention that doesn’t even jibe with what we know about the characters.

Sure, Felicity Huffman’s Lynette has three of her four kids in school all day, but have you noticed that the baby seems to come and go, too?

Shouldn’t Teri Hatcher’s Susan, a single mom and an illustrator who works from home, be spending a bit more time at the drawing board?

And as Martha Stewart could tell you, being an obsessive-compulsive homemaker like Marcia Cross’ Bree Van De Camp doesn’t leave much time for coffee breaks.

But for any woman who’s ever spent several weeks trying to schedule lunch with a once-close friend or who’s found her extra-family relationships increasingly limited to e-mail and the odd Instant Messenger exchange, these female bonding sessions involving people who don’t share the same workplace really are seductive, and far more compelling than most sexual daydreams.

In other words, it’s NOT the sex, stupid.

It’s the sisterhood.



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