Desperate Housewives, about to enter its sixth season, is a Gothic television series about a set of women who are stuck in suburbia. Though none of them are “housewives” in any traditional sense, the show plays on the 1950s stereotype. The community within the show is strikingly insular: these women are each other’s neighbors, and so each others friends — or, at least, their lives are inextricably intertwined. Although it tends to be true of our culture that as G.K. Chesterton says in his Heretics, “it is the whole effort of the typical modern person to escape from the street in which he lives” (emphasis mine).
This sort of contrived closeness is a staple in television: from Gilligan’s Island to Lost, we love the “desert island” premise. A disparate group of people, for whatever unlikely reason, are stuck together to work out their relational ups and downs, for better or worse. Not only are these characters bound to each other, they are bound to a place. Whether the cast is stuck in an office, a spaceship, or a mysterious island, the premise works remarkably well for televised entertainment: we are stuck with them, as they are stuck in this particular situation with these particular people, and we love to watch the good and the bad parts of these relationships unfold over time.
It is noteworthy that this premise continues to be popular in our entertainment, but has waned in our real lives. We are attracted even to the difficulties (or maybe especially the difficulties) of the long-term relationships we see on TV, but it seems we are less and less able or willing to engage such hardship ourselves. Our culture is now one of selecting and mediating community – Second Life and global dating services attest to this fact – but we make movies or sitcoms which reflect this selectivity. Perhaps we simply intuit that a world wherein one can’t “unfriend” people who bore or annoy would be more interesting. We remain interested in substantial social interactions, though we put effort and ingenuity into avoiding such unpleasantness ourselves.
G.K. Chesterton speaks to this further in his Heretics, in the chapter “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”:
“It is not fashionable nowadays to say much of the advantages of small communities. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the willfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.”
Although a diverse metropolis may seem more democratic than a backwater hamlet, as Chesterton notes, big cities offer greater opportunity to surround ourselves with people just like ourselves. This makes our lives easier, but less interesting. Chesterton holds that the most diverse social unit is the smallest — the family, where we rarely have anything in common but our genes. If there’s only one baker in town, it doesn’t matter how little you agree with his politics or his home life, you’ve got to do business with him if you want bread. If there’s only one church, you might have to talk through your theological concerns with the pastor, rather than anonymously shifting to the congregation down the block. We recognize that self-imposed ghettos foster less interesting community than those unable to self-select, though few of us would welcome the chafing constraints we enjoy seeing imposed on our favorite television characters.
It seems we are denied, by self and surroundings, the opportunity to experience the good or bad of the constraints so prevalent in our cultural narrative. Everyone can relate to a suffocating office environment or a dull family reunion; but now, with a global network in our handhelds, we can retreat to a more congenial environment whenever we want. This is a loss to our social selves. As Chesterton argues, “[t]he best way that a man could test his readiness to encounter the common variety of mankind would be to climb down a chimney into any house at random, and get on as well as possible with the people inside. And that is essentially what each one of us did on the day he was born.” Because we can, we do avoid the conflict, the isolation, and the sheer boredom of being stuck with the same people in the same place. The more recourse we have to retreat, the less we are able to endure closeness and confinement, and the less we benefit from the bracing challenges of real, diverse community.
In his “The Fate of Place,” Edward Casey notes that “place [often] presents itself in its stubborn, indeed its rebarbartive particularity” to us. Despite this, we as a culture love the drama and humor of real, diverse community in particular places — and perhaps we demand it in our shows because we’re less and less able to find it in our lives. This offers another perspective on our fascination with confined community: we watch Desperate Housewives, because we ourselves are desperate for for the kind of difficult, placed community that is written into shows like it. ‘