I Think About the Desperate Housewives Narrator a Lot

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

The first time I watched Desperate Housewives, a camp comedy-drama about a group of women who live on the most cursed street in America, I was 14 years old. My friend, already a convert, made me watch a season-four episode in which a tornado hits Wisteria Lane and neatly ties up some pesky narrative threads. I had no clue what was happening: Why was there a tornado in this show that I thought from the advertising was about hot bitchy women eating apples? What are the real-world chances of a man being impaled by a rogue white-picket fence in the most picture-perfect Lynchian visual metaphor? And who exactly was this smug know-it-all talking over everything?

With the help of a very grainy, very mid-aughts streaming service, I then watched Desperate Housewives from the start and learned that this woman was not just a narrator — like how Ron Howard is the narrator of Arrested Development for some reason but an actual ghost. In the first episode of Desperate Housewives, in an act of desperation, Mary Alice Young takes her own life to protect a terrible secret, narrating her own grisly end. In death she’s assigned the role of surveyor of everything, destined to watch every boring and horrific thing her friends do for all eternity. Opening a show with something so shocking and imbuing it with camp felt groundbreaking, and I soon learned that at its core, Desperate Housewives is a melodramatic exercise in extremes. 

The way my brain works means that I am prone toward fixation: not just watching the same TV shows repeatedly, which I have with Desperate Housewives for 14 years, but with hearing and repeating the same words and lines over and over again. The scientific term is echolalia, but in practice it just feels like Mary Alice is in my kitchen watching me do my chores. Wherever I go, she follows me, particularly the very precise way that she says “yes,” usually at the start of a slice of the sage wisdom that only the afterlife can give you.

“Yes,” says Mary Alice, short or drawn out, as confirmation that she truly does know everything. She says that yes with a wink: “Yes, Bree’s many talents were known throughout the neighborhood.” The episode often opens with some vague aphorism that will tie the events to one another, relating to some lesson that Mary Alice wants to teach not only the audience but her ex-neighbors. At the end, she’ll reveal what that lesson was supposed to be, however tenuous, with an all-knowing “yes”: “Yes, we often learn our most important lessons outside the classroom,” “yes we all experience moments of dread,” “yes, we may think we’re all destined to play certain roles.” In dying, she finally sees things clearly: She knows what goes on and she’s trying not to judge, but every so often she lets a little bit of shade slip. She doesn’t seem to really experience feelings about what she sees, but she sure has opinions.

She also says it a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Like here’s a two-minute long video of her saying “yes”, and I doubt it’s comprehensive. That one word can carry so much weight in Mary Alice’s particular timbre: shade, heartbreak, horror. The one feeling that she rarely seems to need to express is surprise.

That “yes” conveys a simple truth: Mary Alice knows all. The moment she died she became both omnipresent and omniscient; flitting about in the air above Wisteria Lane, predicting the next affair, murder, stolen child or scandal on the street she once loved. Nothing ever really happened on Wisteria Lane until Mary Alice took her own life; when she changed her name and moved to the lane, everything was quiet, mundane. Her death exposed the secrets hidden on all suburban streets, kicking off eight seasons of unbelievable chaos. She’s often overlooked in favor of the housewives that actually have corporeal forms: sure, Gaby is lovable and Bree is delightfully snippy and Edie is the greatest slut who ever lived. But Mary Alice ties it all together with the all-seeing judgmental tone that only she possesses. She is, ultimately, the main character.

Even when I’m not watching the show, I hear Mary Alice narrating my life: “Yes,” she says, and sometimes she’s annoying, but usually she’s right. I seek comfort in sinking into the world of Wisteria Lane, where everything is simple and where I know what will happen. Sure, it doesn’t make it hurt any less when Edie dies or Gaby loses her adopted daughter. But the rhythm of the narrative and the absurdity of it gives me some respite from my own predictable every day. Hearing Mary Alice in my own head makes me feel as if I’m a part of that world, instead of my own very boring one.

But more than that, there’s some small solace in the fact that this ghost in my head seems to know everything. Right now, I have no idea what’s going to happen next — when I’ll see my friends, when I’ll get to travel, whether the people I love will be okay. While I don’t have any guidance, I do have this wise woman saying things like, “what happens when we ask ourselves the hard question and get the answer we’ve been hoping for? Well, that’s when happiness begins!” Even if my question right now is “should I buy another pair of Juicy Couture sweatpants?” There’s something warm about having this internal dialogue to guide me.

The logistics of Mary Alice’s narration are confusing: Does she know everything? Does she have any feelings about what her friends and family are up to? Will she ever be free? We get some hints when she reveals that, in death, she “let go” of everything, her “desires, beliefs, ambitions, doubts,” and “every trace” of her humanity. All that remains is her memory. When other characters die on Wisteria Lane, sometimes they get the greatest honor of narrating in place of Mary Alice for the day. Edie Britt, my favorite character, reveals that it’s the same for her as for Mary Alice, that she let go of all the small things that “make up a life”. She adds that it’s not hard to die when you have lived: “oh, how I lived,” she croons in that semi-British accent.

Right now, I have my memories, but I also have my suburban chores and none of the other things that make up a life; tangible relationships with people, new experiences, the world outside. Soon, maybe, I’ll have that again. But in the meantime, I have the drama of Wisteria Lane and I have Mary Alice. She is always there, narrating my daily walks and my online shopping and giving me the warm comfort that someone knows more than I do, even if it’s an illusion. Maybe that’s why people believe in god: to have someone above speak to them, to tell them what to do, to let them know that something will happen next. Anything!

I Think About the Desperate Housewives Narrator a Lot