— Who exactly is Danny Bolen? How did his mom, Angie, get that terrible scar? And what does the crime she's running from have to do with terrorism? These questions are keeping "Desperate Housewives" fans tuning in, which means the ABC show is back in top form, with a mystery compelling enough to keep everyone guessing.
"Desperate Housewives" is at its juiciest when it toes the line between pleasing fans and trying to appeal to its pickier viewers, critics. When the show goes too far into ratings-grabbing stunts (killing off Edie, or the recent plane crash), it usually winds up letting audiences down. The show can end up losing what should always remain the core of the show: a rock-solid, season-long mystery.
This season is on a roll on that front, with mostly solid episodes (minus the ratings-grab plane crash) wrapped snugly around the main mystery. The new family on the block, the Bolens, quickly became involved in everyone's lives without revealing much about themselves. Piece by piece, viewers have learned that Bolen isn't their real last name; that Nick was having an affair with Susan's daughter, Julie, who was attacked in the season premiere to kick off the mystery arc; that Angie has a horrendous scar on her back; and that she killed a man, sending the family on the lam.
This season's mystery has yet to play out or wrap up, of course, so it could all go downhill. But, if what we've seen so far is any indication, this is the first season since the first that has all the right elements for an addictive Wisteria mystery.
Involvement of principal characters
What audiences learned from season two's Betty Applewhite storyline was that it's hard to care about a new mystery if there isn't major involvement of a character we already know and love. The season-five mystery had the same problem. Sure, Dave was married to Edie, but that wasn't enough to make us feel invested in his story. And, yes, he wanted to kill Susan and Mike's son MJ, but viewers didn't even know MJ before that season.
This season started off with a delightful shock, though, when Julie, Susan's well-liked daughter, was attacked to end the season premiere. Viewers who weren't already curious about the Bolens' mystery were automatically invested because a longtime character might have been murdered. She wasn't of course, but the stakes were already raised.
New characters viewers actually care about
There's a reason Orson and Katherine (Dana Delaney) stayed on as principals after their mysteries were wrapped up. It was because they were likeable enough to make the audience feel invested, even if they might be bad guys (and, let's face it, Katherine might turn out to be this season's strangler). That wasn't true for Betty Applewhite or Dave Williams. No disrespect to the actors, instead, the flaws were in the way those characters were written — without enough sympathy or spark to make viewers or critics care.
This season, Emmy winner Drea de Matteo, as Angie Bolen, has been excellent at maintaining enough distance that she could still end up being the villain, but still making viewers care about her. It's obvious she loves her son, has enough passion to be pissed at her cheating husband but enough compassion to forgive him, and the vulnerability to offer up her wedding ring to protect herself and her family. Viewers are surely coming up with off-the-wall theories as to how she could have killed someone in any way remotely related to terrorism, and still be the good guy that audiences want her to be.
Keep the mystery in focus
Some seasons there are so many standalone episodes that have no tie-in to the main mystery that it's easy to forget what the point of the season is. It's surely hard to sustain a mystery over the course of a season, but the Bolen mystery has made an appearance in every episode. Sometimes it's in the background, but it's always there.
Tease out details
Shrewd viewers want clues, doled out over the course of the season, to help them try and solve the mystery on their own. This season, the mystery started with Julie's attack in the premiere, and has provided more details each week.
First there was Angie's scar, then the revelation that she killed a man, that Danny's real first name is Tyler, and that their complex history has something to do with terrorism. Show creator Marc Cherry's earlier comments that it's an homage to "Dallas" might help — although the season better not be a dream.
Don't make it obvious
Yes, viewers want to be able to figure out what's going on, but not at the expense of any suspense or mystery at all. "Desperate Housewives" usually errs on the side of not giving up enough, but anyone who didn't know who Dave Williams was early in season five wasn't watching very closely. The season premiere was set up around Susan and Mike accidentally killing a mother and daughter in a car accident, so even before we saw Dave zero in on Mike, it was obvious — so obvious that many thought it was a red herring. It wasn't, of course, leaving no suspense at all — unless learning Susan, not Mike, was driving counts as a big discovery.
There's always a chance the mystery momentum the show's been building this season will fizzle out or fade after winter hiatus, but with major players like Julie in danger, an actress of Drea de Matteo's caliber involved, and the mystery remaining at the center of the show, hopes are high that viewers will keep making those Sunday visits to Wisteria Lane.