Devious Maids and the Case for Guilt-Free Camp

Two seasons in, Lifetime's Devious Maids has tackled premeditated murder, closeted homosexuality, extramarital affairs, accidental murder, spousal drugging, wrongful accusations, schemes to achieve fame, blackmail, burglary, abuse of the elderly, and attempted murder. It's a primetime soap, through and through. It could quite possibly be one of the best shows on television.

If you haven't been keeping up with Devious Maids, allow me to fill you in:

After finally coming clean about how his bisexual dead wife died, Marisol's new husband Nicholas reveals in a prescription pill-induced haze that he might also be harboring a secret about killing some dude. Marisol tries to drug him up to get him to talk again, but that doesn't exactly work. Valentina finds out that her shifty boyfriend Ethan is part of the crew of Beverly Hills burglars and gets Remi—who remains blankly beautiful—to stitch him up after Carmen knifes him in self-defense at a burglary gone wrong. Valentina also gets taken into the police station when an otherwise sympathetic cop notices all of said shifty boyfriend's blood on the backseat of her car.

Devious Maids and the Case for Guilt-Free Camp

But that's not even the half of it.

Instead of doing any maid work (no maids on this show even doing maid work anymore), Carmen finds herself repeatedly getting drunk with a depressed Spence—his ex-wife just got full custody of their child—and it somehow doesn't lead to drunk bonezoning. Zoila is trying to mend the fences between Genevieve and her gruff mother (June Squibb!), but only ends up making the woman almost die. Rosie keeps getting in deeper and deeper with Reggie, while Reggie keeps getting in deeper and deeper with insanity—he pushes an old man down the stairs!

So much is happening always on Devious Maids—basically the anti-Rectify, in that sense—and if you haven't been watching, you have really been missing out on some high quality camp. Which probably sounds like an oxymoron, because even to praise something as camp is partly backhanded compliment. "Oh, it's good for what it is." "It's good, but it's not really good TV." And of course, there's the dreaded "It's so bad, it's good." There's still this belief that if a show's not getting nominated for an Emmy, it's not good TV, plain and simple—despite the fact that most can agree that the Emmys don't always award the best TV (let's not even talk about the snubs).

With primetime soaps like Devious Maids in that "guilty pleasure," so bad it's good territory, there's never any real question of whether or not the show is good; there's just the presumption that it's not. Terrible until proven great, and even then "great" comes with those sarcastic air quotes.

Devious Maids' writers have pedigrees from Mad Men, Ugly Betty, Seinfeld, Grey's Anatomy, The Big C, How I Met Your Mother. These are not lightweight television writers, yet because they're writing a primetime soap—which is actually a more acceptable form of the soap opera genre—all of this is disregarded. It doesn't matter if what the show is setting out to do when it creates these surreal worlds is coming through loud and clear. Because it doesn't fit the mold of what a supposedly high quality show should be, it's not worth accepting.

For example, the spiritual predecessor to Devious Maids, ABC's GCB, was universally hated by critics, but it did what it set out to do—create a caricature of this type of culture while also kind of showing it for what it is—extremely well and also provided us with the beauty that was Cricket Caruth-Reilly.

Devious Maids does much to fill in the GCB-shaped hole in the rare fans' hearts and television schedules, but it really is difficult to compete with such greatness.

When Desperate Housewives—the intended spiritual predecessor to Devious Maids, both being Marc Cherry shows—hit the scene back in 2004, every other discussion about the show was about how it was the ultimate guilty pleasure, even though it was a massive hit that more than a select guilty few were watching.

Revenge, even with its more subdued plots and its Count of Monte Cristo roots, is considered a guilty pleasure. Nashville constantly battles itself over whether or not it's a serious musical drama or a trashy primetime soap, and honestly, the latter is the one the people are tuning in for; nobody wants another Smash. TNT's reboot of Dallas had a pretty weak first season. But as soon as it truly embraced its roots and even cranked them up to 11, it became appointment TV, even if no one was actually watching.

And yet, no one is praising these shows for what they're doing, unless it's in the form of the condescension that stems from them not being the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad but still being "cute little shows." Honestly, if every show on television was the next Mad Men or Breaking Bad, television would eventually become extremely dull.

Even one of the best television series of all time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, still has its naysayer who refuse to watch the show because of its campy title, chick-friendliness, and its assumed guilty pleasure status. And those who have watched the series often give the show's first season a hard time for its camp, when I would honestly take that first season over those dour final two seasons any day of the week.

These series, at their core, only have one thing truly in common: women enjoy them.

Devious Maids and the Case for Guilt-Free Camp

It's the pink-lipsticked elephant in the room, but it's the very fact that these shows are seen as "girly" that keeps them from being taken seriously. It's strange, because comedies featuring women—and Girls—are rarely seen in such a light. But a primetime soap, or even just a drama heavily featuring women, has a stigma cast against it.

Recently, VH1's I Love The 2000s classified as Gilmore Girls, a near universally praised series, a guilty pleasure. First of all, VH1 classified something as a guilty pleasure. Second of all, serious women talking serious women things (and oh how they talk) is a running theme in all of these campy, guilty pleasure shows, so obviously that's the problem. Women be talking.

The thing about Devious Maids and the like are that, unlike the previously mentioned like Rectify, they're not concerned with keeping things slow. It's often a breakneck, balls out (for lack of a better term) pace, because why stick with one entertaining plot when you can do ten entertaining plots? Slow works in some cases, but sometimes you just need to get crazy.

Ryan Murphy, for all of his faults, knows that. He's made a career of camp, and say what you will about his work, but Popular and even Nip/Tuck, to a lesser extent, really do hold up. That's because no matter the era, a self-aware nature of camp can endure the test of time the same way that a super serious, super slow, super intellectual show will. The only difference is in the approach.

Lisa Kudrow's The Comeback is literally only able to be brought back because it not only stood the test of time, it was ahead of its time. So if ability to stay relevant in a way is a marker of just how good a show can be, then how come primetime soaps, save for the classics like original recipe Dallas and Dynasty, are just put into this box? When are we going to accept that maybe there's no reason to feel guilty for liking shows where a millions things happen at once?

It's not as thought all "manly" shows are great, and yet they don't have the camp or guilty pleasure label placed on them. Think back to Fox's Gang Related for just a solitary moment. Is anyone who enjoys that show ever going to call that a guilty pleasure? How about all of the terrible event programs in a post-Lost world, like FlashForward or The Event? Was guilty pleasure ever uttered there? Of course not. So why not embrace the nightlife, let the camp into your heart and worry not about the potential of guilt derived from pleasure. Maybe if you do, you can see these types of shows for what they are: high quality TV, just in their own way.

[Images and video via Lifetime and ABC]

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