Since it was published in 1984, John Updike’s Witches of Eastwick—an outlandish fantasy/satire about provincial life in a fictional Rhode Island fishing village—has served as the inspiration for a movie, a few stage productions and three television pilots. One of those pilots finally pushed its way onto network TV.
The result is Eastwick, ABC’s new hour-long drama-comedy that tries to be simultaneously sexy, serious, fantastical and fun, but comes off predictable and trite. At the core, it is the story of three small-town witches who have to use magic to compensate for their total lack of assertiveness and reasonable thought. To quote New York Magazine’s Emily Nussbaum: “Lord, this show is depressing.”
If the characters in the book were feminists 25 years ago, their contemporary re-boots are women struggling to get what they need: a little more money, a more understanding husband, a minor promotion at work. Updike’s witches were vindictive and catty, and used their powers to make terrible things happen to their enemies. ABC’s girls are desperately using all supernatural and feminine powers just to get things they already deserve.
A proper comparison between the book and the show is tricky. First of all, to many who read the book, Updike’s intentions are unclear. Readers and critics alike are left wondering if The Witches of Eastwick was a stab at his feminist critics, or a genuine attempt to get inside a woman’s head. The week after the book was published, feminist author Margaret Atwood grappled with his aims in the New York Times, writing, “Much of The Witches of Eastwick is satire, some of it literary playfulness and some plain bitchery. It could be that any attempt to analyze further would be like taking an elephant gun to a puff pastry.” Updike, who died earlier this year, rose to fame in the 1960s with novels about sexually rambunctious young men. But times had changed; America in 1984 was no longer shocked by the same things as when Rabbit, Run was published in 1960.
In 2009, there’s nothing shocking or new about Eastwick. It is Desperate Housewives meets Charmed meets the several forgettable, quickly cancelled shows ABC has introduced it the past few years. It floats in that weird intra-genre between drama and comedy where dialog like “What a weird day, would you ladies like to get drunk?” counts as a joke, and having a vision that your neighbor will kill you counts as a plot twist.
If the book was about terrible women with the worst of intentions, then the show portrays the opposite: the women try very hard to be liked in the community and supportive to their children. In the book they become witches by making their husbands disappear. On the show, they innocently toss quarters in a fountain and wake up with the power to see the future, affect the weather and make men do what they want—powers to make up for their crippling self-doubt and insecurity.
Just as the 1987 movie bore little to no resemblance to the book, ABC’s Eastwick takes the three-witches-in-a-small-town model so far from Updike’s original that its roots are nearly unrecognizable. And unfortunately unlike the movie, the show has to do without Jack Nicholson’s charisma or Cher’s wild lady-swagger. In this incarnation, Roxie, Joanna, and Kat—whose names are all different in the book—still fit into the same character types sketched out by their literary counterparts, but are polished off by their bland dialog and impeccable grooming. (This is the network that brought us Grey’s Anatomy, after all.) Roxie (Rebecca Romijn) is a peasant-shirt-wearing hippie artist with a boyfriend half her age and somehow supports herself and her teenage daughter by selling chubby porcelain statuettes out of a quaint storefront in town. Joanna (Lindsay Price) is a neurotic mess of a reporter, hopelessly in love with the photographer at the paper but relentlessly ruins every shot she has at him with her inane rambling. Kat (Jaime Ray Newman), a nurse, is a pushover with five kids and an alcoholic soon-to-be-ex-husband.
The three instantly become friends at a town festival, after they all make a wish by throwing quarters in the town fountain at the same time. Over martinis and hummus that night, they wish for a man to come to town to solve their problems, pay their bills, satisfy their needs. When he arrives the next day, he turns out to be the poor woman’s Chris Noth. Jack Nicholson, he is not. You can tell Darryl van Horne (Paul Gross) was cast to be dashing and sexy; instead, he is one of the most cringe-inducing characters to grace TV in a long time. He lives in a cavernous mansion that is part Breakers, part Real Housewives, and says things like, “You want me because I’m dark and mysterious” to the artist who comes to sculpt his likeness for a statue in his foyer.
Even the non-magical elements of Eastwick the town are implausible. There are so many festivals! This town celebrates everything, and very rarely does the show explain what. It seems as though every time the characters walks out to the town square—a recycled sound stage from Gilmore Girls—there’s an anonymous fire-breather and a few dozen children in pilgrim costumes. Plus, no small town in 2009 has a well-staffed independent daily newspaper. It’s more impossible than magic.
These little inconsistencies, as well as larger issues like the show’s weak female characters, can often be overlooked because the pacing is so quick. Just within the first episode, an elderly woman is bewitched and develops amnesia, Roxie’s daughter is nearly raped by her aggressive boyfriend, Kat resolves to leave her husband, Joanna has countless bumbling, stammering conversations with her coworkers and the ladies cap it off by dancing in the town fountain. It runs at a speed one would expect from a medical drama, with dozens of little subplots and personal breakthroughs. Watching Eastwick is like playing Tetris while you’re supposed to be working: it’s fast and fun, but when it ends you don’t remember a thing that happened and you’re positive you’ve wasted your time.
More than eight million viewers don’t seem to mind. Since its debut last month Eastwick has consistently come in second in its time slot, but first among women 18-34. A network drama-comedy isn’t going to be a groundbreaking work that changes our perceptions, and Eastwick isn’t going to try. It isn’t going to satirize small-town New England or put a new spin on feminism. It isn’t even going to get much edgier than the ladies finding a book about dark magic. The next few weeks will tell whether—like witches in a small town— Eastwick will either thrive or disappear into the night.
Marisa Calleja B’10 hates festivals.