Screen savant

Craig Lambert in Harvard Magazine:

Virginia Not long ago, Virginia Heffernan, Ph.D. ’02, who writes about television and on-line media for the New York Times, got an e-mail from her boss, culture editor Sam Sifton ’88. Heffernan had submitted a draft that contained the word chthonic, a term from classical mythology that refers to deities and other spirits living in the underworld. As a smiling Heffernan recalls, Sifton reminded her that “you can’t use words that would stop a reader on the A train.”

Heffernan is no lightweight: her hip, funny pieces bristle with fresh ideas. In the fall of 2004, for example, she began her review of the hit nighttime soap opera Desperate Housewives with a synopsis of a 1958 John Cheever short story, “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” a dark tale about a suburbanite who loses his job and eventually turns to burglarizing his neighbors’ homes. Heffernan then segued into Housewives, which had “bold ly flung off prime-time’s imperative to topicality, and embraced an overtly literary mode. It is not an innovation, but a clever throwback, a work of thoroughgoing nostalgia and a tribute to Cheever’s war horse, the suburban gothic.” Later, she noted that “Desperate Housewives has succeeded because, like the best of reality television, it derives suspense by threatening its characters with banishment. All of the characters look as though they belong—but only for now.”

More here.