Let's discuss, for a moment, the difficulty facing a buzzed-about show. It captures the zeitgeist, dominates the cultural conversation, secures magazine covers and a pilgrimage to Her Holiness Oprah, and then, suddenly... backlash. Critics turn on the series, viewers disappear, and new catchphrases (''Save the cheerleader, save the world!'') replace the old. It's a problem that smacked Desperate Housewives last year and has gripped Lost this fall as it trudges through its third season.
Fortunately, there can be life after backlash, as Housewives has proven in its third season. The dramedy has solved the problems that sullied the neighborhood like a Superfund site last year. The writing is terrific (Felicity Huffman's Lynette to her nemesis, Nora, played by Kiersten Warren: ''You have stepped onto my property and you've talked to Tom. That's two rules you've broken. And I'm not sure that top doesn't make three''). The interplay between the women is frequent and the core cast seems engaged (Marcia Cross expresses so much emotion with a tight smile, while Teri Hatcher has thankfully dialed it down now that her Susan finally has found a decent boyfriend Dougray Scott's Ian). And, most importantly, the mystery is actually mysterious. (Who the heck is this Monique? And is Bree's husband Orson Kyle MacLachlan is a welcome presence on Wisteria Lane a creep or just tragically misunderstood?)
The Nov. 5 supermarket hostage standoff episode is the best since the pilot, in part because it's a showcase for Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf, who has turned into one of television's top character actresses. She commands the show as fearlessly as her loony alter ego, Carolyn Bigsby, does her victims in the store: ''Attention shoppers! We're having a special today on not getting shot, but it's only available at the back of the store!'' Luckily for Housewives, it too has dodged a bullet.