Comfort culture 

Exploring the nouveau retro

"I'll make braised lamb shanks!"

declares the manically competent Bree Van De Kamp on "Desperate Housewives," discussing a dinner party with her three female cohorts. Oh, what a difference a new season of television makes: Carrie Bradshaw would rather have been hung by her Blahniks than utter those five words.

Nonetheless, I'm now hooked on "Housewives," which lives in the same Sunday night time slot as my dearly departed "Sex and the City." The show has turned my attention from the city to the suburbs, from the spicy adventures of four Singletons to the sudsy travails of four hausfraus.

True, there's just about as much sass coming from the quartet of "Housewives" as from "SATC"'s fab foursome. But the shift in settings and circumstances plays into a retro mind-set that's recently swelled on TV and elsewhere. Since Y2K, we've been flirting with popular culture from the '70s and '80s. This year, we reached back to the '50s.

A taste for comfort and kitsch has weaved its way into the mainstream. How else to explain the unanticipated success of Rod Stewart's songbook trilogy? A beat-down rocker delivers safe, familiar performances of standards like "For Sentimental Reasons" and it reaches No. 1 on Billboard.

Personally, if we're reaching back to the past, I'd much rather listen to Chaka Khan's survivor wail of "To Sir With Love" on her new ClassiKhan. Or to Queen Latifah's disarmingly sweet delivery of "Lush Life" on The Dana Owens Album.

Comfort certainly plays an undeniable part in the foods we're eating. Rathbun's and Two Urban Licks, the hottest restaurants to open in Atlanta in 2004, entice their hipper-than-thou crowds with dim, industrial-tinged interiors. Yet a substantial portion of the food served at both these hotspots are venerable dishes our mothers and grandmothers made for us. I see roast chicken and beef brisket on both menus. Among the sushi-like "crudo" and Thai rare beef salad on the menu at Rathbun's are yesteryear favorites like chicken livers and mock turtle soup. Two Urban Licks forgoes swanky, minimalist desserts in favor of cupcakes, chocolate cream pie and peanut butter chocolate parfait.

Why this appetite for soothing foods, soft sounds and sexy suburban matrons? Escapism? Patriotism? Nostalgia? Is it runoff from the year's strained political climate?

The trend also snuck onto the silver screen. I went to see Kinsey at Tara cinemas on opening weekend. The theater was full, and, given the buzz on Liam Neeson's performance, I expected the audience to be responsive. What I hadn't expected was the tension in the crowd once the film got into the heart of Alfred Kinsey's shocking and painstakingly documented Cold War-era sex research. A straight couple next to me sighed heavily during the film when Kinsey sleeps with another man. I also felt people bristle when the movie dealt with topics of open relationships and women's sexuality. It seems that as sexually blatant a society as we've become, we're still touchy when the intimacy of film throws this stuff in our faces. We'd rather escape to the popcorn stand than reflect on how these sticky issues apply to our own lives.

But that's the rich, inherent contradiction of American entertainment. Most of us are thankful we're not the naive nation we once were (or pretended to be). We like a bit of edge in our retro culture: the partied-out growl in Stewart's voice, the techno-beat above our heads as we dine on lemon sole and pot pie, the breakdown of a television mother of four who gets hooked on her children's ADD medication.

You'd never find June Cleaver announcing to her guests, "Ward cries when he ejaculates," the way Bree Van De Kamp called out her husband during the tense dinner party where she served her braised lamb shanks. We may be creatures seeking succor, but we also don't flinch from TV characters and pop stars who serve us a flinty dose of close-to-home realism. That gives me comfort.



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