November 1, 2004
How a perfectly nice little town in the Catskills is being renovated courtesy of reality TV.
“Check out your new backyard!”
“Oh, my god!”
“You’ve got your own pool grotto!”
“Oh, my god.”
So shriek the homeowners on the interior-decorating shows that, with every other form of “reality” programming, clog up the television landscape like kudzu. I’ve been away from TV for a while, not because I am too evolved or because I’m on some yogic quest for clarity, but because the building in which I live was wired by a highly suspect third-party company that charges a monthly service fee on top of the usual one charged by the cable provider. The very idea makes me furious, so I stick with what my rabbit ears can provide, which in post-9/11 New York is next to nothing.
At the moment, however, I’m in a rented house on Cape Cod, and it comes with basic cable. No HBO, no Showtime, but an unending parade of renovation TV. The sheer quantity of these shows is still surprising, as is the migration of the genre from niche cable to network. The exchange above was from an episode of ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition in which an interior decorator, smarmy but wise, remakes a house that was shattered when an SUV crashed into the living room. (Talk about an American tragedy.) At the end of the show, the decorator—having already given the humble ranch a proud new Greek Revival facade; a storage room for the family’s abundance of clutter; and an annex for the unmarried daughter, her boyfriend, and their baby—also supplies an engagement ring, forcing the boyfriend to propose on camera. And it’s “Oh, my god!” all over again.
I had just about come to terms with the concept of interior design as a form of entertainment when a friend e-mailed me a press release about a new program for 2005 from TLC (formally known as The Learning Channel) hosted by one of Trading Spaces telegenic young designers, Genevieve Gorder. “In Town Haul, Gorder tackles the biggest challenge of her career, not just redesigning a living room, family room, bedroom, or den, but an entire town over a series of weeks,” reads the breathless press release. “In an eye-popping television event, she will oversee a team of skilled designers, carpenters, and craftspeople as they work alongside townspeople to reimagine, repaint, repair, and restore small towns across the United States.”
Now I’m the one saying, “Oh, my god!” I feel as if they’ve decided to let Fear Factor take over Special Forces operations. This confluence of “reality” and reality is more than a little creepy. Trading Spaces, in which sets of neighbors exchange homes for two days and in that time completely redecorate a particular room, has been going strong for four seasons. Like Law and Order, Trading Spaces has extended the franchise. I happen on the “100 Grand” edition, in which the usual $1,000 budget per room is upped to $50,000. When hostess Paige Davis tells the homeowners about this surprise windfall, they all screech and triumphantly pump their fists in the air.
I begin to realize that there is something familiar about this scene. It’s not the way any clients I’ve ever met behave in the company of their interior designers. No, this is TV-specific behavior. What I’m watching are next generation game shows, a set of highly contrived situations in which contestants can win a fabulous new living room, just as they once did on Let’s Make a Deal. Instead of the climactic opening of Door No. 3, we get the “reveal,” the moment when the neighbors in Trading Spaces return home to discover how their family room has been reinvented as a page from the Ikea catalog.
But what I don’t understand is how this brand of reality will play out when, instead of a few self-selected, attention-starved homeowners, there’s an entire town involved. The bubbly Gorder, however, doesn’t seem concerned about this change of scale. In fact, it’s the “real worldness” of this show that has her most excited. In a phone interview several weeks before her crew begins its monthlong shoot in Jeffersonville, New York, she tells me how genuine the people of her chosen town are: “This is the kind of place where Michelangelo’s Pizza is owned by guys named Michael and Angelo.”
By all accounts Jeffersonville is a pretty well put together little town. It’s got a solid Main Street and has been discovered many times over by affluent New Yorkers seeking second homes. “It’s a pretty little place, like Mayberry,” one such local homeowner says. The chamber of commerce Web site cites the activities of Jeffersonville Enhances Main Street (JEMS) and shows pictures of schoolchildren planting flowers downtown. The town is not exactly in a downward spiral.
Apparently the idea was to find someplace already on the way up. “Some towns are too far gone,” Gorder concedes. Also, given the Trading Spaces penchant for dressing real people in color-coded smocks and handing them trowels, it was important that the townspeople be “willing to rally and help us, and show up.” Naturally Jeffersonville is not without aesthetic glitches. Gorder observes that an aluminum-siding salesman must have come through town covering up 1830s facades. Her intent, she says, is to “unwrap” those buildings. And she sees opportunities to demonstrate how design can solve social problems. She wants to “show what design can do, that it’s not just the icing on the cake” by, for example, building a new teen center so that kids don’t have to hang out at the Sunoco station. As sincere as Gorder sounds, she still has trouble staying away from the icing. “You look good, you feel good,” she says, commenting on the potential benefits of the new uniforms she proposes for the local baseball team.
What I keep thinking about is how little input the homeowners featured on Trading Spaces seem to have on the actual designs. The neighbors are not really redesigning one another’s kitchens or master suites. They are merely accomplices, doing grunt work at the behest of the professional decorators who are the stars of the show. In Trading Spaces the designer rules. Granted, that’s the stereotype of how designers operate, but in reality—in real reality—it’s rarely true. Design is a highly collaborative process in which both designer and client make compromises. And once you get out of interior design and into the public realm, as anyone who has ever attended a public hearing on any development or revitalization scheme can testify, people can be very opinionated and stubborn. Residents are possessive about their towns and often resistant to proposed “improvements.” The Jeffersonville homeowner with whom I discussed Town Haul expresses horror at the very idea that Kelly’s Kones, with its defiantly undersigned facade, will get “messed with.” Gorder and company, I imagine, will have their work cut out for them.
I am totally behind Gorder on the social mission of design. Any show that champions the value of traditional town planning over sprawl can’t be all bad. I’m just not sure that social change or planning is really part of this package. And there is something about TV’s game-show version of design busting out of the kitchen and into the public realm that gives me the willies. It suggests that the conflation of reality and “reality” continues unabated, evinced not only by shows such as America’s Next Top Model or Amish in the City but also by the manipulative way TV covers things that are supposed to be real, like the presidential election or the Olympics. “I don’t think reality TV can get any realer than this,” Gorder declares. Which may be precisely the problem.