September 29, 2003 AD
Let me tell you a story, about 'reality TV'. A few years ago, a show was created that spawned a genre. It was Survivor, and I'm sure that its producers never expected it to start a new genre of television program. Though, once an original show becomes a hit, it's invariably a genre-spawner now. These days, the networks are always craving a hit, and it's easier to steal someone else's than make your own.
While Survivor wasn't entirely original - there were other similar shows on other networks years before - this was the show that had the magic formula. Imitators quickly popped up, each with small tweaks to the formula in an effort to attain some Holy Grail of television perfection.
Some of these clones were fairly original, and lasted a while. Many, however, were not. And all of them were there to ride the wave while it had life left in it. Even Survivor itself cashed in on the genre's popularity and began doing more than one season's worth of shows per television season.
However, as the genre swelled, each new iteration became more debased and gimmicky. Before long, the genre reached critical mass and detonated in an explosion of cheap TV and mass rejection by oversatiated audiences. Only the strongest of the genre's shows weathered the collapse, and they then entered their death throes. Before long, the genre will be back to a few minor shows used to fill specific niches in network schedules.
Fairly accurate, no? Now, let me tell you another story, about 'home makeover shows'. A few years ago, a show was created that spawned a genre. It was Trading Spaces, and I'm sure that its producers never expected it to start a new genre of television program. Though, once an original show becomes a hit, it's invariably a genre-spawner now. These days, the networks are always craving a hit, and it's easier to steal someone else's than make your own.
While Trading Spaces wasn't entirely original - there were other similar shows on other networks years before - this was the show that had the magic formula. Imitators quickly popped up, each with small tweaks to the formula in an effort to attain some Holy Grail of television perfection.
Some of these clones were fairly original, and lasted a while. Many, however, were not. And all of them were there to ride the wave while it had life left in it. Even Trading Spaces itself cashed in on the genre's popularity and began doing more than one season's worth of shows per television season.
And now, to beat the horse just one more time, a prediction: As the genre swells, each new iteration becomes more debased and gimmicky. Before long, the genre will reach critical mass and detonate in an explosion of cheap TV and mass rejection by oversatiated audiences. Only the strongest of the genre's shows will weather the collapse, and they will then enter their death throes. Before long, the genre will be back to a few minor shows used to fill specific niches in network schedules.
But, before I'm proven wrong or right, I'd like to also speak of the current mass of contenders for the crown of the 'makeover show' empire. First, the ones I've seen or have at least been told about in great detail. The format will be 'Show name - network: Description, possibly running several paragraphs.'
Trading Spaces - TLC: The original. At least, as far as importing the British show Changing Rooms and peppering the cast with a bunch of crazy, ego-driven, narcissistic Bible Belters is original. Kind of like if Three's Company (import of the British Man About the House) had starred a less preachy Pat Robertson.
Either no one has taste or a substantial portion of the audience watch this show to see the designers screw people over (train wreck factor, as I call it). So much of their stuff - What's the word? - blows goats.
Oh, and a note to Laurie "I'm Southern, y'all. See? See? 'Y'all!'" Smith: Any idea how someone (like, say, you) could be so physically attractive to me but have a personality that turns me on about as much as a syphilitic pitbull?
Update: In order to better cater to the Survivor crowd, they've started Trading Spaces: Home Free, a seven-week competition. Each week one (starting with eight) set of homeowners is eliminated until one is left, and that group gets their mortgage paid off. I like it even less than Trading Spaces, which has rapidly grown intolerable for me.
Trading Spaces Family - TLC: Really no different from Trading Spaces, since the format is a clone and the carpenters and designers go between shows. The only differences are the host* and that the teams are families of four(ish) instead of couples of, er, two.
(* I guess Paige's perkiness would suffer if she had to do 80+ shows a year, though maybe the stress would mean she would start getting rat-arsed for Day 2. Then she could take to busting empty bottles over the heads of the designers who really deserved it or went over budget. I'd pay to see that. Just picture it in your mind: Paige hollering "Hildi, you stupid bitch!" and busting a bottle across the bridge of Hildi's nose. Now imagine it again with Doug. And Kia. And Frank. And....)
Trading Spaces Boys vs. Girls - 'Discovery Kids' weekend block on NBC: A TLC program under the Discovery Channel banner and airing on NBC. Between this and Clearchannel, you have ample reason why the FCC shouldn't relax its media ownership rules. The show itself is independent of the Trading Spaces mothership, with a half-hour format (instead of an hour) and a unique cast.
Surprise by Design - Discovery: One of the earlier spinoffs, and the best of all Changing Rooms's American children. My favorite. Instead of two homes, there's only one. Instead of two days, there's only one. And instead of a homeowner expecting it, they're surprised by their spouse/parent/child/sibling/etc., coming home from a day at work (or wherever) to the renovated room. (Or outside area: Rebecca Cole used to be a plant wrangler and redesigns outside areas and gardens as well.)
The larger budget ($2500 vs. $1000) helps minimize cheap-looking rooms, a la Trading Spaces, and reducing the cast from 'one host, a stable of designers, and a few carpenters' to two people** who are (Gasp!) both charismatic people and competent designers without being stereotypes, drama queens***, or psychopaths (hay, moss, or fake flowers stuck to the wall).
(** Rebecca Cole and Robert Verdi are both designers and both perform hosting duties. They're the only regulars, unless you count the show's foreman, who shows up about once a season to do Something Difficult. They're also sensible - for designers - have chemistry, are fun to watch, and explain their design motivations instead of just pulling rank like on Trading Spaces.)
(*** How many people out there think the 'Paige Cam' on Trading Spaces was invented specifically so Drama Queen Laurie Hickson Smith could have her closeups without having to share the screen with the host, the homeowners, or the carpenters? I do, especially since - if it were invented for any other reason and I were Laurie - I'd have refused to be on it. Paige Cam + heavy lipstick = looking like a fish.)
Apparently Surprise by Design has won an Emmy. Congrats, guys! Just for the charismatic hosts and the fact that, as Meda Kessler of the Star-Telegram said, 'It's definitely the only home show that's made me cry.' Some of the episodes have a big emotional investment. A third to a half of the time the surprise-ees are weathering or just out of some tribulation, from New York firefighters who lost many of their brothers-in-arms on September 11th to people (kids and adults) with cancer.
While You Were Out - TLC: Taking parts of Surprise by Design (the surprise element) and Trading Spaces (onscreen carpenter, host of little use, two day schedule) and making a show out of them (though this one could predate Surprise by Design, but I doubt it). I watched it and I wanted to kill the designer, smack the host, and canonize the poor carpenter who was forced to put up with them. Second season the designer and host have changed. Carpenter is the same. I wasn't the only one, obviously.
Update: I've seen the designer since, so I stand corrected.
Monster House - Discovery: Some odd child of Monster Garage and Trading Spaces, presumably after Trading Spaces got really drunk in a seedy bar one night. I watched it, and it seems to be trading on the train wreck/massive ego factor of Trading Spaces, but with an added dose of faux testosterone. Okay, so people don't seem to understand that, should they ever try to sell their home, no one's going to want to buy a house with a glass lighted floor or a stage in the living room. No biggie. But when they see that the electrician is the only one fighting against using sub-code wiring (that could be a fire hazard) for 100-odd blinking disco lights, why do people still submit their homes for this show? (But then, why do hundreds upon hundreds of people still submit for Trading Spaces? I honestly think that I could start a show called "Get a Chainsaw Shoved Up Your Ass!" and get steady submissions for it.)
All Year Round with Katie Brown - A&E: Katie 'put sod on your kitchen table' Brown has been resurrected from the depths of Lifetime cancellation into basic cable prominence again. If this show has legs, it might survive the impending collapse, as the makeovers are a small part of the show and could be ditched. Of course, then you'd have her Lifetime show (Next Door with Katie Brown) all over again, that one whose logo was a red door. Where she put sod on a kitchen table. (I'm not letting it go. I can't let it go! Worm- and bug-filled sod! On a kitchen table! For people to eat food off of!)
Update: Seems that this show didn't have legs at all. I haven't seen it lately.
Makeover Mamas - A&E: The moms of a married couple redo a room in the couple's house. Uhh, that's about it. Cute concept, but I just can't get involved. Though I wonder about how much fighting goes on after the camera goes off, with the husband and wife each trying to credit their mother with the good design ideas and their mother-in-law with the bad design ideas.
Update: Though this one is getting more tolerable. I think the half-hour format is a good idea.
Update: Sell This House - Where they hold an open house of a house that's not selling, the results are secretly taped. The tape - and all the bitching of the prospective buyers - is shown to the homeowners. Then, a designer or 'room stager' or whatever comes in and does a few hundred dollars' worth of tweaks on the house. Then, the open house is done again and the results are compared.
I have the suspicion that some of the open house people are actors. There's no way people who think they are alone talk to themselves that much. I also think I heard a stage whisper or two from the couples that go through the open house. Most of their commentary is annoying as well. While something like pervasive old kitty litter smell is a valid complaint, I can't see how 'They don't look like they use their fireplace enough.' devalues the house.
I do like the 'room stager' or whatever he is, Roger Hazard. He's the first designer-type I've seen in a long time who doesn't paint in those annoying bigass W gestures. Straight up and down like I learned how to paint. Seems very good at design as well, even if at first look he looks more like a guy who moves furniture, not a guy who places it artfully.
(Now, the shows I've only seen ads for....)
House Wars - USA: 'From the executive producer of Trading Spaces!' as the ads say. That should be 'From the people who are milking the genre to death before someone else does!' I also smell some capitalizing on TLC's recent resurrection of Junkyard (Mega) Wars for the name.
Rally Round the House - Discovery: The newest, as I type this, though there's a few on the horizon. The outdoor makeovers from Surprise by Design, done as a show by itself. They're also looking to set up a Robert Verdi-ish jester type already, if the commercials are any indication.
Update: The jester has vanished. And I've seen the show since. The brunette severely ticks me off.
Design on a Dime - HGTV: Plus other HGTV shows I see promos for... Design Challenge or something?
Make Room for Baby - Discovery Health: A show where a host/designer/carpenter collective appear and renovate a nursery for new moms in need of one. In other words, half Trading Spaces, half A Baby Story. You know what that means: Lots of freaky close-ups of red screaming newborns still hacking up amniotic fluid.
Knock First - ABC Family: 'Teen hip' makeover show. Yeah, hip like Brendan Leonard is funny.
So, what's that leave us with? One good show and a few train-wreck entertainment shows in a seething pile of hellish makeover agony? I think we're close to the implosion****. Next season, most likely. Enjoy it while it lasts.
(**** Unless this is all just endemic of basic cable's lack of shows to fill the hours. In which case, my premise is shot to hell.)