The Paint Looks Great, but Somebody’s Got to Look Bad
Humiliation and mortification are integral to most so-called “reality television” (or “voyeur TV”, as Time magazine recently called it). TV insiders will tell you it is because humiliation tears down the defenses people normally put up when they know they’re on television, and brings out their honest and powerful emotions. Of course, that is a load of bull. Shows like “Real World”, “Jerry Springer” and “Cops” put on display people that their audiences consider inferior to themselves, then throw that inferiority into their faces, providing the audience not just the entertainment value of watching them squirm, but also reassurance in their own superiority.
In the latest, and most successful example ever, “Survivor”, with all of its artificial emphasis on raw survival and primitive tribalism, makes a 15-minute celebrity out of the one poor goof each week who gets “voted off the island”. So much so, it has even resulted in a ratings payoff for Bryant Gumbel’s otherwise-non-surviving morning show, that gets an “exclusive interview” with the loser of the week the morning after each show.
But one thing keeps coming to my mind when I see any of television’s humiliation-fests: “Why would these people allow themselves to go through this on TV in the first place?” Of course, “Survivor” is really just a game show with a million-dollar grand prize, and risking tribal disgrace is as much a part of the game as eating gross food. “The Real World” carefully screens volunteers to make sure it includes some exhibitionists so shameless – or clueless – they believe that anything they do on TV is gonna be “cool”. And the “Springer”-class of talk shows play off of conflict, usually within families, giving dysfunctional relatives a chance to “dis” each other, and luring less-willing victims in with the threat that the show would go on even if they don’t use their chance to tell their side (even though it usually won’t).
But one thing I just cannot understand is why anyone who is caught on tape getting arrested on “Cops” would ever willingly sign the required release to have his-or-her face shown on TV. Some don’t, and we get an electronically blurred-out view of their heads (though close friends could still recognize tham by their tattoos), but the central characters in all the longer segments are always there in full-faced anguish being told how this latest criminal act is going to destroy their lives and those of everyone they love. It’s can’t be enough that the show disclaims that all of its anti-heroes are “innocent until proven guilty in a court of law”; either the producers must be making some substantial cash payments for signing those releases, or the premise of another “true crime” TV show is accurate: criminals are dumb! (“America’s Dumbest Criminals”, in syndication, is one of my favorite TV guilty pleasures, and I’ve noticed that it’s one show that almost never gets the subjects of their stories willingly in front of their cameras.)
This Old House of Pain
So what does this have to do with the TV genre I call “Home and How-To” (or H&H)? You can’t get much more real, more concrete (pun intended) than a video document of a house being constructed or renovated. But for human, emotional attachment, the format needs a lot of work. That’s why “This Old House” was the first breakthrough show of its kind. Not so much for the restoration projects on antique homes (its original narrow focus), but for involving the people who owned the house projects. And whenever they discovered a problem, whether it’s water damage, old asbestos or even (shudder!) termites, it was breaking the news to the owner that gave the situation its drama. But as the show went on, year after year, we learned that, whatever went wrong, good old Norm Abrams, the Master Carpenter, and his team of contractors (some of whom have been on the show since the beginning) would make it right. And thus, the drama faded, the homeowners lost importance and the show refocused on the rapport between the workmen and the host (which became easier when stuffed-shirt expert Bob Vila was replaced by the more telegenic novice Steve Thomas). On one show, they even revealed the shorthand nickname the producers have given the homeowners: the “Hos”. So it was no surprise that the only emotionally-resonant “Old House” project of recent years was when the crew rebuilt the fire-destroyed home belonging to one of the contractors’ brother – the workers and the “Hos” were the same people.
Other shows of the genre have struggled to build drama into their presentation, to become more than just “H&H”. “This Old House’s” public-television little-brother “Hometime” has long played with the conceit that Dean Johnson and his female co-host bantered like a married couple, an illusion damaged when the co-host/wife changed three times. But “Hometime’s” current ‘housemate’, Robin Hartl, now has stayed on for six years (longer than most Hollywood marriages), and the most popular of the “ex-wives”, Joanne Liebeler, is thriving as a solo host, with a construction-based show (“Home Savvy”) on one cable network and an interior-decorating show (“Room for Change”) on another. Meanwhile, Ed Feldman and Joe L’Erario substitute corny comedy for drama on their shows, even as network expectations forced them to move up from being “The Furniture Guys”, to “Men With Toolbelts” doing small contruction projects. And Bob Vila remains the stuffed-shirt expert, with a Joe Friday-esque ‘just the facts’ approach to his Sears-sponsored “Home Again”.
There is one recently-departed show which succeeded in bringing the drama of absolute humiliation into the H&H format, in which the host not only dragged his personal family crises out into his on-show projects, but also punctuated the show with spectacular (but non-scarring) live accidents that would be the disgrace of any true construction professional. But then, “Tool Time” wasn’t even real – it was the show-within-a-show in Tim Allen’s sitcom “Home Improvement”. Still, the producers and networks of H&H shows have been looking for a real-life equivalent ever since the sitcom hit the Top Ten, and a couple have gotten close:
The Bruno Factor
Once a week, cable network HGTV airs the innocuously-titled “Dream House”, a show which documents one personal home construction project over a 13-episode period, with no intervention on the part of any show-based experts, and lots of interviews with the homeowner, his own contractors and workers, and any relatives, friends, or neighbors willing to comment on how the job is going. The dark, evil secret of “Dream House” is its successful efforts to recruit homeowners who are the construction equivalent of a family on “Springer”, whose failures and crises make for classic displays of Humiliation Television. In seven projects followed in the history of “Dream House”, only two have gone smoothly (and were thus as boring as the London-based “Real World” season where everybody got along). Entertaining failures included a team of professional architects whose “model house” built for an upcoming national home show missed all deadlines and the show, and a family that planned to remodel half their house while living in the other half, but ended up virtually homeless for most of a Minnesota winter.
And then there was Bruno Reich. A professional contractor who bought a house in 1981 that had been an 18th-century blacksmith shop, he undertook a restoration that was based partly on the building’s original design, and partly on the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., and was still working on it fifteen years later, when “Dream House” discovered him. And the reason they discovered him was a newspaper article about his fights with the zoning authorities for the planned community that had grown up around his property with cookie-cutter-design houses filled with people who didn’t appreciate his uber-Gothic cottage. If the producers were looking for drama, controversy and potential humiliation, following Bruno was like shooting fish in a barrel.
If a decade and a half of construction had strengthened Bruno’s capacity for denial enough to make him totally unflappable, the producers had another valuable asset in Lara, in their words “Bruno’s longtime friend and tenant”, who resembled Jeanine Garafolo and shared her tendency for casual frank talk, which made her an apt commentator for Bruno’s ongoing obsessions. As the project dragged on, Bruno narrowly avoided big penalties for missing completion deadlines, and fought over a chimney that rose almost 20 feet over the house’s roof. Nobody ever admitted it, but it looked like the neighbors and city officials were just trying to avoid their own television humiliation. Then came a plot twist too good for the “Dream House” producers to anticipate: Bruno’s whirlwind courtship with Mellisa, a redhead with a Southern accent and a paper-thin appreciation of his obsessions, who sent Lara packing, married him in the same Cathedral he was borrowing design elements from, then set out to get him to simplify, speed up and finish his personal vision so they could get on with their lives.
By the time the original adventures of Bruno aired in the Summer of ’99, he had a chronically frustrated wife, a new baby, a 13-foot chimney, a kitchen still under construction, a total price tag for his dream over $500,000, and no regrets he would admit to the “Dream House” cameras. And when they re-ran just a few weeks ago, HGTV threw in two episodes “catching up with Bruno”, as he finally completed tiling the kitchen, frantically tried to “baby-proof” the more Gothic elements of the house for his one-year-old, and failed totally to convince Mellisa the way to resolve their space problems was by building a sprawling villa on his business’ property out in the country beyond the reach of the city bureaucrats. And so, we leave the obsessive-compulsive contractor as he is taking plans for an expansion to his “Dream House” to the zoning commission. It was a performance under humiliating fire that the “Survivor” producers would envy (although if he were on the TV island, he would have probably started building a castle-sized thatch hut and refused to leave until it was done).
The day after the last episode aired, Bruno expressed that he would be willing to let “Dream House” document the addition, but he really would prefer to host a program about using classic architectural elements in contemporary construction. If HGTV’s smart, they’ll sign him up for both.
But for the ability to turn a program about bricks and mortar into a display of human nature out of control, producers from Great Britain are proving to be the real masters. “The 1900 House”, a four-part contrivance imported for PBS, is a strange hybrid of genetic material from both “This Old House” and “Survivor”. It spends its first hour going into detail about the physical requirements for converting a London brownstone into an accurate environment of a century past. But from the beginning of the second hour, it was clear that the Bowlers, the family selected from among hundreds of applicants, were probably chosen for the wide gap between their expectations for the experience and the reality they were getting into. One obvious example was Mrs. Bowler’s vegetarianism, admitted upfront as extremely rare for 1900 urban London, and almost impossible to maintain, which just leant an extra burden that seemed to serve no purpose but to heighten the drama of discomfort.
But probably the best example of humiliation in H&H television is a British show now airing on the BBC America cable channel (and inexplicably not yet sold for an Americanized version): “Changing Rooms”. In its simplest form, the show’s premise requires two couples who are neighbours (Brit-spell), friends or relatives agreeing to simultaneously redecorate one room in each others’ homes. They have a time limit of two days, a budget limit of 500 British pounds (800 US dollars), and one professional carpenter/handyman (nicknamed “Handy Andy”) shared between the two teams. But each team also gets the “help” of a professional designer who acts as a kind of agent provocateur, pressuring the civilian decorators to use more elaborate themes, paint in gaudier colors, and physically alter pieces of furniture their neighbours/friends/relatives had explicitly told them not to touch. The most infamous of the rotating group of decorators is the stereotypically foppish Lawrence Llewellen-Bowes, who wears ruffled shirts and leather pants even while painting and is expert at browbeating the civilian participants into accepting design changes. Any episode that does not include an incident of major woodwork being cut the wrong length (usually due to a miscommunication from the decorator), paint colors turning out significantly different than planned, or a re-furbished piece of furniture falling apart, is considered a disappointment. The cry of “the paint is still wet” minutes before deadline is so common it could be used in a “Changing Rooms” drinking game.
At the end of each show, the back-to-back unveilings of the changed rooms for their owners provide scenes of telegenic anguish as embarrassing as having your Miranda rights read on “Cops”. No other media outlet has shown more nervous laughter or more people saying “oh, it’s lovely” without smiling. It’s unknown how many of the neighbours/friends/relatives have seriously altered their relationship after “Changing Rooms”; a British talk show host could stake out the “Springer” genre simply by documenting the aftermath of that show. “Changing Rooms” has aired for several years now in England, giving prospective participants fair warning what to expect, which returns us to my first question of Humiliation Television: “Why would these people allow themselves to go through this on TV in the first place?”