Bob Vela started it all with his rich yuppie remodels, which featured salt-of-the-earth Yankee contractors and swarms of sagely nodding architects. Vela’s “This Old House” was the first show to latch onto the inherent drama of a structure in process — the “see through” phase where it’s still hard to tell which room is what.
You mainly saw the dramatic shots, like the moment a wall goes up, or a window gets popped in. Then Bob would explain how this nifty, expensive cornice molding is going to be placed — dissolve the shot — and it’s all done, and, by god, done right. The show was all about doing construction right, construction that is, for the upper middle class. During the go-go years of real estate speculation, the genre evolved into a swarm of new shows where there’s not an architect in sight. Instead, we are introduced to every conceivable grade of house hustler, charlatan and wannabe, all convinced that they know “what people want these days.” “Sell This House” and “Flip This House” and ‘Trading Spaces” became the closest thing we have to a national conversation about the buildings we live in.
“Flip This House” was the show I especially loved to hate. On a typical episode, Charley, the sleazeball realtor/speculator/amateur contractor, stands in the living room of a glorified California tract house, which he has just purchased for $1.2 million, and hopes to sell soon for a hefty profit. “First, I’m gonna tear out these walls (he sweeps his hand) and make this one big room. Over here, I’ll gut this bathroom and replace everything except maybe this granite counter.” Charley then has a protracted argument with his wife Lydia over whether to toss the granite. In the month that follows, massive cost overruns reveal Charley’s lack of construction experience, but in the end he still pockets $45,000 for his dubious services, which consist mostly of ineffectually harassing his Mexican contractor.
Owner/flippers are the most cocksure of their choices, the least likely to consult with a pro and the most consumed by the shopping element — you pick out the granite, the electronic faucets, the hot tub and the chandeliers. Then guys come and install them. To me, it’s an interesting contrast to other shows with a more populist bent, where Junior Decorators are all out on the lawn with staplers and glue guns, happily creating DIY décor out of foam, plywood and bolts of cloth.
“Sell This House” was not about flippers, but aimed at regular folk who just need to sell their house and move on. Jeb and Dorine want to move closer to their jobs and to Dorine’s ailing mother, but they are clueless about how to sell their frumpy old ranch style, which has been on the market for nine months. The show’s crew of interior designers starts by stuffing most of their tshochkes into the garage. Then they show the couple how to paint over their hideous walls and hide the crack in the kitchen linoleum. The $160/Home Depot jiffy spiffup does the trick and the house sells in a flash.
To add some dramatic tension there’s always a remodeling deadline, which happens to be the day of the realtor open house party (“Well Miguel, looks like you’re pulling an all nighter”). It’s a telling detail that it is the realtors, not the owners, who set the deadline, and the realtors, not an architect, who are finally led through the rooms to view and approve the grand transformation.
Those looking for definitive tips or design statements were baffled — on one show, the green walls were painted brown and the ceiling fan was taken down. On the next show, brown walls were painted green and a new ceiling fan was installed. The “After” kitchen cabinets always looked pretty much just like the “Before” kitchen cabinets, minus the grease and clutter. Inexplicably, since the great real estate crash, these shows have not only continued, but proliferated geometrically on cable TV. To name a few, there’s been “Moving Up,” “My First Home,” “Property Ladder,” “Property Virgins,” “House Hunters,” “My First Place,” “Hidden Potential,” “Buy Me,” “Design to Sell,” “The Stagers,” “Sleep On It,” “Kitchen Crashers” and “The Unsellables.” One TV exec observed, “The myth dies hard.”
One show that gets past the myth is “Holmes on Homes,” based on a wizened veteran contractor and home detective who actually fixes stuff. Holmes (and his large crew) disdainfully rips out the work of fly-by-night amateurs and, step by step, shows how to do it right, that is, if your budget is virtually limitless. In that sense, it’s the spiritual heir to “This Old House,” but with a more real-world bent. Where Vela would preside over large and lavish additions with every amenity, Holmes works on houses where the basement floods, or the roof leaks, or the heating doesn’t work, or you can clearly hear your neighbor’s conversations through your party walls. His clients have no grand delusions; they just want the house they thought they paid for.
Hopefully, the era of the skin-deep and hurried makeover is ending. Commodified and Home Depofied, we have endeavored all these years mainly not to build better houses, but more expensive houses, and we got what we deserved — a market burdened with personal fantasies that either nobody wants or nobody can afford, and an architectural ethic in a perpetual state of adolescence. One has to think of old Europe for contrast, where, over the centuries, mistakes are corrected, not just face-lifted. In America, the market has dictated that a home is more likely to be demolished than truly improved.
What would be most welcome is a new round of reality shows aimed at real people who have to survive in our brave new economy:
Squat That Shack: A retired realtor and loan shark helps homeless people spot repos and move into them.
My First Tent: A guide to living on public lands without a permit.
This Old Van: How to fix up your camper to live rent-free in an urban environment.
Slum Sluts: Two designing women advise clients on how to keep their property taxes down by placing derelict cars and appliances in the yard and voting down school bonds.
Trophy Hotel: A design team from Holiday Inn helps destitute owners convert their ski town McMansions into employee housing to pay the mortgage.