Monday, April 18, 2005

This Old House On Speed

One thing is for sure: viewers of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will never be mistaken for a show where you can learn anything. A one hour commercial for Sears and Disney, yes. An example of a show that is heartwarming well beyond the point of cloying, undoubtedly. An example of bad amateur comedy, almost certainly. But a show where you can seriously learn anything about renovations or improving your home? You must be joking. Who'd watch that?

Originally I wanted to write this as a "compare and contrast" exercise with a show that NBC had aired on Sunday called Home Intervention which featured designer Vern Yip from Trading Spaces but for a variety of reasons (well one actually; I forgot to turn the timer on the VCR on before I had a nap and so didn't tape it - I've been taking a lot of naps lately) I missed it. Still - and despite the fact that Sunday's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was previously aired episode - I decided to press on with the reviewing process. I will admit that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is a show that I watch on occasion, usually when Cold Case is a repeat - and I don't feel like having a nap - and I have to admit that the show is entertaining in a "they must be doing this on the cheap" sort of way. Or at least they must be doing the production on the cheap, since I be they run up a big bill for construction materials not to mention labour.

A typical episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition starts with the design team, led by former Trading Spaces carpenter Ty Pennington, in their luxury bus watching a video from the people they are going to help. Somehow it all has the feel of "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to..." from Mission: Impossible mixed with those videos of people in the third world that Sally Struthers used to voice-over. The people usually have some sort of health emergency or a recent death in the family which makes them "worthy" (and believe me I'm not saying they aren't but when you consider how many applications the show must get in season, how do you decide that the mother with two adopted kids - their birth mother was a drug addict - and a contractor that took the money and ran gets a makeover before or even instead of the woman who has cancer). The family story usually prompts some "ahs" from the assembled "design team" and the encouragement of "touching" Ty. Then they arrive at the house and "goofy" Ty takes over. Out comes the bullhorn that has rapidly become Ty's trademark (you just know that if he had more than one he'd try the Bart Simpson trick) and to the shock of the family in question - and presumably the consternation of their neighbours - Ty yells for the family to show themselves. Thus it begins. In the course of the next 30 minutes (adding in commercials will pretty much take it to the right length) of TV time and seven days of real time the show tears out all the bad stuff - or sometimes just tears down the whole house - and builds up what is usually a spectacular new home. Frequently there's some sort of cameo appearance by some celebrity who shows up for a minute or two to talk contribute something to the place. Then in the last 15 minutes they show it to the family who are appropriately appreciative.

The idea of the show is that the design team will come up with a super special design that will not only reflect the family's needs but also their interests (with plenty of products from Sears) but also be able to do it during the seven days that the family is off on an enforced vacation (frequently at a Disney resort or cruise). The whole thing must take tremendous logistical work before hand of course. Ask any builder and he'll tell you that just the process of getting city building permits can take months and we're supposed to believe that Ty and his crew not only assess the family's needs but throw together the design in about a day and get the permits either for massive additions or building a totally new house? Sorry, I ain't buying it. There are other questions of course. How does a family which can't afford to renovate their home in the first place manage to pay the taxes on a newly reconstructed palace, which is frequently better than any other house in the neighborhood? Not to mention the increased utility bills from all the new appliances and plasma TVs (supplied by Sears or have I mentioned them). I don't know that many viewers think of it, but I worry that some of the people who have been forced to give up their new house. Indeed
the Pope Family who were featured in a 2003 episode are facing a property tax bill that doubled to $6,500, and an electrical bill that went more than tripled as well as a potential state and federal income tax liability of $664,500 based on the amount of goods and services used in building their new house.

That said the show is good, entertaining, television. Ty Pennington has a certain goofy, frenetic charisma that works well on TV. The design team is good if a little overly fond of themed rooms for kids. However, for me the real stars of the show are the ones who don't get much credit - the contractors and building tradespeople. It's estimated than on a recent episode in the Phoenix area approximately 1,600 tradespeople were working to build the house. In the case of the Pope Family (mentioned above) the estimated value of labour plus goods in the form of construction materials as well as appliances (from Sears mostly and probably donated) was $1.5 million, and according to
a subcontractor who worked on a show ABC pays for nothing, refuses to allow any logo other than the general contractor's to be shown, and gives only a brief credit to subs at the end of the episode (the kind of credit that runs at 150 mph and generally gets squished for previews of the next show). Clearly it take a lot to rebuild a home in five days and I can't help wondering if it isn't building up unrealistic expectations in more ways than one.

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