Domestic dreamland or dystopia? The A.V. Club considers HGTV at 25 years

Domestic dreamland or dystopia? The A.V. Club considers HGTV at 25 years
What would Chip and Joanna say? Photo: Gwen Ihnat

Twenty-five years ago last month, HGTV debuted to 6.5 million homes in 44 markets. Its first show, Room By Room, offered easy, kitschy projects, like a baseball-themed bathroom. An entire empire soon followed, with a website, a magazine, dream home giveaways, and a never-ending stream of those annoying House Hunters. Now HGTV has become a common part of the American vernacular, leading to frequent Home Depot trips, seeing HGTV hosts landing on tabloid covers, and steering many of our fantasies toward domestic pursuits like palatial treehouses, island vacation homes, and making a mint on a fixer-upper.

In honor of the network’s anniversary, two of our writers decided to trade thoughts about our HGTV feelings: one pro, and one not so much.

Gwen Ihnat: My husband and I are the proud owners of a tiny, charming Chicago bungalow. Unfortunately, we had to hock/cash in nearly everything we owned to get the money to buy our home, so we now have zero ($0) funds for any kind of renovations. And the last time this house was renovated was in 1989, which is great if you love no kitchen counter space, a hexagon-shaped bathroom sink, and a black marble fireplace perfect for Dynasty’s Alexis Carrington to whip a champagne glass at.

Bungalow ownership is probably when my love for HGTV began in earnest, watching week after week of resplendent, evolutionary home makeovers in houses easily two or three times as large as mine. The ceaselessly cheerful HGTV hosts made it look so easy, even as my horrid cocaine-inspired fireplace continued to taunt me on a daily basis. I couldn’t get enough of Chip and Joanna Gaines fixing up fixer-uppers, or the smarminess of the Property Brothers as they shopped real estate and made houses ripe for selling. I love the bickering interplay between the rehabber and the realtor on Love It Or List It, and especially appreciated female-contractor-led shows like Good Bones and Windy City Rehab (for obvious reasons) as I wondered about the open-floor-plan possibilities in a bungalow. My 12-year-old son was right there with me for a while, until he said he had to stop watching because the fancy HGTV “after” images made him too sad about our own home. I thought this was a bit unfair: We don’t exactly live in squalor, even though our bathroom sink is weird, and I suspect a lot of that TV showmanship is based on strategic drywall and an abundance of succulents and throw pillows. And yet, I can’t stop watching.

Katie Rife: My experience as a millennial whose dreams of home ownership are currently being obscured by a mountain of debt can’t help but color my HGTV viewing, an experience that largely consists of me scowling and muttering, “That living room is hideous.” I also mostly watch HGTV in waiting rooms during long delays for overpriced healthcare, which almost certainly adds to the seething class resentment that flares into heartburn every time a couple describes themselves as a “crochet artisan” and a “house DJ” with a budget of $2.5 million. Oh, you have intergenerational wealth? Well, la-di-da. I have good taste, and your bathroom tiles are tacky as hell. Checkmate, assholes.

I’m well aware that I’m not the only one who loathes the “oblivious rich people buy ridiculous house” subgenre of HGTV series, and that hate-watching keeps shows like My Lottery Dream Home, Income Property, We Bought The Vineyard, and Island Hunters—the most obnoxious show in the generally maddening House Hunters franchise—on the air. But I can’t help but think that there’s something deeply dystopian about a nation of people unwinding from a long day of making money for somebody else by watching that somebody else spend that money on vacation homes. “You will never be able to live this life, so here’s a simulacrum,” these shows say, their promise of transcending your miserable existence in your dank studio apartment with mice in the walls a fleeting and insincere one. All these shows do is reinforce the very American delusion that incredible wealth lies just around the corner for all of us, and so we must not do anything that might make the ruling class slightly uncomfortable, lest we face that same discomfort when we ourselves are in the market for waterfront property in Maui.

And so it is with great humility that I admit that I did actually have a phase where I was perversely fascinated with the rehab shows Gwen discussed earlier, even though most of the time they just buried fabulous midcentury architecture under layers of bevelled subway tiles and cheap grayish-brown laminate. (What can I say? I was going through a divorce at the time, and had some issues around nesting to work out.) On that note, there is one HGTV show that didn’t inspire visions of guillotines to dance through my head—not at first, anyway. I discovered it one shameful night scraping the bottom of the On Demand barrel; it was called Vintage Flip, and it focused on tasteful, period-appropriate restorations of vintage houses. Was this the attainable dream I had spent so many pathetic evenings trying to binge-watch myself into believing could actually happen for me someday? Almost. The hosts didn’t completely ruin the houses, sure, but they were still in the business of flipping history for profit. Their taste wasn’t horrifying, but they were still part of a parasitic cycle that I felt deeply conflicted about, even as a part of me secretly longed to participate in it. My reno-show phase has since passed, but the conflict in my soul rages on.

GI: I hear you, Katie. There’s a strong sense of FOMO that goes along with watching HGTV, especially one like House Hunters International. I am that sucker who can’t help but ponder while watching: What errant paths have I taken in life that I am unable to purchase a second vacation home or relocate to Europe? (Going into the notoriously poor-paying field of journalism, for one.) And I’m with you that House Hunters is the worst of the HGTV lot. I am far from a handy person, but even I’m not dumb enough to reject a home on the premise of easily changed elements like paint, curtains, or carpet. “I could never live with those drawer pulls!” a house hunter is wont to exclaim, spurring me to toss my own shabby throw pillow at the TV. My kids could change the drawer pulls. I swear the producers must coach those people to be as cantankerous and unreasonable as possible.

And I totally agree that shows like My Lottery Dream Home paint the unreasonable picture that immediate wealth could be right around the corner, as opposed to the reality that it’s about as common as a meteor strike. The worst is when host David Bromstad meets his newly rich couple and immediately asks them just how they won the money, as if it’s some great accomplishment. Shows like MLDH definitely offer an unrealistic disservice to potentially gullible viewers.

So, like you, the renovation shows are my jam. Actually, they’re my zen. HGTV likes to run marathons of popular shows like Fixer Upper and Hidden Potential throughout the day, and it’s disturbing how many episodes you can go through in some sort of tesseract time warp. I was working on some stuff in my basement recently and had Fixer Upper (aspirationally?) on in the background and was straight-up shocked at how quickly the episodes seemed to fly by. I think I went through four or five. FU is one of HGTV’s longer series, too, so that’s four or five hours. The same thing will happen with any of the other shows; they just keep unspooling, and I just keep folding laundry or paying bills or whatever, spellbound.

Aspirational is the right word, actually: I lack the ability to create things in a visual format (it’s a left-brain/right-brain thing), so I am extremely jealous of Joanna Gaines and Good Bones’ Mina Starsiak and Love It Or List It’s Hilary Farr and their ability to come into a space and completely transform it. With my painful lack of domestic style, I come into a space and make it look like a fire sale in a matter of moments. Would I love to greet my guests by graciously accepting compliments instead of apologizing for clutter and disarray? Why yes, yes I would. I think I watch so much HGTV in the hope of absorbing those skills via osmosis; although obviously that’s not the way design works, I suspect I’m not alone in my envy. (Although I really wonder how long those pristine “after” homes stay in such perfect shape.)

To be honest, I also enjoy seeing those women boss around construction crews and tilers and window guys, another skill set that I lack. That was a lot of the appeal for me on Windy City Rehab—that Alison Victoria (real name: Alison Victoria Gramenos) basically ran her own rehab outfit, transforming homes in Chicago. Unfortunately, her company has received some bad press of late, as Victoria failed to get proper permits for some of her projects, among other issues—she calls herself a Chicagoan, but permits are, like, Chicago rehab rule No. 1. Now the owners of the home she rehabbed in my neighborhood are suing her for shoddy workmanship. (The latest is that she’s offering to buy back the house herself and move in, so she may actually be my new neighbor soon.) These unsettling developments have taken all the fun out of watching Windy City Rehab, even though it was the only HGTV show that featured real estate that seemed familiar to me, unlike the nondescript homes on various Toronto blocks in Property Brothers, or the inexpensive Texas houses of Fixer Upper.

Fortunately for a fan like me, HGTV will never run out of material: It actually just announced the “epic reboot” of an old favorite, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, perhaps hoping to fill the hole the Gaineses are about to leave behind as they take Fixer Upper to their own new Magnolia network this fall. But I’ll probably stick with my favorite, Love It Or List It, in which Hilary Farr engineers all the desired tweaks to a couple’s existing home (I can only imagine what she could accomplish at my place), while realtor David Visentin tries to find them a new house to move into. Then the couple decides whether to stay in their house or move. Guess what: They almost always stay. And I get it. People really love their homes, even me with my satanic sink and the eyesore centerpiece of my Chicago “front room.” And it’s that innate domestic affection that HGTV has wisely tapped into, which I predict will keep it around for years after this first 25.

KR: I didn’t know that Chip and Joanna Gaines were starting their own network. I do know who Chip and Joanna Gaines are, though. That speaks to the celebrity aspect of HGTV, as you mentioned, Gwen: Just yesterday I was waiting in a supermarket checkout line and reading headlines about the love lives of the Property Brothers, stars of a show I have never seen. (I have watched a couple episodes of Fixer Upper on mute at the nail salon.) I imagine that, for most viewers, the tabloid coverage of these couples’ marital troubles only serves to enhance their relatability. Maybe you can have a messy personal life and a perfect living room!

It’s also funny you mention the female-designer/male-construction-worker gender dynamic, because the gender essentialism and heteronormativity of it all is one of the things that I don’t like about HGTV. Last summer I was in New Orleans, killing time at a bar in the French Quarter, when I started chatting with the woman next to me—as one does when one is killing time at a bar in New Orleans. Turned out she owned her own construction business, and had just come from Knoxville, where she had pitched a home renovation series to HGTV with her husband, who’s an interior designer. I have yet to see this gender-swapped take on the renovation show format hit HGTV, but I would definitely watch at least one episode if it did.

Thanks to the lesbian couple who created the House Hunters franchise, HGTV has featured some gay and lesbian couples looking for homes on individual episodes of its shows. But it’s only featured one show hosted by a same-sex couple, and that one never made it to series. That would be Down To The Studs, hosted by married couple PJ and Thomas, whose pilot aired in 2017—after Fixer Upper was at the center of a controversy over its hosts’ support of an anti-LGBTQ church, mind you. I realize that HGTV, as a network, has about as broad of an audience as you can get, and that its blandness makes it popular with the Chick-Fil-A-and-white-Jesus crowd. But it’s 2020, people. If I have to put up with your punny wine signs, you can quit being homophobic for 30 goddamn minutes a week and give a cute, charming lesbian couple with a renovation business in Northampton a chance.

It’ll be interesting to see how HGTV fares going forward, not only because of changing social norms, but also because of changing TV habits. Yes, HGTV is low-impact enough that you can leave it on in the background as you do something else, which lends itself to extended periods of bingeing. But streaming and bingeing go together like white wine and club soda. Cord-cutters also tend to be younger, and for millennials (and the generations after us), home ownership is less of a priority—largely because we can’t afford it. So home renovation shows are less of a priority as well.

For the time being, HGTV is growing; in fact, it reached an all-time high as the fourth most-watched basic cable network of 2019, behind Fox News, MSNBC, and ESPN. But Netflix was able to turn Queer Eye and Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, two shows with light decor elements, into cultural phenomena that were far hipper than anything on HGTV. And if other networks and streaming services are able to hit on a home-renovation formula that’s contemporary and relatable to younger viewers—maybe a series about ways to decorate without painting the walls (forbidden in many rentals), or a House Hunters-style show about renting in competitive markets like Austin or L.A.—HGTV’s days as the ubiquitous background noise of the American dream could very well be numbered.

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