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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
Whether you live in a big house or a tiny apartment, on a beach or in a bustling city, television is full of opportunities for you to ruminate on your living space. And nowhere is that impulse more prevalent than on HGTV.
GLEN WELDON, HOST:
One of basic cable's most basic networks, HGTV has been handing out advice and house envy for a long time. Four years ago, we sat down with our friends Kat Chow and Barrie Hardymon to talk about it. I'm Glen Weldon.
HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. We're revisiting our discussion of HGTV and home makeover shows on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
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HOLMES: Kat is, like, pumping her fists with excitement.
HOLMES: Kat has wanted to talk about HGTV here on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR for quite a while.
KAT CHOW, BYLINE: Ever since I was born.
HOLMES: Kat, what is your obsession with this genre? What is its basis?
CHOW: OK. So, first, I think we should just start by talking about HGTV more generally...
BARRIE HARDYMON, BYLINE: Yep.
CHOW: ...Where there is just something so comforting about watching people go in and either renovate their homes or buy these homes. And the way I've been thinking about it lately is it's this complete fantasy because there's no way that I'm going to be able to afford a house or buy one or probably, like, redecorate my basement apartment, but each of these shows - we know that they're all fake. Their premise is completely just, for the most part, not true, where for "House Hunters," for example, you see them go in and you see them look at, like, two or three houses. And at this point, they've already bought their house (laughter).
HARDYMON: There's been a lot of...
HARDYMON: There's been a lot of reporting...
HARDYMON: ...At least in some cases - I mean, I - it's very hard to verify for sure and...
HOLMES: Oh, don't ruin it (laughter).
HARDYMON: But yeah.
HOLMES: I'm kidding.
HARDYMON: That some of this is theater.
CHOW: Right. It's a lot of theater. And I've been wondering, you know, why am I so drawn to this theater when I already know that they're going to land with a house that they love and they're just going to live happily ever after? I don't really know what that draw is. But it's just so comforting to me.
HOLMES: Yeah. You're a "House Hunters" guy, Glen, right?
WELDON: I am.
HOLMES: You're a - "House Hunters International," right? Glen...
WELDON: Yeah, there's "House Hunters" and "House Hunters International." And the difference in the annoyance level of the two different people who are on those shows are the difference between a wasp sting and a sucking chest wound.
WELDON: The people in "International" are awful. They're universally awful. But, you know, I watch those shows because I'm an American. I got two ears and a heart. You know, it's just part of the deal. Actually, for those two shows and for a lot of these shows, it helps to be Canadian...
WELDON: ...Because they are all stealthily Canadian.
CHOW: A lot of them are stealthily Canadian. That's true.
WELDON: Yeah, this house is about $250,000.
WELDON: It's like, a-ha, I got you, Tim Horton. I know what's going on there.
CHOW: Unless it's, like, Island House Hunters or something, right?
WELDON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean, yeah, to be fair, the "International" ones tell you explicitly where people are coming from and where they're going. But I'm also a "Beachfront Bargain Hunt" person and...
HOLMES: OK, now, this...
WELDON: ...A "Lakefront Bargain Hunt" person.
CHOW: This is a surprise for me.
HOLMES: I was going to ask about "Beachfront Bargain Hunt" because I saw that kind of going by the other day. And I was like, what is the point of this one?
WELDON: It's exactly the same - they're all the same.
WELDON: They're all exactly the same.
HOLMES: Same point.
WELDON: But, ostensibly, the people on "Beachfront Bargain Hunt" and "Lakefront Bargain Hunt" have a lower budget...
WELDON: ...Than the kind of people who have just thrown money at the wind.
HOLMES: I see.
WELDON: I'm also a fan of the "Life" - your "Caribbean Life," your "Island Life," your "Mountain Life," your "Log Cabin Living."
CHOW: Or "We Bought The Farm."
WELDON: Why the difference there? What does that - why can't it just be log cabin life? Maybe because it's too similar to "Mountain Life."
HARDYMON: I don't know. Maybe there's...
CHOW: Do you feel like that really resonates with you, as someone who kind of has a log cabin?
WELDON: Well, I was going to bring this up, actually.
WELDON: I have a second home. So this - but I think this whole - watching this over and over again put the bug in me and my husband to kind of think about getting a second home.
WELDON: And could we do it without being as insufferable as the people we see on TV? I don't know if we did.
HOLMES: How's it going?
WELDON: Remains to be seen.
CHOW: It's really nice, though. I've been there.
WELDON: Yeah, but the sameness of this structure - all of these shows I've just mentioned, including "House Hunters Off The Grid," "House Hunters On Vacation..."
HOLMES: I didn't know there was such a thing as "House Hunters Off The Grid."
WELDON: Oh, yeah, yeah.
WELDON: And "House Hunters: Where Are They Now?" - which is my favorite.
CHOW: Oh, I love that one. It is my favorite.
WELDON: Because what it does is - you know that thing at the end where they're like, three months later - and you're like, three months later's not long enough time; I need more time.
WELDON: I want to see the friction we've seen between this couple - I want to see it exacerbated...
WELDON: ...After a year, two years, five years. I want to see what happens to, say, the white lady in dreadlocks who goes down to Ecuador to teach them about composting and open a chai yoga studio.
CHOW: Oh, no. Oh, no.
WELDON: I want to know where that ends up.
WELDON: So that's what that show's about. That - you get to see a pit of despair (laughter).
HOLMES: Yeah. How about you, Barrie? Where are you on these shows?
HARDYMON: So I love these shows and for a couple of different reasons, some of which we've talked about. I also love structure. And I - and to say - I love them for the same reason, Kat, that you're talking about, that I love "Law & Order."
HARDYMON: So you know what's going to happen. You're going to see house one. You're going to see house two. You're going to see - so that is actually very comforting.
HARDYMON: So there's that. But the thing I really - that gets my soul is that, at their heart, these are makeover shows.
HARDYMON: And even the "House Hunters," there's this sense of, like - people go in one way and they come out another.
CHOW: Right. They're better off.
HARDYMON: Yes. And I don't care that it's theater. You know, I know it - sometimes I like to make fun of the obvious parts of the theater.
HARDYMON: You know, like, but there's something really - because I love "Property Brothers."
CHOW: Oh, so good.
HARDYMON: Love me some Chip and Joanna Gaines.
HARDYMON: Love - you know, I love all form of reality makeover. And, you know, the thing about "Property Brothers" is that, A, you do learn a little something. I'm sort of in between you two; I just have the one home. But I have renovated before, and it's kind of fun. Every now and then, you know, you do learn that actually this synthetic wood is better and cheaper.
CHOW: Or that shiplap is a thing.
HARDYMON: Yes, exactly.
HOLMES: I know what shiplap is.
HOLMES: And this is why. Yeah, I am a "Property Brothers" person also. And I think "Property Brothers," if anything, is even more theater...
HOLMES: I mean, it's certainly at least as much theater as "House Hunters" in some ways because the funny thing about "Property Brothers" is every episode of "Property Brothers," the people start off, they say here's - they say, we don't want to renovate; we just want a house that's move-in ready.
HOLMES: Which would make you useless for "Property Brothers."
CHOW: Right. For this show, right.
HOLMES: So they say, oh, we don't want to renovate; we want it to be move-in ready.
HOLMES: So they take them to a house that's all move-in ready. And they love it, and they say, oh, this is great. And they're ready to sign on the dotted line.
HOLMES: And then they say, how much does it cost? And then the brother with the suit on, as opposed to the brother with the flannel shirt on - the brother with the suit on reveals that the house costs $5 million.
HOLMES: And their budget is only $2 million or something like that. And then they say, oh, I can't believe you built us up, and then you tore us down. And that's what happens at the beginning of every single episode.
CHOW: I love it. I love that beginning.
HOLMES: If the "Property Brothers" take you to a house that doesn't have a purple toilet and, like, wasted-away shag carpeting, that's the trick house.
CHOW: Right. Right.
HOLMES: This is the one...
CHOW: If you can open the bathroom door, nope.
HOLMES: If all the doors - yeah, if all the doors open and shut easily...
HOLMES: ...If there's not, like, just a bare lightbulb hanging from a wire...
HOLMES: ...In the middle of the kitchen, this is the trap. You can't afford this house. And it's so ridiculous, and yet I find it soothing. I think Barrie's exactly right with the Law & Order comparison. It's like, you know you're going to get a resolution, even more than with "Law & Order," where sometimes you are left in some sort of state of, you know, uncertainty or...
HOLMES: ...Ambivalence about the ending. That will never happen on "Property Brothers."
HOLMES: You're never like - even on something, like, when TLC used to have "Trading Spaces."
CHOW: It was so good. It was so good.
HOLMES: Every now and then on "Trading Spaces," they would make the room over, and somebody would be like, it's different.
HOLMES: Like, always on "Property Brothers," once the house is renovated, the people come back - they're never like, you know, I'll get used to it.
HARDYMON: No. There are tears.
HOLMES: They always come back, and they're like, I can't believe it.
CHOW: There's always tears.
HOLMES: And there's a glass pitcher full of lemons and limes on the kitchen counter.
CHOW: And Drew pretends to help move that one pillow over.
HOLMES: That's right. And then the people come in, and it's amazing. You know, we mentioned - I mentioned "Trading Spaces." That was kind of my introduction to this genre in some ways.
WELDON: It was everybody's introduction, I think, to this genre...
CHOW: "This Old House"?
WELDON: ...Because that was really far back. You know, that was a long time ago.
WELDON: And that's where all the bones of this whole network was built...
WELDON: ...Even though it was a different network.
CHOW: No, it's true.
WELDON: But they learned things like...
HARDYMON: And "This Old House," I should say.
HOLMES: I was just about to say, "This Old House" - I was raised on "This Old House."
CHOW: "This Old House," too, yeah.
WELDON: But "This Old House"...
HOLMES: But "Trading Spaces" is personality for him.
WELDON: Yeah, "This Old House" is boring. "This Old House" is how-to.
CHOW: It's like the "Antiques Roadshow" of...
WELDON: This is not how-to.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Unless you really like those accents, and I do.
HARDYMON: Yeah. Me, too.
WELDON: But the thing about "Trading Spaces" that I just realized, looking back on it, is how cheaply done it was. That was the idea, of course, but everything looked crappy...
WELDON: ...Especially if you got Frank. That's the thing that they've kind of pivoted away from, right? They - that show created a lot of the DNA, but then also it taught people what people don't want, which is people being disappointed.
CHOW: Yeah, that's true.
WELDON: We want this thing to be on rails.
WELDON: We want this to be slick.
HOLMES: I will say...
HARDYMON: Although the nice thing about always having them be happy is that, every now and then, when you're - as Kat said - searching for the in between...
HARDYMON: ...When you do see, like, a - you see the woman look over her shoulder and be like, I'm going to move that couch.
HOLMES: Although it is true that what has emerged is a bunch of shows where people are happy, the "Trading Spaces" episodes where people are unhappy - some of them are classics.
WELDON: Well, of course.
HOLMES: I don't know if you have...
WELDON: Crying Pam.
HOLMES: ...Are familiar with crying Pam.
HARDYMON: Crying Pam.
HOLMES: But there is an episode well known as Crying Pam, where Pam and her husband, I guess, had their - like, their family room redone, and she hated everything.
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PAM: You guys are going to be fixing that one a little bit. So...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah. Well, I just see a lot of firewood.
PAM: So I'm going to have to leave the room now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are you that disappointed?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: She's not happy. She's really not happy.
HOLMES: And she was crying, and it was very sad. And at the same time, it's so weird, and it's kind of a classic episode of "Trading Spaces."
CHOW: You can't look away.
HOLMES: Because you sit there and you think, she's serious.
HOLMES: She's really...
HARDYMON: It's her house.
CHOW: This is real, yeah.
HOLMES: ...Sad about this. But the good thing is, it's going to be fine.
HOLMES: All they did was put a cardboard box around your fireplace.
WELDON: Totally. Right.
HOLMES: Just take it down.
WELDON: It's pressboard. In two minutes, it's back to normal.
HOLMES: It's pressboard. It's up there with maybe a glue stick.
HOLMES: Just pull on it. It's going to come right off.
HOLMES: That's the good news.
HARDYMON: And I also - I will say - and I do like to - obviously, I like to say, yeah, I don't like that shag carpet. But I also do like that there is - this is maybe too high-handed. But there is this thing about creating your home. And some people like a shag carpet, and that's when I just like to say, wow, strokes.
HARDYMON: Because, you know, nobody likes that weird fake bear rug I have in my bedroom. But you know who does? Me, with my little tootsies in the morning.
HOLMES: And - yeah.
HARDYMON: So there is that kind of - I do just like to see the way people live in the same way that I - it's not necessarily that I feel superior so much as I just like to see that diorama, you know?
HARDYMON: That's just interesting.
HOLMES: I want to talk about one other thing, which is the tiny house.
HARDYMON: Oh, yeah.
HOLMES: Currently the thing - not just on HGTV, but on some of these other channels - is the tiny house show. How do you feel about the tiny house show, Kat?
CHOW: Well, OK. So I have, like, so many mixed feelings about "Tiny House Hunters" because, I mean...
HOLMES: And it's the house that's tiny, not the hunter.
CHOW: That's a good clarification, yeah. So it's these people who really say that they want to have this - downsize their homes so that they can enjoy other things in life, you know, like go travel or something, but still own property. And at first, I was so furious with this show because it's people who want to fit king-size beds or their, like, five German shepherds inside a 200-square-foot home. But then - I don't know - as I started watching more and more and more because they'd been having these huge marathons this past summer, I realized that, like, I started getting that inkling, kind of like what Glen was saying, and...
HOLMES: Like, I could do that. Like, yeah.
CHOW: Yeah. Like, there's something nice about not having stuff.
WELDON: If you want to feel like you are definitely not the kind of person who would go on "House Hunters International" and say a line like, I don't think that lap pool is big enough for our dogs...
HOLMES: Right, yeah.
WELDON: You know, if you want to be not that guy...
WELDON: ...Then it might appeal to you.
HOLMES: I feel superior to that guy.
WELDON: Yeah, of course you do. However, I live in a 700-square-foot apartment, which is...
WELDON: ...Kind of why I got the second house.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah.
WELDON: And I feel no desire to go even smaller and less - and more Spartan. I just don't - I've never watched any of those shows because I just don't find it...
CHOW: Another show that I wanted to bring up also was - so a lot of these shows that we've talked about are all about, like, a couple going on an adventure together, for the most part...
HOLMES: Right, sure.
CHOW: ...Or agreeing. One show that I really just have started despising is "Love It Or List It" because it really just pits the - usually the - it's very heteronormative, like, the husband and the wife...
HOLMES: Yeah, right.
CHOW: ...Against each other. And there's one person who wants to stay or leave.
HOLMES: So in this show, there is a real estate agent, and there is a renovator/designer.
CHOW: Hilary and David.
HOLMES: And Hilary, the renovator/designer, renovates your current house. David takes you out to look for a new house. David wants you to buy a new house. Hilary wants you to stay in your existing house. And you have to decide at the end, did she do enough to get you to stay in your current house, or did he show you a house so great that now you are going to - you just have to move?
WELDON: So what are the odds? How does it break down - 50-50, exactly 50-50?
HOLMES: That's a good question.
CHOW: I feel like a lot of times people leave because Hilary just messes the house up even more.
HOLMES: See, I feel like people often stay. I feel like people often stay. And my feeling - and I don't know if you agree with this, Kat - but I feel like in this show, as you were saying, the heteronormativity plays out in that the husband wants to leave and the wife wants to stay...
CHOW: Right. Yeah.
HOLMES: ...If the issue is the husband wants more space or whatever. The ones where the husband wants to stay - a lot of times he's just annoyed and he doesn't want to move, it seems like.
CHOW: (Laughter) It's true.
HOLMES: I don't know. But go ahead. You were saying they - it pits them against each other.
CHOW: It pits them against each other, and it gets - well, first of all, the hosts, David and Hilary - they're pitted against each other. And it's this whole - like, there's this, like, weird underlying sexual tension that HGTV totally tried to play up in some commercials that then went away really quickly. I don't know if you guys saw them. It was, like, last year, kind of winter-ish.
CHOW: And I actually tried really hard to find them on YouTube because I was like, am I seeing things? They're - like, she has, like...
HOLMES: Was that a fever dream?
CHOW: Yeah, was it actually a dream, a fantasy? (Laughter).
CHOW: No, but so it starts with the two hosts being pitted against each other. And then, like, the rest of the show is just this couple fighting. And I don't love that because...
CHOW: ...Like, I go to watch HGTV not to have stress about spouses, but...
HARDYMON: Although, I do go to HDTV to see relationships between people, and between couples in particular, because that is another sort of enjoyable thing - because then you look around the house and you note the things that, you know, you were forced into keeping or, you know, that belonged to a previous marriage.
WELDON: Weirdly, on "House Hunters," Leslie and her friend Fran...
HARDYMON: Well, OK, but I will say on that point, this is the other thing I was going to say. And this goes back to "Trading Spaces."
HARDYMON: "Trading Spaces" and all these HDTV shows have had gay couples before scripted television had very many of them.
WELDON: That's true.
HARDYMON: And so although there may sometimes be the woman and her friend Fran, there are also quite a lot of all of these where it is a gay couple as an out gay couple. And they were doing that. I think - my recollection is there were gay couples on "Trading Spaces". And that at the time was - that was well ahead of scripted, in my recollection, in terms of, like, not never. In terms of it being kind of something that happened relatively regularly and frequently, I feel like they were ahead of scripted.
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HARDYMON: We want to know what you think about your favorite home makeover shows. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all back here next time.
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