On the road, my husband and I binge-watch the Home and Garden Network.
So what? Innocent as a taste for popcorn, you may say. But consider: the habit signifies.
My husband likes to think about real estate. Both of us like to think about homes—abstract and literal—though, counter-intuitively, we never watch HGTV in our own house.
Maybe the threat of humiliation-by-comparison is too great.
Maybe distance allows more objectivity. Or more room to dream.
Oddly, HGTV seldom utters the actual words Real estate. Possibly the term unnerves people with its sleazy pomp. (During the years I lived in Hawaii, the words Real Estate Agent automatically meant someone-not-necessarily-very-bright, on the make. Why else would you be selling off pieces of a finite, incalculable treasure to anyone, just because they could pay for it? Mainland realtors, alas, don’t often present much differently. There’s just more to sell.)
The words still evoke dueling images: that of an aftershave-soaked hustler thrusting a bogus contract at you for, say, timeshares in a Florida swamp—versus the painterly view of the wide, pristine earth, the hard (or yielding) soil or sand or rock beneath your feet. Something’s at once noble and wretched about the burden and gift of property: exalting and damning, Pearl Buck and Scarlett O’Hara, scrabbling for potatoes in the stubborn dirt and shaking one’s fist at the sky one moment—the next beaming in contentment, to an Aaron Copland soundtrack, as lord of all one surveys.
Just the word estate suggests vast, splendid acreage like what we imagine Russian aristocracy owned—but also what history repeatedly tells us was bought and stolen and worked with blood and sweat: a solemn prize guarded and hoarded, coveted and squandered, passed along by legacy like family jewels. Modern idiom calls whatever structure we inhabit space, since in urban settings it occurs many stories above the ground. What matters is that the space is provably, legally ours.
Then we can fixate on what to do with it.
Once installed in our motel room, done with the day’s navigating, my husband busies himself finding the HGTV channel while I assemble the wine and beer, the crackers and nuts. Even if we’re tired, looking forward to these shows makes us cheerful. They cost nothing. They won’t give me bad dreams (something I’m prone to). They function as a sort of dimwit’s travelogue, flashing glimpses of parts of the world we may not yet have seen—or that we might contrast with our own experience of them (Mississippi, Costa Rica, a Greek island). Watching HGTV’s super-simplified plots and vanilla settings, its fast-forward progress (labor performed off-camera between takes by low-paid grunts) makes us laugh, but also vexes and stimulates us, igniting great gusts of opinion—usually shouted.
Yet the above doesn’t explain the riddle of HGTV’s intense appeal. What, at heart, is its lure? Why do people who know better, watch this? Why do these shows hypnotize us?
My husband and I don’t fit the channel’s target demographic. We don’t care about buying stuff. In fact we hate buying stuff—that is, things. (We would rather spend money on cheap travel.) We drive old, compact cars and live in a paid-off 1930s bungalow he bought 30 years ago—before house prices in our Northern California county went stratospheric, making buying a house impossible for the young, and a spectator sport for all but the uber-wealthy. Our little house has charm but it’s saggy and worn: like many others of its kind, it makes no sense in terms of its formal appraisal value. It’s a funky house in a ‘hood which lately—as a bedroom to tech zillionaires working in San Francisco—has become desirable. We are proud of our digs, a hair defensive, a hair embarrassed. I call our kitchen a mini-version of the kitchen in Monet’s shambly Giverny house. Shabby chic is our only-half-joking motto.
Yet HGTV tugs at something in us—at something in most everyone. People of all stripes crave an idea of Home—the whole cantilevered fantasy, its intricate particulars whirling and fanning, a vision the world can never stop parsing. In English, the word home contains the meditative OM sound, a sustained vibration that seems to inject our bones with an irresistible promise—sanctuary, safety, peace, freedom—and together with those notions, all the feels, as social media puts it. Ease, serenity, security. The right fit. Belonging.
Sounds like biblical absolution, doesn’t it? Heavenly balm. The ideal home will bring us into focus: make us whole, well, clear. Our best selves will bloom—as if tapped by a magic wand—because of where we happen to stand upon the planet and (not least) in what sort of shelter: the pile, the base, the HQ where we eat and sleep and bathe, dream and cry, love and brood and laugh; in some places, echoing earlier eras, where we’re born and die.
Is it any wonder we never stop looking, analyzing, comparing—even if we believe we already love where we live? It seems that whatever container wraps our bodies—mansion, shed, rickshaw, cardboard box—the idea of “home” gives off a pheromone that never stops seducing us; never stops hinting that it will answer for all time (for our lifetimes, at least) an ancient question.
Where you are means who you are.
HGTV simplifies and stylizes. Storylines follow an old, cherished arc: Joseph and Mary search for an inn. But unlike the biblical characters, HGTV clients aren’t turned away: that house or apartment will be sold or rented to Joseph and Mary. A fairy-tale flavor also infuses these carefully-paid-out storylines: the starring couple tours three sites, expected to choose one. Never mind that dozens were considered and eliminated off-camera, or that the decision took place long before the filmed “aha.” Part of each plot’s (very gentle) tension involves trying to guess which place each couple will choose, given what we’ve been primed to understand of their personalities, needs, and budgets.
Unsurprisingly, each couple, like each home, matches a template or blueprint. Generally, Joseph and Mary are heterosexual (though the shows occasionally host same-sex couples and also, thank God, interracial pairs). They are youngish, married, sometimes pregnant. Sometimes they already have a kid or two or four. Often they are starting out, not married. (I guess that’s attitudinal progress: Wikipedia says HGTV is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee.) They often have jobs which sound suspiciously vague: web-presence development or investment consulting. We listen closely for mentions of these jobs, because we want to guess how much these people earn—the better to grasp how Joseph and Mary will be able to finance the project to hand.
Sometimes we aren’t allowed to know how people afford it. One couple had a budget of several million. They weren’t volunteering how they came by it, and no one was asking. They wound up buying a mansion in the desert hills that featured a Viking-sized dining hall and a separate, long barroom, with actual saddles fixed to the tops of each barstool as seats. That’s the kind of detail that makes us laugh—partly with relief not to be anywhere near those people.
Sometimes, especially outside the U.S., the project to hand means simply finding an apartment to rent. But here, a house will be found. That’s one kind of HGTV show.
Others showcase a chosen home’s whopping makeover.
Extremely important to the American home-makeover narrative are three phases: Before, After, and—for the sake of dramatic tension—Monkeywrench in the Middle, meaning the sudden, mid-way discovery of unforeseen, nasty obstacles. Termites or mold or vermin have infested the structure. A root system has destroyed part of the foundation. Pipes or beams have rotted, or some ghastly toxin needs removal. Whatever the snag, it will cost serious money to fix, and threatens to cripple the project. The couple is filmed in close-up, turning to each other in these “crisis” moments. I assume viewers are supposed to be titillated by the suffering the couple endures, trying to reach a decision. (Suffering’s an essential feature of reality television, something that troubles me deeply, though maybe it’s just a cruder manifestation of theatrical art—but that’s another discussion.)
Pressure, in any case, is on. We’ve been told (several times) the amount of the couple’s budget. And though we know plain as day that these hardies will overcome their trials—otherwise there’d be no show, correct?—we viewers can’t help worry, or at least be breathlessly caught up. We’re human, and what’s at stake is a home (that ripe, reverberating word) which is supposed to become these people’s Valhalla, their heimat, fortress where they may safely gather, be loved and protected and nourished: their best versions of themselves.
It stiffens me a little to think about how (and where and by whom) these narratives are plotted—the same way you’d rather not see sausages being made. But the boilerplate model—an act of storytelling, after all—nails its objectives every time. It draws attention, provokes desire (creates desire), and yes, sells product—whatever the show’s commercials are peddling, cheese spread or varnish or air freshener. If they did not sell product, the shows—the whole network—would be cancelled. Simple as that. Numbers rule. Cruel, yes, but so are life and capitalism. (Not that I’m seeing any brilliant alternatives out there to either.)
Our attention spans are short. And alongside a pitiless bottom line (does the show make money or not), writers and producers understand short attention spans. First and last, it’s the emotion of home-finding and home-making that ropes in viewers and, consequently, sells product. That’s the channel’s great paradox: emotion makes money. Except maybe that’s been how marketing has worked since the beginning of time. Sell the sizzle.
I like the Property Brothers, who latterly appear to be attaining rock-star status: nice-looking twins Drew and Jonathan Scott, 38 at this writing. They may act smug on camera—both of them sporting sly, wry, just-ate-the-canary smiles—but they also come across as funny, cheerful, and knowledgeable. They seem to make their clients happy. Another program, “Fixer Upper,” stars Chip and Joanna Gaines, a handsome Texas couple (with five kids of their own) who renovate homes for people of different backgrounds and means. They, too, seem to make their clients happy, and this seems genuinely to make them happy (to whatever degree we can consider anything on television to be genuine). In still another show, an attractive couple (attractiveness a requirement) specializes in restoring disintegrating old homes in a mopey southern town, to help that (crumbling, ignored) little burg apply a fresh face, attract new residents, and clamber back into respectable life. And there’s a program that specializes in house-and-apartment-hunting for people all over the world, using the enticing bing-bong of a doorbell as its theme-sound.
These formats, and others like them, pulse with near-pornographic magnetism. It’s hard to pull your gaze away. You can’t help notice the lurid bits zoomed in upon: the dank cellar, the aging bathroom sinks, the outmoded, rusting fixtures, water stains, cracks, insect infestations, rot, and so on. Inevitably, we’re shown the subject couple (two women, last time I tuned in) sitting down together with glasses of wine to talk things over. At the end—strictly essential—comes the payoff, popularly known as the Big Reveal (and whoever coined that prototypically American, flatfooted term should either be shot or commemorated, or both). We’re staring finally at the remade house: fresh, radiant new rooms, hardwood floors, walls, fixtures, lawns. It’s been staged with perfect furniture, tasteful art, carpets, luminous window shades, bowls of oranges—the works. This is when anyone’s heart may dimple with envy. New, clean surfaces! (Doubtless it smells like a million bucks.) Spaciousness! Never mind the furnishings may be on loan, returned to the sponsors after filming and replaced by Grapes of Wrath relics—or by nothing at all. We who live in old houses are susceptible to the gleam factor.
We can even experience the envy without sound. In my gym’s cardio room, sweaty strivers easily follow HGTV on televisions mounted above our ellipticals, treadmills, and stationary bikes. In fact the drama’s more readable without sound: wary, big-eyed clients looking like a couple of baby lambs in a used car lot, as the Property Brothers or similar cute, suave shepherds move in swiftly to herd them along.
What touches me about the channel’s appeal is our indestructible hunger for newness, remaking, fresh starts, reinvention—all our optimism harnessed in pursuit of a new dream—and how we decide, at the same time, what elements constitute that dream. As the luscious visuals, itemized wish lists (with checkmarks), and commercials roll across the screen, an observant space alien dropping through could easily get clues about what American earthlings call a desirable home. A thinking American earthling, on the other hand, can’t not, eventually, feel uneasy about it. Why? Because of the staggering amount of our one-life-only, waking energies marshalled toward the next transformation, busily dragging what we consider ideal into what’s real, manifesting what we passionately believe will answer everything and somehow completely satisfy us—guaranteeing us a quality of days and hours that utterly redeem life on earth.
Nothing more, nor less.
I have mused, occasionally, about how blissful it might be to live in a world of commericals.
Commercials tell us the story of what to want and how to get it. They are populated by beautiful humans savoring the Got Thing in comfort and joy. Advertising enacts our desires while reminding us to desire: pillows to peanut butter, antidepressants to constipation remedies. People act kind, friendly, jubilant. They’re beyond satisfied: they’re ecstatic. Everyone loves everyone, and would like to buy the world a Coke. Commericals don’t hesitate to answer that second most ancient question (second after where home is), which art also struggles, in all its warty clumsiness, to answer:
How, then, should we live?
I don’t know why it never occurred to me before.
The entire HGTV network is—of course—one gigantic commercial.
And I’m obliged to confess, at the same time, that something powerfully weird happens after you’ve taken in too much HGTV. You feel a little sick, as if you’d eaten a bowl of stale icing. If everything’s purely sweet and all-at-the-surface, all the time—which HGTV hornswaggles even the best of us (for awhile) into imagining—we begin to feel rocky.
Something so big is missing, we can’t—choking on sweetness-sickness—even name it.
When my husband and I travel, I often study homes and apartment complexes we pass—who does not do this?—absorbing as much of what I see as I can, wondering who lives inside; what kinds of lives they are having.
HGTV suggests that it’s showing us exactly that: who lives there, and what kinds of lives they—we—are having.
Wickedly, I can’t help fantasize a followup program: a reality check series (RCTV), a late-night chaser fashioned in the mode of Where Are They Now? that systematically goes around revisiting all those couples and families we saw joyfully installed in their respective, perfect homes—say five years after they’ve moved in. The ones who gasped and wept and clapped their hands, who stared at the fresh walls and furniture with shining awe, watching their dream come true so they might begin, at last, to live that dream. I can’t help wonder what happened next.
Then I wonder why I wonder that.
But I already know why, somewhere beneath my ribs. It’s because I suspect that nothing gold can stay. Is this schadenfreude? Is it jealousy? Or is it a melancholy facing-off with some irrefutable human penchant? We could make the case that choosing a home is like a choosing a spouse, and we’ve all repeatedly been told how bad the survival odds for marriages are, at least in the United States. But that analogy would be too pat, too broad. My sense is that a dwelling has no opinions. It doesn’t elect to fail or betray or offend us; doesn’t fall prey to unwholesome temptations. A house doesn’t choose to let its allegiances drift, become restless or intractable, or gleefully turn a knife in our guts.
Those events, for whatever reasons, spring straight from us, from within ourselves. A home is vulnerable to weather, nature, and our whims.
What may not that long ago have seemed The Answer becomes, complicatedly or simply, not so much wrong as outmoded, off the mark, insufficient.
It’s as if Desire itself were exerting its supremacy over and over, crowning itself the winner no matter what the reward.
A New Answer is again wanted. The search resumes. And who knows: perhaps the search will yet again be televised, for viewers to admire, identify with, dream about.
Joan Frank is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her last novel, All the News I Need, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. A MacDowell Colony fellow, Joan also reviews literary fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Northern California.