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Home improvement.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Although I seldom write analytically about television these days, there was a time when, as the proverb goes, I ate, slept, and breathed TV criticism. It was my last year of college, and as a mass communication major, I was encouraged to do my thesis on a popular culture artifact. I chose to study postfeminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which meant spending hours not only holed up in the university library but parked in front of the boob tube, watching episode after episode of the hit series. It wasn’t a bad way to spend my senior year, academically speaking.

Aside from endearing me to Buffy for life, my thesis on television had some other long-term effects. I have to admit I’ve always been strangely fascinated by the lows to which humanity is capable of stooping, as evidenced by the majority of today’s network programming. While this fascination occasionally mimics gawking at a car accident while driving by, the framework for pop culture critique that I developed in college helps me to examine shows that many don’t consider worth their time. I always try to ask myself, What does this show say about our values? What does it say about who and what we love? What’s really going on here?

Part of the latest spate of reality TV, one show in particular has recently grabbed my attention—and, unlike its smarmy predecessors, it seems immune to critique on the surface. The program is Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and its premise is dramatic displays of charitable giving. Each week, a high-caliber design team descends upon the home of a family that is poor or has special needs (sometimes both) and completely redesigns it, often demolishing the structure and starting from the ground up. Along the way, the team pays attention to family members’ tastes and desires, offering them a finished product that is not only a nice place to live, but a nice place for them, specifically, to live.

Among my acquaintances, this show is the new rage. People have lauded it as everything from “the only redeeming hour of programming on television today” to “a glimpse of the kingdom of God.” The reasoning behind such praise seems to be that in the midst of the self-absorbed gimme-gimmes who usually populate reality television, the folks behind Home Edition are a refreshing example of self-sacrificing generosity. Initially, I can’t help but agree—the power of celebrity (the show is hosted by home improvement guru Ty Pennington) and the wealth of corporations are finally being harnessed to benefit real people who need a helping hand. How can we argue with the fact that houses are being built and quality of life is being improved and that reality television seems to have developed a heart?

Indeed, it is difficult to argue. But I’m a pathological contrarian, and I can’t help but apply my television criticism skills to even a seemingly saintly program.

Read the rest of this article at *catapult magazine.