We don't have a television in our house, but holidays and vacations always grant us the opportunity to sit in front of one for hours at a time, be it in a relative's house or a hotel room. There's a lot of bad TV out there, but most of it just fails to be interesting; once in a while, though, I find a show that crosses the line from being bad
to just plain offensive
. Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
is such a show. After watching a couple of episodes, I spent a few days stewing in the iniquity of it all, trying to formulate a coherent rant that didn't suffer from myriad exasperated tangents. I will dispense that rant now.
When I first encountered Extreme Makeover: Home Edition
(EMHE), I assumed it was just a way to pull at the heart strings of America's TV audience and get them to watch what is essentially a one-hour commercial for all of the show's sponsors. I don't fault ABC for taking the opportunity to show an hour of non-stop commercials, I just can't believe that all of the hosts are able to pull it off with a straight face.
Host #1: Sal and Julie love to grill outside during the summer, but they haven't been able to do much grilling since they ran out of charcoal last June. We could just buy them a new bag of charcoal, but I think we can do better than that.
Host #2: I talked our friends at Sears, and they said that Sears offers a great selection of propane grills and accessories, all covered by a Sears Home Warranty.
Host #1: Wow, it sounds like Sears has everything we need. Let's buy an expensive Sears brand grill that will make Sal and Julie happy for years to come.
Host #2: Good idea. Going to Sears will make this outdoor grilling area better than ever.
Host #1: Let's go to Sears!
Host #2: Sears!
This aspect of the show is just mindless and predictable, and I have no problem with that. What bothers me about EMHE is the complete lack of fiscal responsibility that is demonstrated by both the producers of the show and the lucky families they have selected. I originally thought that the show would provide the families with reasonable upgrades to their existing homes using materials provided by the sponsors, making it a sappier and more commercial version of TLC's Trading Spaces
; what I found was a show that glorified suburban excess while completely ignoring the plight of people who do not even have a home to renovate.
One of the first EMHE episodes I saw focused on some family in Wyoming that had bought a house that was half underground and, consequently, filled with radon gas. The whole family was sick from the radon poisoning, and they didn't have the money to build a new house or take care of the dozens of stray pets they had adopted over the years. Enter EMHE. They tore down the original house and gave this family of four a million-dollar home with seven bedrooms, a pet sanctuary, and, by my count, exactly fifty-two flat-panel TVs.
Why is this bad? Let me count the ways:
The first and most obvious thing that eats at my soul is the fact that ABC has used its immense power to extract millions of dollars in time and materials from local citizens but only managed to help one family. I don't see why a poor or middle class family that is on the down and out needs a McMansion
in order to improve their lives. Every time they highlight some family member who works with disabled kids or a local charity, it strikes me that this person must have extreme cognitive dissonance upon moving into a house that is light years beyond their means.
Having grown up in a lower-middle class suburb with a single mother, I can honestly say that if anyone had offered us a brand new 3 BR/2 BA ranch like the ones all of my friends lived in, we would have been more than happy to take it. Such a house would cost between $100,000 and $200,000 depending on which area of the country it was built in; why, then, does ABC feel the need to build homes that are assessed at $500,000 to $1,000,000? I'm sure that the families are excited to live in such luxury, but if you toned down the luxury three or four notches, would they really know the difference? Would they be any less happy?
EMHE could provide these families with nice suburban homes and all of the latest gadgets for about $200,000. By restricting themselves to "nice" and "impressive" (as opposed to "grand" and "overwhelming"), the show could afford to help three or four times as many families. It would have more content to work with and there would be no effect on the amount of product placement that is currently in the show. I really don't think there would be any negative impact on revenue or ratings if the network changed the show to balance cool home improvement with the desire to help as many people as possible.
The second thing that irks me about this show is also tied to fiscal irresponsibility. It's bad enough that a giant corporation is spending excessively on something that isn't necessary (big surprise), but it's made worse by the fact that they are pushing these families into a situation that will leave them house poor
. Keep in mind that these families are already "regular poor", and while house poor may seem like an upgrade, it's not exactly the stress-free life that ABC promises on the show. If a family can barely afford their current mortgage and cost of living and is not in the position to upgrade their admittedly ramshackle house, can they really afford the property taxes on a $500,000 house? Depending on what state you live in, the property taxes on such a house could easily exceed the combined mortgage payments and property taxes of a house in the low $100,000s.
Of course, there is a chance that the families can remain frugal in their new luxury pad and pay their property tax bill on time. Success is less likely when it comes to the utility bills. Again, we're talking about families that were already having trouble paying the bills when they lived in homes that were 1,500 square feet or less; the new homes average over 5,000 square feet, and many of them have beautiful-yet-costly structural features. The Wyoming family came home to a three-story house with a foyer wall made of glass, and when you couple that with eastern Wyoming's distinct lack of trees, I think it's safe to say that this place is going to be a greenhouse for most of the year; their only respite will come during winter, when all of their heat will rise through the foyer and escape out the giant glass wall. I would love to see the parents' reaction to that first electric bill.
The third and final thing that has me yelling at the TV is the fact that Wyoming is one of an increasingly small number of states that has not passed a law to raise its minimum wage above the federal rate of $5.85. The people of Wyoming would march on Cheyenne if anyone tried to pass a state law that raised the local minimum wage or, alternatively, increased their state sales tax in order to help more families on welfare. And yet, I saw hundreds
of Wyoming residents come out to build an enormous new home for one family in need, despite the fact that said family could not repay them, did not do anything to earn
the house, and did not even help build
the house. This stinks of hypocrisy. The lesson here is that spending a million dollars and organizing hundreds of volunteers is no problem if the cause is heart-warming and there's a good chance you'll be on TV, but it's out of the question to do the same when the goal is to help random people whose hard-luck stories are not relayed to you in tender, five-minute TV segments.
But enough about Wyoming. That episode didn't even bother me that much, because I'm sure that if Wyoming was like the rest of America and had a some basic laws in place to protect home buyers, the radon thing would have been caught before the closing and the family never would have bought the house. Some of these other families are much more suspect, and their prizes much more enraging. Let's move on, this time to Kirkland, Washington.
The family in Kirkland includes a single mother who has three daughters and has renovated her inground pool for the purpose of teaching area children to swim. This small business gives her the means to pay her bills, but her house is falling apart and it would cost more to fix it than to rebuild. Unlike the Wyoming family, which lived on a couple of acres in the middle of, well, Wyoming, this family lives in a quaint suburb next to houses that are similar in size. It was during this episode that ABC discovered a new way to encourage poor financial decision making.
The Kirkland house had been in the family for generations, so the mortgage was paid off long ago; this means that the family's monthly costs were going to food, utilities, and the temporary fixes they've put in place to make their home safe. Surprisingly, my initial reaction to this situation was not to tear the house down and build a million-dollar property complete with gazebos and a professional swimming pool. Instead, I thought it would make the most sense for the mother to put the property up for sale, move into an apartment, and get a new job that provides the same income as her swimming lesson business (which can't be very large, given that her customer base is fairly small and she has to compete with non-profits such as the YMCA).
The great thing about my solution is that it's the responsible thing to do, and it doesn't require me to believe that the family's problems are equivalent to those living in public housing in downtown Seattle. I realize that this sounds harsh when compared to the ABC solution, but it is
a solution, and one that the mother should have adopted a long time ago. Kirkland is a popular town, and there are plenty of potential buyers for a nice suburban plot upon which a new family could build their dream home; since she doesn't have a mortgage to pay off, she could sell the property for an extremely low price and still make a big addition to her savings account. This family doesn't need a McMansion, it needs a real estate agent and a basic investment strategy.
The last and most recent episode I caught was about some family in Vermont that had two young boys, one of whom was physically and mentally handicapped. They seemed like pretty reasonable people, and the house they ended up getting wasn't as lavish as others before it; but while I didn't have any beef with the actual family, the whole episode got me thinking about the unfairness of ABC's selection process. This family bought a "fixer upper" that had no real foundation. The house should have been condemned. They were only able to afford the house because no one else would go near it, and frankly, I don't think that such a desperate decision should give them priority over other Vermont residents who have sobbier sob stories.
There are thousands of other families across the country in equally tough situations who have not
stretched themselves beyond their means and taken on mortgages for homes they can't afford. These people will never be recognized by ABC because they don't own property. They are in the same dire straits, and are arguably more responsible citizens, and yet, without a homeowner's deed, they will have no shot at the McMansion on 1.5 acres like the people from Vermont. All we have learned from this episode is that if you give in to America's big house obsession and spend yourself bankrupt while competing with the Jonses, a big team of All American volunteers will come out to save you. Reward you, even.
There are plenty of other, less grown-up reasons to hate EMHE, but I've covered the ones that everyone should agree upon. Every day I wake up and check the daily news to see if the president of ABC
has managed to form a synapse between his two working neurons and pull the plug on this sham of a television show. Every day I am disappointed.
So much anger.
 It may be mindless, but it's not immoral.
 Despite the fact that the new house is a contest prize, the familes can avoid paying income tax on it thanks to a questionable tax loophole
 I checked - it doesn't.
Labels: culture, narcissism