Feature by: Marcus Gilmer
Posted on: 17 July 2004
Reality television has been around for a while, dating back to shows like “Candid Camera” and “The Gong Show”, showing us how incredibly insane real life can be. PBS had its groundbreaking “American Family”, breaking the mold of it’s traditional documentary programming. In the 90’s, it was literally the MTV Generation that kept the reality television genre going with “Real World” and “Road Rules”. Through it all, people complained and commented on how spoiled the featured kids were on those shows. But the complaints all fell on deaf ears. All that mattered to execs were that people were watching. And with each successive season, the viewers kept tuning in in droves. Even MTV is getting into the act with that sorry-ass excuse of an attempted self-parody “Real World: Lost Season.” To quote Jerry Seinfeld, “Who were the ad geniuses who came up with THAT one?”
The sad fact of the matter is that no matter how much we may try to deny it, the reason we keep tuning in to these shows is because people really are this crazy. People really do get themselves entangled in completely messed up, complicated, asinine situations. Sometimes I think that watching my own friends is like watching my very own episode of “The Real World: Birmingham”. Sure, watching the arguments between Kyle and Cara and the ensuing drama on last year’s “Real World” might seem like it’s edited together purely for the purpose of building up human drama, but real life is this whacked. If you don’t believe me, check out the documentary Hands on a Hardbody, a film that is both highly comical (unintentionally) yet heartbreaking at the same time.
Back in the summer of 2000, America was taken by storm by “Survivor”. It was a phenomenon out of left field, a show featuring average folks conniving, eating rats, and walking around naked in the wilderness, all for the sake of a million dollars. It was a phenomenon that passed me by. I had much larger concerns at the time and I never really understood what the fuss was about. All I knew was that there was some chick named Colleen and that she was hot. However, in the fall of 2000, two other reality shows premiered that eventually took television’s backseat to the Survivor bandwagon but have proven themselves to be just as entertaining: TLC’s “Trading Spaces” and CBS’ “Big Brother.”
It seems like a pretty straightforward concept: pick two homeowners, pair —em up with a spouse or other family member, give them $1,000, the use of a professional carpenter, a professional interior designer, and give them 48 hours to transform a room in each other’s home. At first, it seems like a juiced-up take of “This Old House” aimed at the housewife audience that would be watching between episodes of “The View” and “A Wedding Story”. But, in fact, TLC’s “Trading Spaces” has become another one of those left field hits and is fast gaining on “Spongebob Squarepants” as the new show for college kids to watch while they skip class and change their bong water.
Maybe it’s the constant revolving door of highly attractive (or “hottt”, as the college kids say) show regulars. Or maybe it’s the strange and unusual designs brought along by the professionals. Or maybe it just comes down to that good, old-fashioned human drama. Whatever the case, I’m grateful to my friend, Boof, who first introduced me to the show.
If nothing else, the cast of the show is a set of characters unto themselves. There’s Frank, the gentle, light-hearted man who has a penchant of designing whimsical figures and has more than a passing resemblance of Corky St. Clair from Waiting For Guffman. There’s the drama queen Doug, the always smiling (even if he is clearly pissed) Vern, the eccentric Hilda with her flair for strange color combinations (anyone catch the episode with the “quadrants”?), the perky Genevieve, and the woman with a mind for famous painters, Laurie. And that’s just the designers. The carpenters are heartthrobs unto themselves. There’s Ty, the wet dream of every woman between the ages of 15 and 55 who watches the show. And then there’s Amy Wynn, my personal favorite, who is the typical girl next door who can handle a power drill or circ saw better than anyone I have ever seen. She melts my heart, even when I have no clue what the hell she is doing.
“Trading Spaces” even had it’s own host dilemma. Alex McCloud hosted the first season and brought another dose of “hottt” to “Trading Spaces”. In fact, every female cast member of the show is in some way very attractive, but I digress. Point is, come season two, Alex was nowhere to be seen, replaced by the equally “hottt” and uber-perky Paige Davis. Fans swarmed internet message boards arguing who was better and wondering what the hell happened to Alex. On the official “Trading Spaces” website, the bios say that Alex left to pursue other career options. Whatever the case, the viewers turn put winners in the end since TLC still airs reruns featuring Alex in addition to the Paige episodes. In fact, “Trading Spaces” has become so popular, TLC has done crossovers with other shows (Ty and Amy Wynn on “A Makeover Story” and Paige’s wedding documented on, what else, “A Wedding Story”). Of course, like all the best American stuff, the show is actually based on a similar show from Britain.
What is the REAL crux of the show is the continual meshing and mis-meshing of personalities between the designers and the homeowners. It’s always fun to see the reactions of the homeowners when a designer whips out some whack-ass design for a living room in Ass-Backwards-Podunk, Colorado. These poor homeowners can’t understand why anyone would paint their walls gray with weird shaped mirrors and the designers can’t grasp why these rednecks are having a hard time comprehending their ultra-pretentious attempt to bring some God-awful design that only idiots in Manhattan would use to the rural country.
Maybe that’s going a little overboard. In fact, more often than not, the homeowners and designers at least get along for the purpose of bettering someone else’s home. There may be a disagreement here or there, disguised with passive aggressive comments and nervous laughter, but for the most part things work out. And usually, the designs aren’t THAT far-fetched. But it’s that once in a while episode where things go nuts that make it worth tuning in.
Fans are split between whether the designers should cater to the homeowners’ wishes or that the homeowners should know when they sign up they may not like the finished product. No matter how much Paige tries to distract you with babbling about being on budget or being on time, this is where the real drama is.
And poor Doug has really garnered himself a reputation. There was the episode where Doug went rummaging through the homeowner’s drawers and found a picture obviously intended for private viewing of the homeowner sprawled out in her lingerie. So what does Doug do? The man blows up the picture to poster size and hangs it right above her fireplace. Awesome. There’s the episode where Doug’s mother-daughter team gets someone else to do their homework (work intended to be finished overnight between the first and second days) while they go out on dates. This year’s season finale featured a homeowner spewing obscenities when he viewed his finished room and saw they had taken down his ceiling fan (ceiling fans are hated enemies of all the designers). And what is with the gluing of crap to walls? On two separate occasions, two different designers had some form of plant glued to the wall in lieu of wallpaper (hay and moss).
And what write up of “Trading Spaces” can fail to mention “Crying Pam”? If you have no clue what I’m talking about, when Homeowner Pam saw the finished result of her new living room, she had to excuse herself and began sobbing. With her microphone still on. Her husband stood there shaking his head while poor Paige sat there, gaping, looking whiter than usual. When the homeowner working on Pam’s house ran into a disagreement with designer diva Doug, Doug threw a hissyfit (which to this day still seems like he was half-joking) and as he storms out, the homeowner shouts, “What about fabric? You guys love fabric!” Classic.
It’s this drama that keeps pulling me back for every episode, even reruns. The dirty looks, the snide comments, even the occasional tantrums. I may not understand why a designer makes a decision on taking down a perfectly good ceiling fan. And I may not understand that uptown Manhattan loft look. Then again, I may not agree when a homeowner expresses his or her disgust with the new color of the walls. Whatever. It makes for compelling television. And who wouldn’t want to turn in every week just to watch Ty act like an adorable, goofy bastard? You have to love the point in the show where both sets of homeowners meet again after seeing their new rooms and there’s been a bad reaction. The fake smiles, the passive-aggressive comments…you have to love it (the woman who hated her new bedroom with the “sunbursts”). The point is, this will never get boring. Why? Because when we see people acting like complete jackasses on screen, we think, “Hey, I know a guy just like that.” Hell. These jackasses remind us of ourselves. We keep thinking, “That could be me.” And sometimes the shows help remind us how normal we are. Mostly.