Commercial Television Tries Community


January 3, 2007


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Is there anything commercial television has touched that is the better for it?  Sports? Politics? Drama?  Anything?  The practice of community has been blessedly exempt, except to the extent television has depleted the ranks of those available to do the work.   Community doesn’t have much sizzle; and how do you sell products in the context of a show about people who think there’s something more important than buying products?

It looks like that is changing though.  On New Year’s Eve I found myself at a family gathering, watching a show that has taken the popular themes of personal makeover and home improvement and given them a  new twist.  It appears the show solicits the names of people who have made significant contributions to their communities.  Then, via the show, people in the community help to build the family a new or remodeled home in return.

As I said it’s a promising premise, one that harkens back to the house-raisings and reciprocal economics of the frontier.  Could this actually be happening on commercial television? (It was on ABC, though I didn’t catch the name.)  But it turned out that the show’s own good instincts almost were buried under the predictable consumerism and production hype. Shopping Channel meets Habits of the Heart; and given the venue, you can guess which had home field advantage.

This particular installment was about a cabinet-maker with a wife and three kids in Salt Lake City who had been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.  After he survived a third operation, he decided he was going to dedicate the rest of his life, however long or short, to helping people in the community.  Among other things he led a stealth operation in which people remodeled a neighbor’s kitchen while the family was away.

The fellow was so palpably good hearted, his family so visibly subdued by his ordeal – you wanted to jump on a plane and lend a hand.  But the proceedings started with a hokey conceit: the home makeover crew on a bus, barreling towards Salt Lake City, and reviewing a Cd that tells the family’s story.  Then we get an assemblage of neighbors in the street ready to go to work that almost could have come from Busby Berkeley.

We don’t see much actual work, most of which appears to have been done by hired contractors anyway. This is a let down in more ways than one, because one of the attractions of these shows is getting to see how to hang a kitchen cabinet, install flooring etc.  But the producers of this show don’t seem to trust their own material, or their audience. They keep hamming it up to keep us entertained.

What we do see is shopping.  To buy the appliances and the rest, the lead crew goes on a wild spend-a-looza at an empty Sears, which coincidentally is a sponsor.  The crew itself is a Bob the Builder ensemble transposed to the target demographics. Bob is a surfer type with a touch of spiky punk; and behind him, in place of Rolly, Dizzy and Muck, we get  an ecologically-minded landscape architect, a kitchen designer who might register on some gaydar screens, and a Brit with a shaved head. Wendy has become a winsome gal with jiggles.

They all seem sincere.  You are rooting for them, as you are for the family.  But the production keeps getting in their way.  Somehow, in the course of a week, the community – or rather the construction firm – has managed to complete a low slung Macmansion. The fabulous kitchen is okay – the wife has started a catering business during the father’s illness, and she needs the counter space and extra fridge.  But the living room seems oceanic, with modern furniture and bare wood floors.  Where is the family clutter going to go?  Are teenagers actually going to live in this place?

Upstairs is over the top.  The youngest daughter, thanks to Ms Jiggles, now will sleep in a Tinkerbell aerie, complete with a big picture of a fairy with the girl’s face painted in.  Will she still want to sleep there in a few years? The master bedroom suite is palatial, with a tub that seems big enough to raise dolphins in.  At the end, when the dedication to the husband – who apparently succumbed after the filming –  appeared on the screen, I could not get my mind off that suite, and how empty it is going to feel for the decent and grounded woman who will occupy it alone.

Did they have to make this place so big?  Couldn’t there have been more emphasis on the community and its stories, and less on the stuff?  I was still a little choked up for the family.  But I also had the dizzy glutted feeling I get after a visit to Costco or Target.   The medium really is the message, in this way too.