Home Away From Home

Moving into cable TV's dream spaces

One useful--if glib--way of assessing home-and-garden shows is to separate them into two categories: inspirational and aspirational. "Aspirational" is Molly Sims's eucalyptus-palette house in the Hamptons as seen on MTV Cribs; "inspirational" is overhauling your kitchen in apple-green and black like Vern Yip's design on Trading Spaces. Aspirational is pressing your nose against the glass of someone else's living room; inspirational is ingeniously appropriating ideas for your own living room.

MTV has blithely ignored any distinction between the two categories with Crib Crashers. Shrewdly recognizing that a bedrock contention of every MTV addict is the belief that they too deserve to be a celebrity, MTV has combined the star-maps appeal of MTV Cribs with a spunky, budget-conscious form of fame worship. Yet the result is only mildly entertaining when compared with the show's parent.

MTV Cribs remains one of the most enjoyable home-and-garden shows on the air, because its original, obvious purpose--let's display how the hip half lives!--has turned into a consistently amusing self-parody. Although Mariah Carey's segment on MTV Cribs will never be surpassed in terms of sheer comic wallop per second--StairMastering in stilettos, anyone?--there are still plenty of sly giggles to be had with the people each show highlights, and, more important, at those people. It's easy to laugh with Stevo in Sum41 when he opens the fridge in his mom's suburban Ontario kitchen and says, "Everyone usually has Cristal and stuff. We have Coke. Fizzy Coke." But it's more fun to laugh at Simon Colwell who--when he finally manages to find the living room he actually uses--wends his way to the bar and admits that his drink of choice is...amaretto.

There's no laugh potential on Crib Crashers because the show is too earnest about the idea that we unashamedly yearn for living rooms like Tommy Lee's. Over the course of a show, the subject expresses his hero worship for a rock star's décor, MTV comes to the rescue, and the subject arrives home to--surprise!--a low-budget copy of the celebrity's room. Cue ecstatic squealing and a housewarming video from the celebrity, who is evidently not at all creeped out by someone copying his décor.

Whoever believes there's a necessity to the element of surprise in Crib Crashers is wrong. The whole point of having a celebrity-knockoff room is to incorporate some of that celebrity's image in one's own identity. And so watching someone in the throes of rock-star worship carry that desire to its decorating conclusion would be much more riveting than watching a removed party who is only there to paint his fanboy-friend's room on a lark.

The show is useless aesthetically, too. Plenty of people may admire Beyoncé's bedroom, but only a few are going to get an MTV "crib master" to create their very own knockoff. For a decorating show, Crib Crashers is singularly uninformative as to why the original room is so appealing from a design perspective. Therefore, it ought to abandon all pretense of being a home-improvement show: Lose the Trading Spaces-like work sequences and focus on the real reason people watch any show: psychodrama.

 

Until then, there's plenty of drama on HGTV. In the blitz of press over TLC's Trading Spaces (crying homeowners! decorators who call plaid "orthogonal"!), HGTV's offerings have been overlooked. This is a pity, as two of their shows offer plenty of schadenfreude.

Dream House is basically a slow-action version of The Money Pit: a series that follows a family through their quest to design, build, and finally live in their ideal house. Dream House episodes are typically titled "Roof Disaster," "Train Wreck," and "Six Months Behind Schedule," which should provide ample insight into the nature of the ordeal these would-be nesters endure. (The fact that HGTV has three regular series with the word dream in the title should say something, too, about what the network is selling.)

If you can't wait for the 10th Dream House set of episodes--the show is currently in reruns--then settle for HGTV's other stealth reality show, House Hunters. The premise is simple: Some people need to buy a house, they have a specific list of requirements, and they apparently (and inexplicably) want the process broadcast on cable. Regrettably, House Hunters leaves out all the juicy financial details, but what's left is worth watching--such as the man who wanted a house in his current neighborhood, but with a giant bedroom and an in-ground swimming pool and room for his grand piano...and then got frustrated that his search wasn't working out. Putting aside for a moment the concession that balancing the swimming pool and piano requirements can be tough--the guy was already familiar with the neighborhood! Unless he was waiting for a specific neighbor to move out or die, what was he thinking?

It's the little moments like this, where the domestic daydreams people carry around collide with cold, harsh reality, that make for entertaining television. Because we've all come to that point where our gauzy aspirations meet the limits of our improvisational efforts. Ultimately, that's what separates the typical domestic shows from the special ones: the willingness to point out that most of us live in places where we're constantly banging up against what we yearn for and tripping over our expectations for what we can do about it.

 
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