Comparing the suburbs in S1Ep02 of “Father Knows Best” and the Pilot of “Desperate Housewives”

I recently showed two episodes of suburban TV in a class involving the study of the American suburbs. I asked students to look at five dimensions of the two episodes in question – “Lesson in Citizenship” of Father Knows Best and the pilot of Desperate Housewives – and I’ll add some comments below:

Where do most scenes take place? How do we know this is the suburbs?

The majority of scenes in both shows take place in and around single-family homes. Outside of a few short scenes, everything in Father Knows Best takes place inside the Anderson home. Desperate Housewives is a little more varied, particularly with neighbors going back and forth between homes on one short block, but the action is still centered in single-family homes.

How important is family life to the plot?

Very important to both though the family form is quite different. Father Knows Best shows up in the research literature as a prototypical 1950s suburban show with a nuclear family, a father who works outside the home, a mother who stays at home, and kids of various ages. Desperate Housewives features a variety of families though the women still hope to have some semblance of happy family life.

What are common activities for the characters?

Characters are rarely working or going to school – primary activities for adults and children, respectively – and seem to have plenty of time to interact with each other and in local organizations as well as tackle issues that arise in the home.

How do the characters resolve conflicts?

There is a big difference here: the problems presented on Father Knows Best wrap up nicely with the characters coming together again. In contrast, the conflict in Desperate Housewives is endless and the resolutions rarely bring characters together and run the gamut from arguments to violence to inner seething. From the beginning of the pilot, the show establishes that the four main housewives are desperate and their actions suggest as much.

Are these depictions of the suburbs realistic?

These two shows perhaps represent opposite poles of suburban depictions and each have a grain of truth to them. Father Knows Best maintains the happy facade where families rarely encounter truly difficult issues. At the same time, the emphasis on pleasant family life seems attractive to many who move to the suburbs. Desperate Housewives suggests the suburbs are not a perfect place – and plenty of American suburbanites encounter major difficulties, including women who receive little attention in the early suburban shows – yet likely goes too far with the levels of action and harm the residents of Wisteria Lane inflict on each other. Real suburban life is likely somewhere in the middle and is likely not as exciting enough to be a regular television show.

Conclusion

These two shows are good representatives of two eras of suburban television: the 1950s suburban sitcom and the 2000s shows that challenged suburban ideals and promoted complicated heroes. Both shows are built around similar themes of family life and single-family homes. Yet, their aims are very different: Father Knows Best is viewed as reinforcing a particular image of suburbia while Desperate Housewives challenges common narratives (and really extends a lot of suburban critiques present since the era of Father Knows Best). Thus, the two shows may not be that different than they appear and both were popular in their own day.

The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?

Quick Review: Egan’s books The Invisible Circus, Look at Me, A Visit From the Goon Squad

After reading several positive reviews of Jennifer Egan’s newest book, I decided to read her earlier work. Here are my thoughts after reading three of her first four novels:

1. One of the more consistent themes is tying together the past with the present and future, both in the personal stories of the characters as well as broader social forces that are always swirling around and threatening to sweep them along. For example, one of the main characters in Look at Me is trying to connect the past of Rockford, Illinois to a vision of the future. He is convinced that the decline of this Rust Belt city will illuminate important paths forward. Or, the characters in The Invisible Circus are trying to figure out what their actions as teenagers mean for their barely-formed adult lives.

2. All of the characters are flawed – sometimes by their own actions and other times through their family – and they are searching for answers. Rarely do they find them. Dreams are remembered yet lost as the characters can’t quite figure out how they got to this point of adult existence. Relationships burst with intensity and then fade. Success is fleeting. A Visit From the Goon Squad does a lot with this: even as the story lines come together to suggest that our future lives may not be very desirable, we are shown intriguing yet short glimpses of characters and relationships spanning several decades.

3. Across the three books, there are a number of settings ranging from San Francisco to Rockford to New York City to European locations big and small. The communities are present but also not present. They come and go in broad strokes. To illustrate, New York City is featured and the characters stagger around and big landmarks and ideas are mentioned but there is little tangible connection to places. Perhaps this is how people truly do live their lives these days as they focus on their private selves.

4. Much of the time I was reading these three books, I could not shake the idea that these works are heavily influenced by Tom Wolfe. The characters are caught between the cosmos and their day-to-day concerns. The language is loose and evocative. There seem to be larger messages and commentary about societal change though perhaps the clearest message is that modern individuals have no idea of how to figure any of this out.

All in all, I found the stories engaging and thought-provoking. However, they also had an ephemeral quality. Do they provide some deep insights into who we are today and where we are headed? Or, are they a cleverly-constructed yet ultimately common story of human frailty? It may take some time for me to answer these queries in my own mind even as literary critics seem to think Egan is asking the right questions.

 

Closing the blinds when showing home interiors on HGTV

I watch my fair share of shows on HGTV and I recently noticed something: many of blinds or shades are closed when the interior of the homes are shown. This could be for multiple reasons:

  1. Lighting issues. Windows can produce glare either from interior or exterior lighting.
  2. The shows may be filming at night. Looking out into blackness is not that appealing.
  3. Blocking off the windows means the show can emphasize the interior and perhaps particularly show new window treatments.

These are good reasons to cover the windows. Yet, it strikes me that taking this action means the private nature of the home is emphasized even more. HGTV homes tend to emphasize the actions of the nuclear family inside the new home. Sometimes, the yard is really important to the homebuyers or homeowners but even then, the exterior is far less important than the interior spaces where it is presumed the family will spend more time.

Additionally, blocking off what is outside the windows ignores one of the most important features of homes: location, location, location. HGTV shows spend little time showing the neighborhood. Again, even when the characters are really tied to a location or neighborhood, this is primarily conveyed verbally and then the rest of the show focuses on interiors. Thus, not only do we not see much of the neighborhood, we also do not always see what the homeowners would see out their own windows.

All of this makes more sense when it is placed into the larger context of the American ideal of a single-family home on its own plot of land inhabited by a nuclear family. This is a powerful ideal, particularly for HGTV’s target demographic.

 

 

Are TV portrayals of NYC housing realistic? An (incomplete) analysis

Earlier this year, the Washington Post ran an interesting analysis of how realistically the housing for numerous New York City characters was portrayed:

TVhousinginNYCWashingtonPostApr17

The article has a detailed breakdown of the housing in Girls and then has summaries for everything else.

Although this does not include every major television show depicted in New York City (I could think of a number off the top of my head), there are two noticeable patterns in the shows discussed in this particular article:

  1. Three popular and influential shows from the 1990s, all ones that supposedly made the city attractive to new generations, showed unrealistically large apartments. The city may look like a fun place to be when everyone has plenty of space and cool stuff.
  2. The number of working class shows here is limited. Television does not do a great job in general portraying the working class – see the documentary Class Dismissed – and this article deals mostly with shows with higher class aspirations.

Additionally, it seems like it would be important to also discuss the field of housing prices within New York City over the last sixty years. Manhattan is one of the most expensive places in the world now but was it always this bad? Additionally, the fates of the boroughs have changed over time.

 

Maybe Suburbicon failed because it has a well-worn suburban storyline

Suburbicon did not do well in its opening weekend: low box office receipts and abysmal responses from critics. While critics had a variety of concerns, could one of the issues be that the film has a suburban plot that is familiar? View the trailer here and the Google summarizes the plot this way:

Suburbicon is a peaceful, idyllic, suburban community with affordable homes and manicured lawns — the perfect place to raise a family, and in the summer of 1959, the Lodge family is doing just that. But the tranquil surface masks a disturbing reality, as husband and father Gardner Lodge must navigate the town’s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit and violence.

Even with the Coen brothers presumably putting their own twist on things, plenty of novels, movies, and television shows (from the The Crack in the Picture Window to The Stepford Wives to American Beauty to Weeds) have explored a similar premise: beneath pleasant-looking white middle-class suburbia are deep secrets, unrest, and residents waiting to be violent and exclude others. It is even a regular theme in horror films. To stand out from this crowd, the new cultural product needs to be pretty interesting.

Additionally, I am not sure that all suburban residents take kindly to such portrayals. Some of these depictions are thinly veiled critiques of all of suburban life. While they may contain a grain of truth, the majority of Americans live in suburbs. Many of them feel that they worked hard to make it to their suburban location and will put up quite a fight if they feel their quality of life is threatened. Put it another way, with all of the negative portrayals of suburban life in six decades of mass suburbia after World War II, it may be surprising that Americans still moved there and often stayed.

“[P]eople with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams”

The title of this post is part of a larger quote – “On Tiny House Hunters it is painfully transparent that people with tiny house budgets often have McMansion dreams” – as a writer reflects on HGTV’s portrayal of tiny houses:

They too yearn for an open floorplan. They want storage. They want privacy. They want sleek kitchen amenities. They want room to entertain. That desire, to entertain, is the most delusional. In a home built for one, that may, with some dieting and sucking in of the gut, accommodate two, there is no entertaining. When you buy a tiny home, you are also making a commitment to socialize with your friends elsewhere if you hope to keep those friends.

As the reality of tiny living sets in, the hunters often lament how tiny a tiny home actually is. Or they are in complete denial and exclaim that there is just so much space. In one episode of Tiny House Hunters a man sat in the “bathtub” in the tiny bathroom. He looked ridiculous, his knees practically in his mouth as he contorted himself into the improbable space. He, the realtor, and his friend, who were all viewing the property, were nonplussed, as if the goings on were perfectly normal. And there I was, shouting at the television, “What is wrong with you people?”…

Shows like House Hunters and Tiny House Hunters flourish, in part, because even now, after the mortgage crisis and financial collapse, home ownership and the American dream are synonymous. Home ownership represents success and the putting down of roots. Home ensures the stability of the American family. When you own a home, there is always a place where you belong, and where you are the master or mistress of your own domain…

A cheerful television show about homebuying isn’t going to sully itself with a frank examination of economic realities or the fallout from predatory lending practices that made so many people believe they could afford to live beyond their means. Instead, Tiny House Hunters allows people the trappings of a middle-class lifestyle, regardless of their actual economic circumstances. The homes the hunters look at are often stylish, modern reinterpretations of the cookie-cutter prefabricated homes that inspire so much cultural derision. They may not have much space but what space they have is well appointed and chic or quirky. Tiny house hunters can soothe their class anxiety and stay just within reach of what they so very much want but cannot afford to have.

This leads me to two thoughts:

  1. As the piece notes, there is an important connection here to social class. People on this show want to have a middle-class (or higher) lifestyle in a small package. They are often unwilling to give up on certain items just because they are pursuing a smaller house. Additionally, I would argue that this quest to downsize is a largely middle- to upper-class phenomenon. The people on the show are not ones driven to tiny houses solely because of economic necessity. The cost savings may be nice but they also talk about reinforcing familial bonds, being able to move a home around more easily, consuming less, and helping save the environment. As the writer notes, they are not seeking after mobile homes and the class implications associated with them. Instead, they often want customized tiny houses that continue to display their higher than lower-class lifestyle.
  2. Some might applaud these people for realizing they don’t need such a large house. Instead of purchasing a McMansion or even the average size new home (around 2,500 square feet), these people are consuming fewer resources and resisting the strong pull of consumerism. At the same time, they still find something valuable in owning their own home. Why does this interest in home ownership continue? if people truly wanted a more environmentally friendly option, shouldn’t they go move into a small apartment in a dense urban area where they don’t need to drive much? (Many of the tiny houses on HGTV are frequently in more rural settings and still require a lot of driving.) In other words, even having a tiny house still allows these homeowners to participate in the middle-class American Dream which largely revolves around owning your own detached home.

And just as a reminder, there is little evidence that many Americans desire a tiny house. As of now, they largely appeal to a small subset of the population that does not necessarily need them.