Trading Spaces avoided McMansions

Washington Post review of the new Trading Spaces emphasizes the smaller spaces the show worked with:

Though it was technically impossible to indict the cable channels — especially HGTV — for their role in the quick-mortgage fantasia, the connections were plain to see: the schedule was (and still is) littered with shows that spur house envy, encouraging viewers to live in a constant state of renovation, makeover and upgrade. Homeownership became the highest expression of citizenship, while decor became the chief signifier of class. “Trading Spaces,” which premiered in 2000, helped ignite that craze, making it safe to waste entire Saturday afternoons watching home-improvement shows. Yet it hardly deserves all (or any) of the blame.

The show returns Saturday (with a long reunion special preceding it), essentially unchanged and contagiously giddy, full of its usual surprises and reveals. Looking at the first of eight new episodes, one is reminded of “Trading Space’s” conceptual purity: It never goaded anyone into ditching their old house for an open-floor-plan, granite-countertop McMansion beyond their means. Its core principles were to work with what you have, on a restrained budget. It preached a DIY ethic, asking couples to swap houses and redo a room, aided (some would say strong-armed) by a crafty professional designer and carpenter.

A few quick thoughts:

  1. The scale of renovation on Trading Spaces is much more doable for the average American homeowner compared to the whole house makeovers on many other shows. How many people have the budget to do multiple rooms, particularly creating all new kitchens or master bathrooms? Or, who has the time to hand over their house for weeks as opposed to doing renovations over a weekend?
  2. The rooms on Trading Spaces tend to be much more varied than the typical home shows that often emphasize an expansive kitchen and open concept first floor. The HGTV shows encourage a homogenous style, moving from stainless steel appliances and granite countertops to shiplap, white cabinets, and open shelving.  American homes tend to be unique inside, particularly in certain rooms where people to have eclectic styles and uses.
  3. While the review above does not blame Trading Spaces for the larger shows to come, once you on television continue (1) glorifying the single-family home as the expression of individual tastes (a long-standing American tradition) plus (2) suggesting that people should be renovating their homes (part of the shift from living in homes to seeing homes as investments), is it a slippery slope to large-scale renovations in big houses?

On the whole, there is a lot that could be said from the move from Bob Villa to Trading Spaces to House Hunters and Property Brothers alongside shifts in American housing. Of course, it is hard to make causal arguments about how watching these shows directly changes behaviors.

Do suburbanites watch screeds about suburbia?

I recently read a review of a new documentary that addresses the housing issues and racism of the American suburbs. This led me to a question: do Americans in a largely suburban country watch films that directly criticize the suburbs?

I made a list of the first movies that came to mind as being known for their critique of suburban life. I have also included their box office earnings:

American Beauty – 1999 – $356 million

Far From Heaven – 2002 – $29 million

Pleasantville – 1998 – $49 million

Revolutionary Road – 2008 – $75 million

Stepford Wives – 1975 and 2004 – $4 million, $102 million

This is not an exhaustive list at all though it does quickly become tricky to determine whether a film is truly about suburbia and its way of life or the plot is simply set there.

Two quick thoughts:

  1. There is clearly an audience for such films. Not all of them were blockbusters but they made decent money.
  2. Some more data would be useful such as how much money was made on each film and how these box office figures compare to other films of their time.

Based on the research I have done on suburban-set popular television shows, I would guess television shows that try to critique suburbia do not tend to be popular.

 

 

Experimenting with shorter TV commercials

Shorter commercials are on the rise:

Commercials of non-traditional lengths have been increasing. Almost 6% of all commercials aren’t 10-, 15-, 30-, or 60-seconds long during the first half of 2017, according to Nielsen’s 2017 Commercial & Advertising Update…

On TV, Fox debuted the first six-second ads earlier this year at the Teen Choice Awards for reportedly $75,000 each. Online, social giants like Facebook and Snapchat are commissioning research that touts the effectiveness of ads in the first two seconds.

I am trying to think of whether long commercials – whether in the 30 second format or 60 second format – hold my attention more than a series of 6 second commercials could. Not a whole lot can be communicated in six seconds but perhaps the mind is fresher when it is consistently seeing new pitches. Now, imagine a 2 minute commercial break broken into at least 8 commercials of 15 seconds. Or, a shorter break of 1 minute split into 10 six second commercials. The contrasts could get pretty interesting.

The unreality of coffee cups on TV

A communications professor provides a reminder of the physical unreality of television:

There are moments when the “realism” of television breaks down: when framed photographs are poorly photoshopped, when video chats are unrealistically high-quality, and when driving scenes are staged using some very obvious rear projection. But for me the biggest threat to realism on television is something you may never have considered: the way that coffee cups that are supposedly full of coffee are plainly empty.

This video attempts to better understand both why this happens and why it bothers me as much as it does. My hope is it can help solve my problem, whether we define that problem as the emptiness of the cups (please support this cause on social media by using #EmptyCupAwards hashtag) or my own obsession with them.

This is just a small example of how television can warp our sense of reality. Even if we watch with a critical eye, television and film provides a complete universe that looks realistic (unless the presentation is emphasizing the lack of realism) but contains all sorts of weird phenomenon. In addition to the empty coffee cups, let me provide a few other examples from my own life:

  1. For a long time, I had a hard time believing that shootings and murders could happen in broad daylight. On the screen, they tend to happen when it is dark or stormy, situations that might be befitting of violent action.
  2. The full geographic scope of communities on television is often skewed – much sitcom actions takes place in a single house or in just a few locations. A show like The Simpsons set in Springfield tends to add parts to the city to suit its needs; Springfield includes these areas: “The city is divided into a number of districts, including Skid Row, the Lower East Side (a Jewish neighborhood), Springfield Heights, Bum Town, East Springfield, Recluse Ranch Estates, Junkieville, Pressboard Estates, South Street Squidport, Little Newark, Crackton, a Russian District, West Springfield, Tibet Town, Waverly Hills, Sprooklyn, Little Italy, and a gay district.”
  3. I have toured several sets in Hollywood and now I can spot them in various places. For example, the Warner Brothers lot has a city setup that is in all sorts of commercials and television shows. Or, we saw Wisteria Lane which could pop up in an Ace Hardware commercial (with some modifications).

The real issue here isn’t the missing coffee; it is that most of the time it is clear whether TV is presenting a more real or less real depiction yet almost all the time it is in small ways defying embodied life.

Making housing activism attractive on-screen

Fighting housing issues may be necessary but it is probably not the first topic viewers, producers, and networks think of for a good product. Until Show Me A Hero:

At its heart, Show Me a Hero is a wonk procedural, exploring all the seemingly impossible and impassable hurdles that policy has to traverse to become reality. But it’s brought to life by Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac), the titular hero. In 1987, when the show begins, Nick, a former cop and lawyer, and current Springsteen superfan, is an eager and ambitious new member of the Yonkers City Council, which is already being roiled by a court ruling. A long-gestating lawsuit has finally found Yonkers, a working-class city just north of the New York City border, guilty of intentionally segregating its housing. The judge presiding over the case has ruled that 200 units of low-income housing must be built on the east, and white, side of the city. That is, more precisely, 200 units of housing, to be spread out over eight different locations, in the white part of a city of a couple hundred thousand people that has spent 40 years practicing systematic housing discrimination and segregation. That is, also, 200 units of housing greeted by white homeowners as an existential threat to their property values and way of life, visited upon them by liberal outsiders, to be fought viciously and rancorously, lest any of the “public housing people” come to live next door.

Nick is soon tapped to run against the Republican mayor in what is supposed to be a slam-dunk election for the incumbent but turns into an upset when the virulently anti-housing voters elect Nick simply because he is not the mayor, who has assented to the judge’s ruling in the case. Nick is happily swept into power by an incensed and racist cohort who expects Nick to fight the housing order, even though it is legal and will never be overturned, and disobeying it will bankrupt the city. Nick is not a simple, straightforward hero: He doesn’t come into office intent on doing the right thing, damn the consequences. He’s a cocky kid, tickled to be the county’s youngest big city mayor, who has to choose between being reasonable, responsible, and righteous or a recalcitrant, unrealistic bigot—when it is the latter choice that will let him keep his job. Nick does what is right. How he does this, and at what personal and professional expense, is the meat of Show Me a Hero, which, tellingly, gets its title from the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, “Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.” (A piece of advice: Don’t Wikipedia Nick Wasicsko if you want to avoid spoilers.)

Plenty of critics and viewers have echoed Newton Minnow’s claim that television will become a “vast wasteland” when it is bad. Yet, couldn’t a show like this be entertaining and provide a public good?

While I noted above that housing activism is an unlikely television topic, it is also an underdiscussed topic overall as many prefer to talk about the promises (and occasional perils, particularly after 2006) of the housing market without acknowledging the influence of residential segregation and the need for interventions to make affordable housing possible as well as to break down persistent clusters by race and class.

TV show uses McMansions to show off differing personalities

The TV show The Last Man on Earth features McMansions intended to quickly display the personalities of different characters:

“We wanted to play off the fact that we’re all worried about ‘bigger is better.’ With these McMansions, it’s kind of like, ‘Look what we’ve become,’ ” Hill says.

As with any good comedy, though, the main function of the McMansions is to reflect the personalities of the characters who live in them. The motley crew of pandemic survivors who unite in Tucson have little else in common, and the homes they adopt embody this.

“For Phil, we wanted something a little more masculine to kind of embrace the earth tones of the Tucson area,” Hill says. “Phil’s environment, obviously after the first few months he’s there, goes from this pristine environment with the artifacts he brings from all over the country to this completely slovenly layer upon layer of bottles and cans.”

Forte finds his foil in Kristen Schaal’s character, Carol, whose spotless home looks like a living Pinterest board. “For Carol, we wanted it to be a little bit more formal, a little bit colder,” Hill says. “She brings her own layer of craftiness.”

This works on two levels. First, television – particularly comedies – have limited time to develop characters. Thus, they have to use some shorthand to quickly convey character traits to viewers. Big differences in houses could imply quite a bit. Second, Americans generally have believed that their homes reflect them. Poorly maintained lawn and messy house? Garish decorations? Immaculate style? Lots of rooms but not as much furniture? Americans also think homeowners are more invested in their properties and communities than renters. Additionally, homes help denote status in their size, upkeep, and furnishings. Overall, McMansion owners are likely viewed poorly because their homes are designed poorly, try too hard to impress, and may be viewed as wasteful while homeownership gives them back some points. But, if you are truly the last people on earth in Tucson, Arizona, perhaps you have to differentiate yourself in some way…

See this earlier post about the use of McMansions on The Last Man on Earth.

College courses tackle The Simpsons

Continuing the trend of the media showing interest in college students getting credit for classes involving pop culture, here is a brief overview of college courses tackling The Simpsons:

He currently teaches a course about the Broadway theater and how “The Simpsons” have embraced various musicals and plays. Next semester, he shifts to an online literature course titled “The D’oh of Homer” that includes readings from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — all referenced in “Simpsons” episodes…

According to the SUNY Oswego website, “Sociology of ‘The Simpsons'” is still an accredited course at the Central New York school. Sociology professor Dr. Tim Delaney published a book in 2008, “Simpsonology: There’s a Little Bit of Springfield in All of Us.”…

Jean acknowledges a theme in many episodes is the comparison of the C. Montgomery Burns character — the miserly owner of Springfield’s nuclear power plant — to the lead character in the movie “Citizen Kane,” Charles Foster Kane…

“They need to reach students however they can. And using ‘The Simpsons’ to grab their attention, I think, is brilliant,” she says. “Fighting against pop culture isn’t going to do anyone any good.”

For those skeptical of such classes, here is my brief defense of using The Simpsons:

1. It is the longest-running American sitcom. That alone means it has a unique place among television shows. It has never been the most popular show but it clearly has staying power.

2. Television may seem irrelevant to the college classroom but given that the average American adult watches 5 or so hours a day (the figures do vary by age), it is a powerful force.

3. The Simpsons has a particular way of critiquing many aspects of American society. Perhaps it is the writers, perhaps it is the animated format that allows for a different kind of humor. I recently used the episode “Lisa the Skeptic” (Season 9 Episode 8) in class to illustrate the debate between religion and science. This episode lays out the two sides and then in the end skewers both by suggesting the real issue is rampant consumerism.