Seeing kitchens of the future on TV and in movies

A look at the evolution of modern kitchens in the middle of the 20th century includes one paragraph on how the new kitchens ended up in the media:

Midcentury movies, TV shows, and cartoons are loaded with examples of Rube Goldberg–like futuristic kitchens that automated cooking and cleaning tasks, sometimes to an absurd degree. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon The Jetsons debuted on ABC in 1962, portraying a nuclear family living in mid-twenty-first-century Orbit City. The Jetson family—husband and wife George and Jane, son and daughter Elroy and Judy—lived as a typical early 1960s family would have. Jane was a housewife, and George worked (just a few hours per week, it’s noted) for a company called Spacely Space Sprockets. The Jetsons had a robot maid named Rosey, who wore an old-fashioned black-and-white maid’s uniform, and zipped around the Jetson household on a set of wheels. The Jetsons’ kitchen was like a futuristic version of the Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers could select meals and desserts from behind little glass doors. A device called the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle offered tried and true dishes like Irish stew, beef Stroganoff, prime rib, pizza, and fried chicken on demand.

Perhaps the book says more about the mass media depictions of kitchens around this time – there is certainly no shortage of scholarly work on the TV shows and films of the postwar era, the time when more and more Americans moved to the suburbs and encountered new kitchens as well as new ideals about how kitchens should look and be used.

But, this paragraph does not give us the full picture of what kitchens looked like on television and in movies. Instead, we hear about lots of examples and one specific example from The Jetsons. Just how many depicted kitchens at the time actually had “futuristic kitchens”? And were these futuristic kitchens popular (part of popular television shows and movies) or influential (tastes changed because of the depictions)? This is less clear.

Indeed, as I suspect this book would argue, how exactly the modern kitchen evolved is a complex tale. This is true for many social phenomena as rarely can one firm or design or product upend everything. And accounting for changing tastes is quite difficult.

The ongoing low profile of sociologists on TV shows

A recent line in a Modern Family episode emphasizes the relatively low status of sociologists in the entertainment industry:

Now they won’t let me drive around anyone smarter than a sociology professor.

A bit more context: Alex Dunphy had the task of driving around a Nobel Prize winner in a golf cart on her college campus. Because she was starstruck by the researcher, she drove recklessly and he fell out. Thus, she could only be entrusted with a sociology professor (and lower?).

This is likely just a throwaway line and yet it reminds me that sociologists rarely exist in shows and films. From earlier blog posts:

Searches for those with sociology backgrounds to play roles is rare.

Michael Bay once had thoughts about a show involving a sociologist.

A sociologist could host “History Detectives.”

This reminds me of a quote about statisticians in the book Health and Numbers:

There are aspects of statistics other than it being intellectually difficult that are barriers to learning. For one thing, statistics does not benefit from a glamorous image that motivates students to persist through tedious and frustrating lessons…there are no TV dramas with a good-looking statistician playing the lead, and few mothers’ chests swell with pride as they introduce their son or daughter as “the statistician.”

Many academic fields likely do not come off well in shows and films. The exceptions, like Indiana Jones (though not exactly a representative exemplar of his field), are notable.

The comfortable suburban afterlife

What if humans after death end up in a suburban community? This is the premise of the Amazon show Forever:

Starring SNL alums Maya Rudolph as June and Fred Armisen as her husband, Oscar, the eight-part series, which dropped in its entirety in September, does a deep dive into the meaning of life by exploring what happens when it ends…

For the couple, the hereafter is ambiguous — neither heaven nor hell. Rather, it seems a lot like their former life in a subdivision of tidy ranch-style homes in suburban Riverside, Calif.

Familiar, safe, comfortable…

Oscar spends his days struggling doing crossword puzzles at the dining room table. June teaches herself how to make vases and bowls on a potter’s wheel on the back patio (a nod, no doubt, to the famous Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze scene from “Ghost”). They go for strolls through the neighborhood, where the weather feels perpetually like early autumn with its amber light and just enough of a nip in the air to make you reach for your flannel shirt or lightweight cashmere pullover.

Apparently the show then moves on from this suburban start. Given that Americans moved to the suburbs in large numbers in the last century plus the goal of attaining the suburban American Dream is well-established, is it much of a stretch to cast the afterlife as a comfortable suburb?

I imagine critics of the suburbs might have other views. Indeed, they might suggest a suburban afterlife would be hell. (Bring back the TV show Suburgatory!) This reminds me of C. S. Lewis’s description of hell in The Great Divorce (as noted by an astute commenter):

As soon as anyone arrives he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarrelled so badly that he decides to move….Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house.

So perhaps the suburbs are actually a decent middle ground between heaven and hell, containing elements of either depending on who is doing the evaluating. Then, perhaps the real debate starts: if suburbs are in the middle, are cities heaven and rural areas hell or vice versa…

What I want to know: do TV shows push viewers to buy certain kinds of houses?

After publishing two papers in the last few years on TV depictions of suburbs and their houses (see here and here), it leaves me with one big question: do shows like these directly influence what homes people purchase?

Americans watch a lot of television – still an average of about four hours a day for adults – and they see a lot of dwellings. While there is a mix of housing units shown, scholars point out that television since the 1950s does place a lot of emphasis on single-family homes. This includes fictional shows set in single-family homes in the suburbs (think Bewitched or Desperate Housewives), rural areas (think Lassie), and cities (think Happy Days and King of Queens). More recently, viewers can see homes on HGTV and other networks that emphasize home life (plus the shows on other networks that specifically target homeowners, from This Old House to Trading Spaces). This makes some sense in a country that holds up owning a single-family home, particularly in the suburbs, as an ideal.

But, we know little how about all of this watching about homes translates into choosing homes. My study “From I Love Lucy to Desperate Housewives” did not find much evidence that more popular suburban television shows led to more people living in suburbs (or vice versa). Similarly, outside of some interest from Sopranos’ fans in having a home like Tony, there is little to no evidence that Americans flocked to imitate the home or neighborhood of the Sopranos. While the viewers of HGTV might be relatively wealthy, do they take what they see and directly purchase something like that?

It is relatively easy to make claims about how media products affect thoughts and behavior. However, it is harder to make direct, causal connections. I would guess advertisers around such shows hope such a connection is present. If we could examine this relationship between shows and homes more closely in research studies, it could help us better understand how Americans form, maintain, and change their approaches to homes and communities.

The changing concept of TV ratings

Recent report from Netflix about the number of viewers for certain movies and TV shows raises questions about what ratings actually are in today’s world:

These numbers were presumably the flashiest numbers that Netflix had to offer, but, hot damn, they are flashy—even if they should be treated with much skepticism. For one thing, of Netflix’s 139 million global subscribers, only about 59 million are American, something to bear in mind when comparing Netflix’s figures with the strictly domestic ratings of most linear channels. Another sticking point: What constitutes “watching”? According to Netflix, the numbers reflect households where someone watched at least 70 percent of one episode—given the Netflix model, it seems likely that most people started with Episode 1—but this doesn’t tell us how many people stuck with it, or what the average rating for the season was, which is, again, an important metric for linear channels…

Ratings are not just a reflection of how many people are watching a TV show. They are not just a piece of data about something that has already happened. They are also a piece of information that changes what happens, by defining whether we think of something as a hit, which has a knock-on effect on how much attention gets paid to that show, not just by other prospective viewers, but by the media. (Think how much more has been written on You now that we know 40 million people may have watched it.)

Consider, for example, how something like last year’s reboot of Roseanne might have played out if it had been a Netflix series. It would have been covered like crazy before its premiere and then, in the absence of any information about its ratings at all, would have become, like, what? The Ranch? So much of the early frenzy surrounding Roseanne had to do with its enormous-for-our-era ratings, and what those ratings meant. By the same token, years ago I heard—and this is pure rumor and scuttlebutt I am sharing because it’s a fun thought exercise—that at that time Narcos was Netflix’s most popular series. Where is Narcos in the cultural conversation? How would that position have changed if it was widely known that, say, 15 million people watch its every season?

Multiple factors are at play here including the decline of network television, the rise of cable television and streaming services, the general secrecy Netflix has about its ratings, and how today we define cultural hits. The last one seems the most interesting to me as a cultural sociologist: in a fragmented media world, how do we know what is a genuine cultural moment or touchstone compared to being a small fad or a trend isolated to a small group? Ratings were once a way to do this as we could assume big numbers meant it mattered to a lot of people.

Additionally, we today want quicker news about new trends and patterns. A rating can only tell us so much. It depends how it was measured. How does the rating compare to other ratings? Perhaps most importantly, the rating cannot tell us a lot about the lasting cultural contributions of the show or movie. Some products with big ratings will not stand the test of time while others will. Do we think people will be discussing You and talking about its impact on society in 30 years? We need time to discuss, analyze, and process what each cultural product is about. Cultural narratives involving cultural products need time to develop.

Popular HGTV show leads to local tourism boost – but what are the lasting effects?

Many HGTV shows are tenuously connected to actual communities – the focus is on the homes and personalities, not the neighborhoods and community. Fixer Upper and the efforts of the Gaines family in Waco, Texas may then be quite unique:

In 2015, they opened Magnolia Market, a home goods store that sells Mrs. Gaines’s mass-produced collections of bohemian farmhouse décor, and quickly followed with a bakery, garden shop and a turf-lawn park built near two old silos that had been constructed in 1950 by the Brazos Valley Cotton Oil Company. They also opened a nearby restaurant, Magnolia Table, in the former Elite Café, a longtime favorite that closed in 2016 after several different owners and renovations. When the Gaineses took it over, they installed subway tile along the walls, exposed the wood beams in the ceiling and stuck an ever-changing marquee sign out front. Naturally, the renovation was featured on their show.

No one’s complaining. The number of tourists to Waco has tripled in the four years since “Fixer Upper” first aired, with some 1.7 million people visiting in the first seven months of 2018 alone, and other local businesses have flourished with the influx. Carla Pendergraft, director of marketing for the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the appeal of the “Fixer Upper” brand has had a profound impact on the city.

Several quick thoughts::

1. The article touts increased tourism and a few local businesses that have benefited from the popularity of the show. Lacking are numbers about increased jobs and increased tax revenues.

2. The biggest bonus to Waco seems to be less about economics and more about status: the Gaines have helped make the city cool.

3. How long will this effect last? When Fixer Upper is done, will the family still exert the same pull on people? And if this trend dies down, how will the community of Waco respond? My guess would be that this uptick in tourism and interest will fade away if the Gaines are not as visible.

4. The concept of TV driven tourism is an intriguing one. People want to visit popular TV sites, like the Brady Bunch house for the Soprano’s home. Should more cities take advantage of shows that have strong connections to certain locations? Imagine Chicago building a full campaign around the Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med galaxy.

HGTV cashes in on the popularity of the suburban Brady Bunch home

The iconic home of the Brady family on The Brady Bunch may have a number of confusing features but it is still popular: HGTV is working on a show about the renovation of the home.

The Studio City, Calif., residence was pictured in each episode before the camera took viewers inside the family’s abode. Those scenes, which featured, for example, the kitchen where housekeeper Alice (the late Ann B. Davis) dished out jokes or the girls’ bedroom, where Marcia Brady brushed her hair, were shot on a soundstage.

The house changed hands over the summer, when the network snapped up the property for an unknown price. (Former ‘N Sync member and Brady Bunch die-hard fan Lance Bass narrowly missed out on the place in a bidding war.)

HGTV revealed in August that it had placed the winning bid and would restore the home “to its 1970s glory” as part of a new show.

On Thursday, the network announced that A Very Brady Renovation is set to premiere in September 2019. Home renovation pros from HGTV will “reimagine the popular show’s interior set design, working to ensure that the final renovation results stay true to the spirit of the Brady Bunch family home that everyone loves and remembers,” according to a press release. In other words, the iconic staircase and the retro hues used in the home will remain.

Perhaps this is what nostalgia about postwar suburban life looks like: it is filtered through television. Instead of having a show about updating postwar suburban homes (imagine an HGTV show solely devoted to the iconic Levittown and other mass produced suburbs), a network banks on a fictional suburban home. If this Brady Bunch renovation show works, I imagine more shows featuring famous TV homes could occur.

This whole concept makes some sense. Television emerged at the same time as the suburbs. Certain shows, including the Brady Bunch, became associated with suburban America. Some have argued the depictions of suburbs on television helped encourage suburban development – I’m not sure there is much evidence for that. Still, the suburban TV show following the exploits of a nuclear family and kids developed in this time and is still a genre today.

But, I could also imagine some alternative ways that a home like that of the Brady Bunch could enter the realm of nostalgia:

  1. Becoming a museum. Imagine either someone purchasing the property and turning it into a museum or a local government acquiring the property. Put a little money into the home to set up some displays, charge a manageable entrance fee, and the facility is up and running.
  2. Since the first option might cause some zoning issues, move the whole home to a place – museum, theme park, TV studio – better suited to host visitors to the home. What if there was a theme park built around TV buildings or even just around depicted suburban homes?