After eight years of drastic, beautiful home renovations, ABC announced last week that the ninth season of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will be its last.
Since 2003, the show has given deserving families new homes, built by Ty Pennington and his design and construction team. A girl with leukemia gets a dollhouse-themed room. A man paralyzed in a car accident receives an Endless Pool for physical therapy. A family with two blind parents and a deaf and autistic son get a home with enhanced safety features to better take care of their children. After Hurricane Katrina, the show's team rebuilt a church in Louisiana, a community center in Florida, a health center in Mississippi, and a firehouse in Texas.
Do these families and organizations need help? Yes. Do they deserve their new homes? Probably—and the homes are usually lovely, with their open family rooms, their lush landscaping, and their personalized interiors.
The sugary sweetness of each episode soon turned saccharine, for me at least, with the over-enthusiasm, the product placement, and wondering—seriously—what happens when the 8 year-old decides she's just not that into butterflies in two years?
But there's also something else going on here. There's the construction (no pun intended) of a "deserving" poor person whose needs can be addressed via a for-profit reality show, as opposed to pushing for real, systemic change.
The Vitale family received their new home after a widower with three young children had his savings account emptied paying his late wife's medical bills. Similarly, the Arena family was living with seven children in a 1400 square foot home because they couldn't afford anything more after paying for medical care for their six-year old son who later died from a brain tumor. I have nothing against these families and their new homes, but instead of building two extravagant houses to solve two families' problems, might it be better to fix our country's healthcare system that bankrupted them in the first place? Or, if we still want to have our heart-wrenching hour of television, could we at least acknowledge that as a contributing factor to their struggles?
And what about the Westbrook family, with the father injured in Iraq, or the Piestewa children, who lost their mother in the same war? Yes, new houses are great (and, for the Westbrooks, made the home much easier to navigate from a wheelchair). But most veterans returning from war (or the families left behind by those who don't return) who won't receive new homes from Ty and his team—in fact, homelessness continues to be a real problem amongst veterans, one that is downplayed in the news media. Now that the Iraq war is over, there will be an enduring debt that this country owes our veterans, and we can't pay them all back with new homes. Let's make sure that for each vet in a house built for a reality show there aren't a hundred thousand more living homeless.
Moreover, in a country still living in the aftershocks of the housing crisis, there's still no discussion of families not being able to afford the homes in which they live or of dealing with foreclosure. Instead, in one episode, a family a four is given a six bedroom, seven bathroom house (with seven TVs). This level of escalation and extravagance, both reflected by and inherent within the show, is part of the same mindset that led to the housing bubble and unsustainable levels of real estate valuation in the first place.
The biggest problem with the show, though, is that their idea of what constitutes "deserving" is a very specific, carefully calculated definition designed to pull at the heartstrings without thinking critically about the causes of hardship in this country. Back in 2006, The Smoking Gun published an email from an ABC executive about what "deserving" really meant. The casting director's wish list included families dealing with very specific, very rare illness, families that has experienced "home invasion—family robbed, house messed up (vandalized)—kids fear safety in their own home now," or victims of hate crimes. They aren't looking for families that have struggled with poverty for years and just can't save up enough money for a downpayment. They aren't looking for families that live in downtrodden apartment complex with a absentee landlord. They're looking for middle-class families who, because of extraordinary circumstances, are facing setbacks with a still TV-ready optimism.
This narrative of who deserves help and who is overlooked is so compelling that even the families helped by the show have had to defend their new homes. One family sold their home after facing "scrutiny and ill feelings from neighbors." Another family had to deal with visitors who were "upset [they] were chosen and want[ed] to tell [them] about it." There's the ongoing need to justify the good fortune of the new home, as if needing help weren't enough of a reason to justify receiving help—or as if there's really any setback that would justify homes on the scale that the show builds. As one new homeowner said: "I'm sure there are needier people than us, but there are a lot of variables in that equation… Nobody deserves to have so much given to them. It's a television program first and foremost."
What about families who don't appear so deserving? Whether it be a history of drug abuse, a rough demeanor, a work schedule that doesn't allow much time or disposable income for "giving back," or a few more children than society thinks a family should really have—there are infinite reasons we find to blame people for their poverty. Sometimes these are reasonable ways of holding people accountable, but more often than not they're ways of enforcing a class-based value system.
Most importantly, though, these shows let a lot of us off the hook. They ignore systemic and structural barriers to opportunity and upward mobility, as well as the fundamental causes of poverty. We can believe that, if you're good enough, help will find you on a grand scale. And if it doesn't? Well, perhaps you weren't quite deserving enough.