The 99%: Welcome Home, Deserving People! Thoughts on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

the cast of extreme makeover home edition standing in an unfinished house and looking super psyched
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.

Previously: What's Funny About Being Poor? Roseanne and Working-Class Humor, Villainy and the Very Rich on Revenge

by Gretchen Sisson
View profile »

Gretchen is a research sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) at the University of California, San Francisco. She studies cultural representations and constructions of parenthood and reproductive choice.

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46 Comments Have Been Posted

"its a television show first

"its a television show first and foremost" enough said. In the end however, whether there are more deserving families or not or whether the show us too sugary sweet and hokey they are still helping people which is a far cry from alot of other tv shows out there.

Sure, they're helping them at

Sure, they're helping them at first, but what about those families whose new homes were foreclosed on? Or those who cannot sell due to the show plopping big, expensive mansions in mainly working-class more rural areas with no buyers? The type of people who buy large, spacious homes aren't going to move into a rural, working-class area where their house is the only one like it. They're going to live in a suburban, white-collar neighborhood with every home looking like theirs.

How was it the show's fault

How was it the show's fault these people decided to use their home as an ATM? Some of the homes are paid off, that was a great expense lifted off their shoulder yet the FAMILY, not the show chose to get themselves back into debt.

Sorry, I don't think that's

Sorry, I don't think that's "enough said."

I don't think helping people on a small scale and creating a palliative, feel-good show that ignores real sources of problems makes this show better than others on television (though that would be a relatively low bar to clear). And the point of the post is not to say that there are "more deserving families" but to challenge the entire narrative of "deserving" as the basis for our willingness to give.

I'm a firm believer the television can be smart, can address complicated issues with nuance, and can be a source of good. I'm not willing to let Extreme Makeover: Home Edition off the hook simply because "it's a television show." Being a network TV show means it has a huge audience, and the opportunity to make a big impact. We should consider it with more scrutiny, not less.

I feel the same thing every

I feel the same thing every time I catch this program. Feels great to watch the families seeing their new houses/going through all those emotions together, but a really flawed/problematic show conceptually... great post :)


The other thing I wonder about is how sustainable these gft homes are. I saw one episode where the family was given at least 6 SUVs for their children; all I could think was, "How will they pay for insurance, and gas?" I wonder what happens when something in the house breaks -- can these families afford to replace it? Does the new value of their home have adverse tax consequences? I would love to learn about this aspect of the show -- it is, to me, an indication of the need to mend the systems that maintain poverty in our communities (whether it be tax law, health care, language barriers, etc.), rather than give bestowing "miracles" on a few people that might not even be able to maintain their new wealth.

One of the articles I found

One of the articles I found in writing this post was the when the casting director selected families to be on the show, they screened for people that a) were "deserving", b) gave back to their communities in some way, and c) could afford to pay taxes and utilities on their new home. I ended up not mentioning this last factor because I couldn't find details on how they quantified it or more details. But, it does make it seem like families that completely couldn't afford the maintenance on a new home wouldn't receive one, which makes the population they're serving already very skewed.

Our town's experience

We had EMHE redo a house here, and the property taxes for 5 or something years was donated by the main sponsor (which is a home builder/subdivision developer here). I'm not sure what others' experiences are. What really surprised me was how the whole community came together to build this house. However, one of my husband's coworkers reported that it was under very unsafe conditions. To rebuild a house so quickly people are working on top of each other. But, I was very happy to read this post because while the show is wonderful for helping a family, it has always appeared to me to be a glittery, loud band-aid to the broken bone and failing organ parts of our country.

Firstly, I'm glad that you've

Firstly, I'm glad that you've discussed the issues with this show, as I have felt them myself and people look at me sideways like I have two heads when I criticize it. Secondly, I think you're asking for more that what the show is when you ask "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?" The show isn't about fixing the economy or the healthcare system. It's about giving families new homes, despite what got them there in the first place. Because realistically, what could they do about the healthcare system and the economy?

The problem I have with the show is that new homes are given to families with limited income and a slew of financial difficulties. Building a new home like that increases value which can increase property taxes, and sometimes the mortgage company will reevaluate and do an estimate on what the home is worth and refinance. Also, utility and maintenance costs increase dramatically. Plus, the taxes that they have to pay to the government, and it's considered a prize so they have to pay income tax on it.

I'm not trying to argue that

I'm not trying to argue that it's a TV show's job to fix the healthcare system, but I am trying to suggest that those new homes aren't really a solution to the problem at hand. By ignoring the systemic issues, the show's focus on individual cases is a misrepresentation. You ask, "What could they do about the healthcare system and the economy?" Well, for starters, they could talk about them. The problems with those institutions have played major roles in the why the people they're helping need help in the first place, and even an acknowledgement that these aren't individual setbacks but societal challenges would be a huge step in the right direction.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think reality TV is going to fix our problems (really, to the contrary). But I also don't think it should ignore the source of the problems while superficially addressing them. Let's at least acknowledge what the real challenges are.

I totally agree that a new

I totally agree that a new home isn't going to fix any problems. I think that fixing the current home they're in would, as well as, say, paying off their medical bills or any debt.

I do think that the show intentionally ignores problems with our healthcare issues, I honestly think that there really isn't any way for them to talk about it without sounding preachy or political. The last thing the show would want to do is lose viewers because they talk about a subject that's touchy for many, and the issue of universal healthcare or healthcare reform is a controversial subject that would honesty alienate many viewers. I don't like the show, but if I were watching and the builders started talking about healthcare reform, I would change the channel. It simply isn't the place for politics.

And for the record, I do completely agree that there are major issues within our healthcare system that need to be changed, I just don't think that a reality show about building needy families homes is the place to talk about it.

It's not such a non sequitor

It's not such a non sequitor though, when the reason the families need homes is because they've gone bankrupt paying their medical bills. It's not tangential, then, it's part and parcel to the reason they're there. And I don't think it would sound to preachy or political to include a few lines about how many Americans are in similar situations -- goodness knows they cite numbers aplenty about the rates of whichever childhood disease is the subject of the hour. We're never going to get a show that focuses, exclusively and explicitly, on the underlying causes of poverty in American. I don't think a more careful incorporation of these issues into shows that are directly dealing with the aftershocks of that poverty is too much to ask -- and I don't think it would be out of place at all. I can't think of a better place for it.

But I think it's already

But I think it's already understood that a lot of Americans are in similar situations, or else the show wouldn't exist. I think you're looking for a different show. People watch this show to feel good about themselves, not be depressed over the state of the country's problems. The thing is, they HAVE discussed those issues, just not on a nationwide level, but rather on a local level. They frequently talk about problems the communities in which the families live in face.

Health care and the

Health care and the economy... Those topics are better suited for news programs, not entertainment... Extreme Makeover is a positive program made for the purposes of entertainment, while bringing attention to causes and issues that remind people of the importance of volunteering, kindness and community-- something that is often forgotten. It's also one of few shows that is appropriate, in most cases, for family viewing...

I don't see why these issues

I don't see why these issues couldn't be incorporated into the show in some way that wouldn't diminish its entertainment value or its family-friendliness. The truth is, though, that volunteering and being kind to neighbors isn't sufficient to help address these systemic problems. They just aren't. We need to have context to the work that we do, because only then can real change be affected.

The problem is that shows like this talk around the issues -- they talk about healthcare, and the economy, and the war -- without actually addressing those problems, or acknowledging how many people they truly impact. I'm not suggesting they bring up issues really tangential to the purpose of the program.

charity is not a substitute for good public policy

This is a great post. Shows like this make the American public feel good -- as if by watching the show or shopping at one of the show's sponsors, we are helping. These forms of extreme charity -- like Extreme Makeover -- mystify the reality of our broken systems. Quite often, charity prevents us (or deludes us) from doing the hard work required to fix the broken systems (foreclosures, health care, child care, veteran services, etc.) that continue to crush more people than charity could ever help. Charity, like the kind practiced on Extreme Makeover, also promote a consumption-based model of aid, where more stuff equals more salvation.

It's not such a "newsflash"

It's not such a "newsflash" when I do say in the first sentence "ABC announced last week that the ninth season of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition will be its last."

I think it's still worth thinking about the impact the show has had, as well as the tone of similar shows (such as "Undercover Boss") that create narrative about need and deservedness and then make token gestures towards fixing inequality.

What always bothered me...

What always bothered me about this show was how incredibly consumerist it is. The impression I always get when watching it is that they're pushing toward a, "get a pretty TV to make you feel better" mode of thinking which disgusts me to no end. I like to see the adjustments they make to these houses to allow the kids with disabilities or families with special needs to function more "normally," which is beyond fantastic, but there's such obnoxious and destructive overkill in the "here's your new house and six new SUVs" perspective that the entire experience always left me with a sour stomach. Between the destruction of the environment and the destruction of attention spans, I found myself constantly disgusted. So wasteful, on so many levels. I think the idea of giving these people houses that can help them sustain a "normal" life is awesome. But the overkill and the thoughtlessness of it all was always what bothered me to the point of it being entirely unwatchable.

The American Dream

That's the American dream for you. Social mobility, which is purely illusory for most, is a poor substitute for social justice. In order to attain soial justice, the poorest people in society need to stop being bought off by these prepackaged game show dreams.

I do not watch this show,

I do not watch this show, mainly because I find it exploitative of the people involved. "Look at these pathetic chumps! Aren't you lucky that you're not in their shoes? Let's give 'em a new home!" Yes, they are signing on for the exploitation, but does that make it right? It feels like schadenfraude porn to me. This is especially interesting because looking at the photo above, there are no people of color on the "giving" end, but I have seen ads for shows in which people of color receive the renovated homes. Does this reinforce the idea that charity is something white folk do for people of color? Food for thought...


"Look at these pathetic chumps! Aren't you lucky that you're not in their shoes? Let's give 'em a new home!" Really? I wish I was getting a new home, that is often paid off. I wish I was getting a new car. I wish my kids were getting scholarships. Woudl be nice. These people are not being exploited. I will never understand all the liberals in these posts here. It is just crazy their mindsets.

Glad to see them off the televison!

I think they need a reality check themselves.
They need to go green and do it right!

You gotta be kidding me.

Unbelieveable...I came across this page on accident looking for something else. While I'm not going to state how I was invloved, suffice it to say I was VERY involved in a local episode of this show and have a VERY UNIQUE working knowledge of the "behind the scenes" aspects of this show. Although I understand the concern that all of you have expressed about how "hollywood" has exploited these poor, innocent families that the system keeps down, most of you miss the entire point and have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA how this whole process works or the impact that this show has had on the communities that they visit. It's not their job to pin up these communities for years to come. They provide the spark!!

The local family that was built for in our area had a full time employed family member who was struggling with several issues, including money. Were they the MOST deserving family I've ever met...No, but they were trying hard and in my opinion hard work deserves a break. As a result of this show, they had their mortage completely paid off, the home had a 15 year tax abatement and the home that was built was so much more energy efficient that I would imagine that despite the fact it was much larger, with proper attention to turning the lights off and keeping the AC/Heat where the rest of do, their net expenses (with no mtg) likley didnt go up much, if at all. Of course, if you're too stupid to turn the lights off, I guess the bills could get out of hand. In addition, several other projects were done in and around the neighborhood, benefitting the neighborhood as a whole. The show was relentless in their desire and effort to benifit the neighborhood as a whole. The show staff secured financial advisors who donated their services. They have a family Advisor that works with the family for several months beyond the build.

The home that was destroyed was completely unsafe, infested with rodants and should have been boarded up long before the show came along. Would it have been a blessing to build an entire street of modestly priced homes for many families??? Absolutely, but nobody would watch and that show would be off the air in a week and then nobody would get the help. So what if one family gets a huge winfall? Isn't that better than nobody getting the help? Is it their fault that the neighbors are selfish and mad it wasnt them? Many of their neighbors made sure they "got theirs" when the show came to their neighborhood. Trust me...I saw it first hand.

While I wasn't all that impressed with the show "stars" that took all the credit, the larger community and the behind the scenes show staff made it happen and did ALL THE WORK. Between our larger community, the contractors and the behind the scenes show staff, I have never seen a finer group of people come together and make every effort to do the right thing for the family and community. So much good has come to the area around this home that would have never happened without the shows initial involvement. So while the show is "made for TV" and came across as " winning the lottery" don't think for a minute that it didnt impact alot of people's lives. So before you make stupid comments about how this show didnt address the social problems of the day, look in the mirror and solve them yourself. 90% of the posters on this site are bleeding heart liberals that expect someone else to solve everyones problems. If you didnt like the show, change the channel. I didnt really care too much for the show before I saw it from the other side of the camera but I didnt tear it apart for being the root of all social evils. I saw it for what it was...a Television show that in California was there to make money. What I learned was that the people actually working behind the sceens were in it for all the right reasons.

As for the comment about the show looking like a bunch of white people helping the poor minorities, we had over 3,500 people volunteer and nobody discriminated. Although about 95% of the people that signed up and donated their time, skills and money were white, that wasnt because anybody descriminated. Really, are we now down to blaming white people for donating to minority families??? That has to be the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

Very well said!

Very well said!



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Hello. And Bye.

The 99%: Welcome Home, Deserving People! Thoughts on Extreme

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