Extreme Makeover - Home Edition is both inspiring and schmaltzy. Born from ABC’s horrifying plastic surgery derby, Extreme Makeover, it manages to convince us that the material upgrades it bestows actually help the chosen families. It’s hard to pick on a show that does good. But I’ll try.
Each episode in this DVD set follows our design team, led by bullhorn-toting hottie Ty Pennington, as they spend a week redoing the home of a deserving family. While the feel-good philanthropy is its point of departure, the show also deploys a trumped up “Can they do it in time?” suspense. Again and again, they rebuild an entire house, top to bottom, and that should take four months or more, not seven days. To ensure their success, our team is joined by contractors and volunteers, often numbering in the hundreds.
This DVD of the “best of” Season One will satisfy all your behind the scenes building needs, with extras like “The Construction of Extreme Makeover - Home Edition,” a featurette similar to ABC’s behind-the-scenes specials. This one includes interviews with the cast members and producers who claim they never think they can pull off the seven-day deadline. They manage, though, because, according to the production staff, their work is “more than” entertainment. Senior producer Conrad Ricketts says he sees the building process, in which neighbors pitch in, as “kind of like the barn-raisings of the 1900s.” He also insists that because the series gets so much local press coverage, “What you see is really the truth.”
While “Construction” demonstrates how hard it is to produce this show, three other extras are superfluous. “Bloopers and Outtakes” runs through a reel of mess-ups (a camera dropping, cast members tripping), many of which you can see in the episodes themselves. Two other featurettes showcase the team’s camaraderie: “Preston and Paul” focuses on the “big ideas” guy Preston and the carpenter Paul, and “Rest and Relaxation” shows Paul sacked out in construction areas.
Whatever the pros are doing, Extreme Makeover - Home Edition proposes that community effort is paramount. Apparently, wherever the team goes, folks turn out by the thousands to help build, raise money, and “decorate” (which can mean anything from making scrapbooks to arranging plants). Like a recruiting video for Habitat for Humanity, the DVD promises that Disney will make donations to that fine organization when you purchase the DVD, guaranteed to put a smile on Jimmy Carter’s face. Flocks of fans line the streets, holding “Welcome home” signs and chanting. The implication is that you’ll get your chance when the show hits your area.
The series delivers this “community message” with sincerity and commitment. Foreman, in “Construction,” says his pitch to ABC was, “Good homes for good people.” He explains that producers carefully screen for folks who really need assistance, their situations ranging from a crew of foster kids trying to stay together to single parents struggling with financial problems. One episode follows a home makeover for eight siblings after both their parents died within days of each other (“The Cadigan-Scott Family”); others feature a widow with nine kids (“The Walswick Family”) and a family whose National Guardsman father is in Iraq (“The Woslum Family”).
Some of this can turn melodramatic and manipulative, as when both design crew and family members start crying. Sometimes the program sentimentalizes the families in question in ways that can be patronizing. We see clips from their application videos, as families must “pitch” their misery, or close-ups of shopping guru Tracy tearing up. “The Woslum Family” is particularly manipulative, as ABC gets the Guard to send the father home for leave for the week. If only the network could send him some body armor.
Gentle viewer, feel the pull of charity for those less fortunate. Instead of questioning the class system and distribution of wealth that make some families fall into poverty, the series insists all can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, with a little help from corporate America (lots of shots of corporate sponsor Sears). The prevailing ideology is like 19th-century domestic science: good homes make good families. Good families are the building blocks of a strong nation. Keep the system going, through charity, not government reform. We see lots of flag-waving and hear talk of blessings, which starts sounding a bit like faith-based initiatives.
Why do we need a TV show to give families assistance? Doesn’t this very premise illuminate the breakdown in social welfare in the U.S.?
While Foreman admits the show’s limitations, he also claims broad humanitarian benefits: “It’s still a network television show and I don’t want to pretend we’re doing the work that Habitat for Humanity has been doing, but for that one family maybe we are.” He goes on to say: “I think it’s become something more than a television show.” Actually, it’s still a television show. Best not to lose sight of the economics and cultural politics involved. Extreme Makeover - Home Edition sends families on vacation (often to Disney World, natch), while fairy godmothers make over their homes into castles. Who needs social justice when you have fairy dust?