[2 June 2005]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
We are a nation of suckers. Give us a disease of the week TV movie or a heartwrenching tale of child endangerment (if you can include an abandoned well, all the better) and watch us rend our clothes and weep our noble eyes out. So it’s no surprise then that ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is such a hit. A sly combination of charity and chagrin, the show is premised on the Four Horsemen of the Melodramatic Apocalypse—Death, Dismemberment, Disease, and Disenfranchisement.
Each week, a team led by ex-Trading Spaces sidekick Ty Pennington arrives at the home of an incredibly needy person. The perky pros include over-the-top designer (and certified “glamour” specialist) Michael Moloney; the achingly existential Preston Sharp (who can turn “big ideas” into direct reflections of his own ego); and Brit chippy (and ex-U.K. Fear Factor host) Ed Sanders.
Their goal is simple: rebuild a dilapidated home, thereby giving the featured family a new lease on life. (Though they make fabulous onscreen faces, this crew actually puts in little hands-on effort each episode; rather, a contractor with deep enough pockets to pull together an entire home build in seven days [!] does the vast majority of the work.)
The rest of the show is Queen for a Day retrofitted for a cynical post-millennial moment. Horrors are unveiled, sentiments lined up, and the construction djinns are let out of their bottle. For the most part, the families picked couldn’t be more deprived. Many have lost loved ones to senseless deaths or crippling illness. Others have long since stopped living from paycheck to paycheck and now rely on faith to get them through each month. And for many, Extreme Makeover is a lifeline in the middle of a Titanic-like personal shipwreck.
Thanks to an incredibly product-placement-friendly relationship with Sears, what we end up with is a feel-good epic, an example of wish fulfillment on sentimental steroids. Every member of the family is interviewed, their ultimate dream room realized and decked out with as much super-sized swag as the seemingly unlimited checkbook will allow. Though the show claims to “make over” extreme cases, in fact the show rarely starts with a domicile that needs improvement. As so many of the recipients have had their homes destroyed by fires, bad contractors or financial limitations, the team constructs real life fairy tales, mortgage-free mansions where no principle of poshness is overlooked.
To hear Extreme Makeover tell it, these simple people face dreadful hardship on an hourly basis. In the season’s second-to-last episode, the Vitale clan’s story began as most of them do: dad was a decent, dedicated cop who married the woman of his dreams. They quickly had three small children and bought a fixer-upper, living with their in-laws during renovations. Mom’s fatigue turned into a rare form of leukemia and within seven months, she was dead. Or take the Dolans: dad was working at an appliance shop to earn extra money. One night, a deranged man walked into the store and started shooting, blinding Mr. Dolan. In telling these stories, Extreme Makeover accentuates the awfulness. Cue the orchestra. Pour on the schmaltz.
The Burns have a child with a rare bone disease, the Sears’ matriarch is suffering through an equally unusual blood disorder. The Okvath family must live with their daughter’s cancer while the Grinnan and Pope kids have heart and skin ailments, respectively. Especially when dealing with tiny tots, Extreme Makeover can get unbelievably syrupy, pushing the innocence and helplessness buttons over and over again.
But the two-part season finale on 22 May went too far. After hearing again the story of Jessica Lynch, we are introduced to the Piestewa family. PFC Lori Piestewa carries the incredibly unfortunate distinction of being the first female casualty in the Iraq war. She is also believed to the first Native American woman to die in combat fighting for the U.S in a foreign locale.
Jessica pledged to Lori that she would take care of her family if something happened to her, one of those foxhole promises you can’t imagine the survivors ever keeping. But sure enough, she arrives on the Tuba City, Arizona reservation with Ty and his talent in tow. As the purple mountains’ majesty appears outside the big bus windows, we realize that the Extreme team will not only be making over the Piestewa trailer home, but also mean to rehabilitate the whole government vs. injun thing once and for all.
Shamans are brought in to bless the five-acre lot where the Piestewas will now live. Dancers and drummers accompany ceremonial chants, brilliantly juxtaposed with the sounds of saws and hammers. Sears donates nearly a half-million dollars worth of clothing and necessities, and the Extreme Makeover stars spend an evening handing out shopping bags of department store quasi-reparations (not that new Toughskins can make up for old broken treaties). And Lori gets a tribute room in the home, a shrine to her service for a country that once spit on her forefathers as interlopers on their own sacred land.
But that’s still not all. Ty gets the idea to celebrate all Native American veterans, and has Preston and Ed build a recreation center, christened with the kind of pomp and circumstance usually reserved for fallen heads of state. All the while, as the camera pans over faces carved with age and dashed dignity, a near continuous voice-over extols the importance of wind in the Native American culture. The spirits of those who passed before supposedly ride the breezes to celebrate along with their living loved ones. The show never lets us forget this potent symbolism, especially when the Piestewas’ new 4,500 sq. ft. home is unveiled during a sudden gust of air.
Pretending that a new house—or car, or boat, or pool, whatever the extra extravagance may be—can make a hurting family whole again is dumb at best, disingenuous at worst. The demolition of the past doesn’t mean the future will be bright. The additional checks, scholarships, donations, and material contributions only exacerbate the cash for chaos ideal. And yet, Extreme Makeover is almost impossible to resist, especially for a nation of credit-leveraged consumers of exploitation. Maybe you hope that, if you find yourself in similar dire straits, a luxury bus filled with celebrity renovators will show up at your door and make the problems melt away.