It’s fitting that my experience of HGTV programs like Fixer Upper is limited to visits to my dentist (I don’t own a TV). There, lying horizontally on the dental chair, I watch drywall being torn down and linoleum floors uprooted just as restorative violence is performed on my teeth. In her recent Vulture piece on the strange, persistent allure of HGTV, Caitlin Flanagan exposes several truths. One is the deep connection between these shows and real-estate speculation — a link so powerful that not even the 2008 financial meltdown could break it. Another is that we might think we’re watching HGTV for the dramatic, post-makeover reveals, but the real source of pleasure lies in the (highly gendered) celebration of destruction. Fixer Upper might be ending after its upcoming fifth season — HGTV announced it this week — but the spectacle of temporary annihilation is bound to go on.
On Fixer Upper, Chip and Joanna help home buyers on limited budgets get the most out of their investments by choosing “the worst house in the best neighborhood.” That’s an old real-estate canard that has long been dismissed, but no matter — when Joanna starts describing all the wonderful things she can do to it, thoughts about resale value melt away into dreams of sliding barn doors, over-tufted sofas, and newly built “mud rooms” where the kids can stash their backpacks and soccer gear. Once the buyers have chosen their new house, they’re whisked away and the work begins.
It is as though Chip has spent all of Act One in a quivering agony of self-control, but at last he is free. He grabs a sledgehammer and, with Joanna’s permission, starts bashing away at the first wall she has marked for destruction. SLAM! CRASH! BANG! Chip is finally in concert with his true nature. This banging away at walls is the centerpiece of every HGTV show that involves renovation — as do all of its most popular programs — and there is something profoundly satisfying about it, even though it’s a preposterous way to go about the task. Taking out a single wall when you want to leave the rest of a room intact involves carefully cutting the drywall, teasing it off, and then taking down the framing behind it. But the reckless bashing makes for good television, and it dramatizes the signal design imperative of HGTV: Whether you live in Burbank or Barcelona, you absolutely must have an open kitchen.