Fred A. Bernstein

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A Makeover Too Far

The conspicuous consumption of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

Published in Dwell, October 29, 2006

In September 2005, Jimmy and Gina Arena of Purdys, New York, lost a son to cancer. Seven months later, they lost a house.

The first event was a tragedy. The second, millions of TV viewers were told, was not. After demolishing the family's 1,400-square-foot split-level, workers erected a 4,200-square-foot replacement for a segment of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

When the program debuted in 2003, its focus was on helping needy families improve run-down houses. But by the third season, the show had become an exercise in glib destruction coupled with conspicuous consumption. First an entire house is dropped into a Dumpster; then building materials arrive in quantities so prodigious that the neighbors' yards are needed as depots. The resulting houses overpower their surroundings, leaving the neighbors, if not literally in shadow, feeling like permanent extras in someone else's movie.

Inside the new house, large and overwrought interiors. -- every bedroom is a "destination" -- discourage family interaction. Furniture and appliances fill even the oversized spaces to bursting.

The program's host -- the empathetic hunk Ty Pennington -- does everything he can to reinforce the notion that the show is about helping those in need. But the time and money expended on one family could probably help 100 families make smaller, necessary improvements. Of course, small improvements don't make good TV -- not in a country where the bulldozer is the new Band-Aid. Along with the desire to eradicate the old and start anew comes the fiction, promoted by the show's sponsors, that all of it is free.

Driving around Purdys, it's easy to spot the Arenas' house. With its three stories and massive dormers, it bears no resemblance to the neighbors' modest dwellings. And the building does nothing to conceal its awkward bulk. The front facade showcases three styles of siding, boldly asserting that more is more.

The extreme approach extends to the landscaping. A stream that runs alongside the property is now hidden behind a pile of dense shrubbery. But 50 feet away there's a new pond with live koi, giant metal butterfly sculptures, and a full complement of pumps and filters. It's hardly what nature intended for Purdys.

No one can fault the workers who built the house, or the heart-of-gold contractor who donated a fortune in materials and labor. And no one begrudges the family the benefits they received. Evan Rosenberg, who has lived next door to the Arenas for about ten years, said, "They certainly deserve it. I'm happy for the family."

Still, he was bewildered by the scope of the project; the site was lit, like a movie set, so that crews could work around the clock. What they produced, observed Rosenberg, is "a $2 million house in a neighborhood where that would buy five regular houses."

As Clare Newman, a graduate student at Columbia University's School of Architecture and Urban Planning, wrote in the student journal Urban, "Rewarding deserving families with homes that are so costly and resource-inefficient misses an opportunity. Millions of Americans could tune in every week to watch Ty build homes that meet their needs without becoming long-terms drains on themselves and their communities."

In fact, by giving a few dozen American families big new houses while ignoring the needs of millions who live in poverty the program suggests that inequality is, if not a goal, at least a necessary corollary of the American dream.

Each Sunday-night episode follows a formula determined to maximize pathos -- and product placement. During the first segment, the family tells Ty its story, which involves death, disease, disability, or natural disaster. Next, the family is sent on vacation (starting out in a limousine as big as their old living room). Then workers demolish the house with the glee of children stomping on sandcastles at the beach. The vacationing family is shown a tape of the destruction. They're supposed to cheer, demonstrating their disdain for the shanty they once foolishly called home.

But not everyone is that obliging. On one recent episode, two toddlers -- the Novak girls of Boardman Township, Ohio, whose mother had died a few months earlier -- didn't seem happy to see their house being torn down. Maybe losing the only home they had ever known, just after losing their mom, wasn't their idea of entertainment.

As a member of Ty's crew announced, "This home needs to symbolize the new beginning that we want this family to have." But couldn't the changes in the house have been incremental? Does the new beginning have to ignore the past (except, of course, in faux-historic details that are a staple of "reality" TV)?

Apparently, even the IRS is willing to play into the fiction that the makeover costs nothing. Endemol, the Dutch company that produces the program, reportedly advises each family to claim that ABC was merely paying them -- with products and services -- to rent their house during the seven days of taping. The IRS allows money received for renting a family home fewer than 15 days to be excluded from income -- rendering the transaction nontaxable, in Endemol's opinion.

But that view is as much of a stretch as the makeovers themselves. Clearly, the homeowners have received huge gifts. Some bloggers have speculated that the IRS, scared of the bad publicity, has decided to turn a blind eye to the tax due on the show's largesse.

Apparently, local authorities were less craven -- they have tripled the assessed value of the Arena house. On top of higher property taxes, the Arenas will need more of everything -- water, electricity, fuel -- for their engorged lifestyle. Though one Makeover house was outfitted with solar panels, the show is more often a lesson in how to treat the environment disdainfully, ignoring, among other things, the effects of so much house on global warming.

And how long will the warm feelings created by the extreme makeover last? The show raised more than the family's monthly expenses; it raised their expectations. In the long run, the difficulty of maintaining their new lifestyle may prove more of a burden than a blessing.

Watching the Arenas' makeover from his window left Rosenberg, who is disabled, with mixed emotions. "When my wife and I wanted new living-room furniture, she worked overtime for weeks to earn the money," he said, sounding both proud and a bit chagrined.

And so Rosenberg sent in his own audition tape, hoping to be selected for a future episode. But his makeover wouldn't have to be so extreme. "If they wanted to help with the air-conditioning and the electrical, and give us a new coat of paint, I'd be happy," he said. "It could be a quarter of what they did next door."

But that is probably going to disqualify him.

A few changes to an existing house, to make it more livable? Reusing what still works, and recycling the rest? Finding the beauty in something that money can't buy?

Get with the program.