The Common Good
January 2005

Extreme Community

by Julie Polter | January 2005

A glimpse of grace and abundance from - of all things - reality TV.

What makes a house a home?

What makes a house a home? The roof overhead? The people who reside there? The comfort and attractiveness of its furnishings?

These questions are answered more thoroughly than one might expect by ABC-TV’s feel-good reality show, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, now in its second season. The show’s premise is to bring in several telegenic designers (backed up by 100 or more laborers) to completely renovate a "deserving" family’s dilapidated, damaged, tiny, and/or otherwise substandard housing in seven days.

This is wholesome fare - notable since the show is produced by a wing of Endemol, the same megatransnational that created the original Big Brother and Fear Factor creep fests. But Makeover is a Glenda the Good Witch cousin to those reality concepts. No one is voted out of the house or humiliated in order for someone to "win." The only thing that might cause nausea is host Ty Pennington’s loud, zany, surfer-dude shtick; he’s cute but cloying, and one of these days I suspect someone will lose it and attack him with a nail gun. Otherwise, aside from their blinding whitened teeth, the designers are surprisingly genuine.

And at the center of each episode is a glimpse of reality: a family, usually struggling middle-class and working poor folks who - due to illness, accident, death, or other catastrophe - have not had resources of money, time, or ability to upkeep their home or make repairs after the house is damaged by floods or other events. Often these families have made significant sacrifices in order to hold their family together, to take in extended family, or to make strangers into family, one result being a home that’s (by American standards) busting at the seams. If the garage has to be converted into a bedroom and mama has to sleep in a recliner, so be it.

Cramped quarters, health hardships, and limited resources aren’t the only way an Extreme Makeover family can be deemed deserving. The families often give abundantly to their communities: adopting drug-addicted babies, serving as foster mothers, providing food, services, or counseling to the disabled or poverty-stricken. In multiple examples of widow’s mite alchemy, for many of these families it was the experience of severe duress that actually first spurred their generosity to others. Who would begrudge such servants their all-new stainless steel appliances and a hot tub?

STILL, IT’S DIFFICULT not to think of all the other families, deserving or not, with leaky roofs or dangerous wiring or no shelter at all whose children won’t be getting a visit from the Makeover "Dream Team." The reality (and the capacity for Sears to provide warehouses full of tools, appliances, and furnishings, even in return for scripted-in commercial and product placement) that will fit on TV has its clear limits. Just as the lives of those in the ever-widening bottom of our economy generally aren’t deemed network-worthy, most housing that is made or made-over for people in need is not a prime-time event.

Habitat for Humanity, for example, builds simple and affordable houses in the United States, Canada, and 80-plus other countries. Myriad individual churches and local interfaith groups have housing ministries. Perhaps because housing is such a basic and highly visible need (in the real world, not on TV), such service projects are a spot of common ground where people of varied denominations, perspectives, and faiths often work together. Pentecostals do it, Unitarians do it, Democrats do it, Republicans do it, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews do it - let’s build or fix some houses!

Habitat for Humanity houses emphasize quality local materials and modest size to keep them as affordable to own and to maintain as possible - thereby increasing the number of people who are helped. This glitz-free approach does have its own bit of TV time: the Do It Yourself Network partners with Habitat for special shows and projects, emphasizing volunteer recruitment and training. DIY’s Web site includes several online Habitat house-building instructional videos.

In comparison with such plain-Jane practicality and goodness, the giant plasma TVs and complicated bedrooms with spaceship/pirate ship/ Princess Cruise ship themes that are di rigueur in an Extreme Makeover home seem a bit decadent or shallow.

To Extreme Makeover’s credit, it’s not just about the flash: The team addresses the practical needs of the household before bringing out the murals and pumped-up electronics - including making homes fully accessible for disabled family members and installing special HVAC systems and furnishings when there are other health concerns. And Makeover doesn’t renovate homes that are more than 2,000 square feet.

Plus, I find something almost biblical in the abundance the crew pours out on families and the genuine delight they appear to take in bringing some fantasy and lushness into modest spaces. A home’s first function is to provide safe, secure, and healthy shelter for the body, but ideally a home is also shelter for the soul - space for rest, beauty, play, and memories. Even when tacky or excessive, the design team’s gestures to encourage a child’s dream to be an architect or to give a harried single parent a small spa refuge have generous, noble arcs.

BUT THE REAL choice shouldn’t be between stark functional housing and a made-for-TV dream house. Innovative architects and designers - one example being the late Samuel Mockbee and his students and colleagues at Auburn University’s Rural Studio project - have succeeded in creating sustainable, affordable, and beautiful housing for some of the poorest people in our country. Not as entertainment, however. As Mockbee advised other architects, "help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so even if nobody is watching!"

Still, in its way, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition also celebrates things like giving freely and working as a community. In and between the show’s clunky "We’re going shopping for home furnishings at Sears. Did you catch that? S-E-A-R-S" adver-segments and other perky, clowning filler are abundant graces of generosity, gratitude, and devotion. One wonders how the concept ever sold to the network.

So once a week, you see these odd-for-TV moments: Young adult brothers and sisters defer their own ambitions to take care of younger siblings when a parent dies. A contractor and his employees, having already rebuilt an entire house, commit to provide college scholarships for the recipient family’s kids - a gift, he says, for "after the cameras are gone." A family matriarch collapses on her knees at the feet of the stunned designers, praising God - before they’d even touched her house. Paul DiMeo, the sincere, soft-spoken, 40-something carpenter with the black hipster glasses and two-days’ stubble, tears up while talking about that week’s family. A teenager dances with joy, not at seeing his own room or some new bell or whistle, but at how happy his grandmother is at the first sight of their rebuilt home. And you just know that grandmother and grandson had long ago built a mansion with their love; that their shiny new home, wondrous gift that it is, is outshone by this home they’d made on their own.

At moments like that, I’m willing to endure a few extra product-placements and schmaltzy touches just to glimpse who and what home can be. As Ty puts it, actually seeming subdued for once, stunned by the generosity of the scholarship gift given by the contractor, "How much better you can make the whole world if you just care about your neighbors."

Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.

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