all hands on DECK

Reality TV show watches as family tries to earn money to add a deck to their home.

Family Matters

November 02, 2003|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

On a rainy night in early fall, reality and reality television improbably converge in Westminster's Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Susan Thornton grocery shops. And producer Giles Pike videotapes Thornton as she shops.

"I'm so glad you had to do this because I really had to do this," Thornton says to Pike.

Of course, reality must take a back seat when Pike, himself, gets into the shopping cart for some harrowing action shots as Thornton pushes him around the store and nearly mows down another customer.

Thornton may be a reckless cart driver, but she has a gift for the perfect sound bite: "NutriGrain bars are $2.99, Sunbelt are $1.61, so that's a much better deal," she thinks aloud in the granola bar section. "I'm going to go ahead and try them."

This is the final week that Pike, of London-based Leopard Films, and his crew are taping an episode of Money Makeover, the working title of a new Discovery Channel program. This episode will feature Thornton, her husband Kevin and their three children.

The program's object is to follow a family as they set a goal -- taking a vacation or buying a used car, for example -- and raise money to reach it.

The Thorntons of Finksburg wanted a deck. For eight years, they have lived with a kitchen door "that leads to nowhere." If "you walk out, you'll fall 10 feet and break your hip," Kevin says.

"We would love to have a door to somewhere," his wife says.

Like so many middle-class families with budgets and busy lives, the Thorntons' wish list is usually preempted by more pressing issues such as car repairs and dance lessons.

Their predicament fits nicely with Money Makeover's common-sense premise.

As reality home shows go, this one is more Poor Richard's Almanac than Survivor.

Instead of prime-time slug munching and daring helicopter descents, protagonists practice thrift, enterprise and perhaps make a sacrifice or two, such as skipping lattes for a month or gulping off-brand sodas. Leave it to a British production company to exploit America's Puritanical streak.

'Givers, not takers'

Susan, station manager of Carroll County's Community Media Center, learned about the program's search for families on- line and Kevin, a writer, submitted an amusing application. They made the initial cut and aced the battery of screen tests and interviews that followed.

It's not surprising. The Thorntons are an attractive family who fit the suburban template without succumbing to its more extreme, homogenizing tendencies. They also have a feel for television's pesky production rhythms and most important, screen appeal.

Susan, a willowy actress, seems to connect with everyone she meets. Kevin, a gravelly-voiced public relations specialist at Constellation Energy, is a poet and a self-professed cynic who dotes on his family. The three Thornton kids, Shanin, 15, Sean, 14, and Kevin, 11, are amenable, funny and comfortable in front of the camera, having appeared often on Between the Lines, a cable access book program.

Still, the prospect of coming across in television land as needy was at first worrisome for the Thorntons. "We're givers, not takers," Kevin says. Susan, 44, volunteers her time with a handicapped child. Her husband coaches basketball and baseball and plays guitar in church.

"It has been a little uncomfortable," he says, "particularly for my wife, who is very much a Christian." In the long run, "if we didn't have a deck, that's OK, I'll live without it. It's just kind of fun and an interesting opportunity," Thornton says.

For the month of September, the production company stayed glued to the Thorntons as they washed cars, scrubbed bathrooms, walked dogs, scrimped on frills and sold off minor assets to raise money for a $3,000 deck.

Twice they met with "the talent," glamorous, New York-based financial advisor Juliette Fairley, author of Cash in the City: Affording Manolos, Martinis and Manicures on a Working Girl's Salary. Fairley provided advice on avoiding impulse purchases and substituting off brands for name brands; advice the Thorntons took -- up to a point. "My husband is really against the off-brand Coke," Susan says.

The crew followed Shanin to her cheerleading practice and Sean to the skate park. Sean told a local newspaper that the crew was "sort of in your face all the time." He and his family will be in the public's face soon enough, though. The series is tentatively scheduled to make its debut in mid-January.

Stormy process

The Thorntons opened financial records, produced spreadsheets of bills, and in soul-searching testimonials, examined spending habits. Before long, Pike and assistant producer Amy Flannery were dining at their table, helping with the homework.

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