Clean house

Editorial Notebook

March 12, 2005|By Peter Jensen

REALITY TELEVISION is contrived. Love at first sight is a fantasy. Nobody gets shocked when contestants eat bugs anymore. The publicity-hungry performers humiliated on American Idol probably deserve it. The only lesson this type of entertainment teaches us is that average people will do all sorts of despicable things to be on TV.

With that in mind, it's time for a true confession. Cynics, please stop reading now. Move on to the letters or whatever.

As for the rest of you: Pssst, have you ever watched the show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, on Sunday evenings? Does it make you cry? Thought so. Same here. Is that embarrassing or what?

For the uninitiated, Extreme Makeover has a simple premise. Studly carpenter Ty Pennington and his team of designers show up on the doorstep of some deserving family (usually a dead parent or two, sick child or natural disaster is involved), sends them on a vacation and then wrecks and rebuilds their house in a marathon seven-day extravaganza. It's like Queen for a Day meets This Old House.

In the final quarter-hour, the family returns and gets a tour of the sprawling new digs. Kids who formerly lived in broom closets get suites with built-in jungle gyms. First shock, then huge grins, then the waterworks start. Everyone gets choked up. Parents shout "Oh, my God" and "Thank you, Ty" over and over again.

Formulaic? Absolutely. Less than subtle? Can't argue. But somehow, it doesn't feel manipulative. It's just very affecting to see ordinary people who have suffered some adversity receive a beautiful new home. It's Habitat For Humanity with more plasma TVs (every Extreme house seems to include them) and less Jimmy Carter. Ty's team pulls some serious all-nighters to get the house just right -- and personalizes it to match their interests and needs.

So here's the news flash: People being kind to strangers makes good television. Who'd have thought it? Extreme has been so successful that ABC has spun off a second hour-long show, How'd They Do That?, which seems to be made of leftover videotape from the night before. We see the same project, different view. And surprise -- even these reruns get decent ratings.

Just when you thought television can't get much worse, they throw a little uplifting program like Extreme Makeover at you. Maybe that's what makes you cry.

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