Home & Garden Television (HGTV) is, from what I can tell, a 24-hour quasi-DIY cable network with programming geared to make its viewers feel bad about their houses by showing what other people with a line of credit at either Lowe’s or Goldman Sachs have done with theirs.
The network has several shows that are meant to be uplifting that I find disheartening. Is it a sadistic tendency that drives producers to document the struggles of 30-somethings in a desperate search for beachfront properties in foreign lands? Or is this just what we’ve become?
One of HGTV’s shows presents a family of five living in a linen closet, which can be remodeled for the cost of the five-bedroom house next door that just happens to be for sale. After an agonizing 30 minutes of remodeling the closet, the family opts for the house next door which greatly upsets the woman who had overseen the closet remodel. This is edge-of-your-seat programming for the network’s demographic, many of whom spend their days crocheting trivets or inventing new ways to play Checkers.
There’s another show in which a family picks out a dilapidated house in a marginal neighborhood and then allows the show’s hosts to rebuild it, landscape it and decorate it, right down to the place mats on a dining room table that has been fashioned from repurposed outhouse doors. The purchasers of said house aren’t even allowed to drive by to check on the progress. At the show-stopping grand reveal, they are thrilled with everything except the strange odor coming from the dining room.
Some of HGTV’s programs feature very attractive young women in hard hats, halter tops and skinny jeans knocking down brick walls with sledgehammers. They perspire while they do this. A lot. It is an awe-inspiring show.
The best of the HGTV programming that I’ve suffered through is the fantasy-reality “My Lottery Dream Home.” While entertaining in sort of a RuPaul way, the show demonstrates what is basically wrong with America—greed and avarice (the two words mean the same, but seem always to be used together), envy, sloth and poor taste in interior design.
It’s hosted by a realtor-cum-designer-cum-reality TV host whose apparent first interest is finding a patch of undecorated skin that can be flooded with new ink. He dresses a bit like a toreador as he enthusiastically escorts happy couples to homes that they might want to purchase with the monies won in various lotteries.
On any given day, it’s difficult to tell if the happy couple is happy because they won a million dollars, or because they’re going to be on television, or because they are being shown a house with an entry hall that is bigger than the entire apartment in which they raised their five kids in Hoboken.
There is a lot of hugging in this show and David Bromstad, the personable host of the program who is flirtatious to everybody, likes to compliment his guests on how cute they are in the little outfits they chose to wear while visiting mansions—an activity that most of them have clearly never done before. Many of the “guests” seem like they’d be more comfortable living in the servants’ quarters of these homes than in the main part of the house where a riding vacuum cleaner might prove handy.
This “reality” show is kind of an unwitting cross between “The Beverly Hillbillies,” which once inspired embarrassed laughter, and “Queen for a Day,” a ‘50s-era game show that evoked a staged empathy from an audience trying to determine which of the contestants had the most miserable life and was therefore most deserving of a four-slice toaster and a steam iron.
The males of the couples appearing on “Dream,” seem curious about the possibility of their being any outbuildings on the property and appear to be oddly focused on the lawn. The females seem most impressed by multiple bathtubs that double as lap pools, walk-in closets (“I could live in here!”), and composite countertops in kitchens that frequently have four ovens, eight burners, a char-broiler and a flattop grill. Add a few microwave ovens and it could function as an Outback Steakhouse.
It’s while everybody is wandering around lost in the cavernous kitchen that we learn about the couple’s extended family, which is typically large enough to warrant having its own telephone directory. It seems too that these family members are perhaps unemployed or unemployable, drive old domestic cars with “Ron Paul for President” bumper stickers, and will be spending every weekend for the foreseeable future at the new mansion—lolling about the pool, drinking at the thirty-foot-long wet bar, and keeping Mrs. Couple busy at the flattop frying vegan burgers and zucchini-bacon.
There are several threads of improvised plots that twist and turn along a course as predictable as a Roadrunner cartoon. While Pops is fretting about maintaining a yard the size of a cow pasture, David calls him “silly” and reminds him that he’s a millionaire and can afford to hire gardeners. It is at about this point that David turns to Moms to make sure than the kitchen island, which is about the size of Maui, is big enough to handle the hundreds of free-loading relatives who’ll start sponging off them as soon as the ink is dry on the buy-sell.
That’s when it’s revealed that she’s planning to use a significant portion of their new-found wealth to develop a serious drinking problem.
The sudden wealth that has spurred the mad-dash search for better digs is spoken of only at the beginning of the show.
“How much are we spending?” David asks in a way that suggests he might be putting up a third and moving into the granny suite. If the subject of money ever comes up again, it is usually in the form of subtle little reminders that the guests are millionaires, as in, “Don’t worry, you can afford anything now.”
This is precisely the moment that the “reality” in Reality Show should kick in. Maybe a spin-off like “My Dinner with an Accountant” or “Meet the IRS” or “Orange Isn’t My Best Color” could be developed as companion programming.
Moms and Pops tell their story about having won that elusive million dollars after investing $100—on a whim—in scratch-off lottery tickets at their local 7-Eleven and littering the front seat of their ’83 Plymouth Reliant with foil scrapings from the tickets and the detritus from the gas-station corn dogs they had just washed down with 64-ounce tubs of Pepsi. A winning ticket is produced and they both suffer mild heart attacks. After remarkable recoveries—without defibrillation, no less—they drive to the Verizon store and empty their checking account buying cell phones clearly smarter than either of them. Pops then uses his new device to call his boss and sing him a couple of choruses of his favorite country song, “Take This Job and Shove It.”
Moms and Pops then attend their first-ever press conference, announce their good fortune to the world, and begin to fully realize just how extended their extended family is.
They hire the Sicilian agent they just happened to meet at the 7-Eleven who promised them book deals, personal appearance tours, and product endorsements but so far can only get them on David’s house-hunting adventure show.
The happy couple tells David they’d like to spend around $750,000 for their dream home. He squeals and bats his eyes (which he does a lot anyway), and the search is on, with David cautioning that the couple’s cap is “pretty low” for Palm Beach. After three house showings and three costume changes, the couple settles on what used to be the seven-bedroom, nine-bath guard’s house at the Kennedy family compound that has free WiFi and a bowling alley in the basement. Everybody toasts this occasion with goblets of tap water in a chic neighborhood restaurant.
David air kisses them goodbye and drives off into the sunset.
The Happy Couple moves into their furnished house and open their first piece of mail, a congratulatory letter from the New Jersey State Lottery with a certified check for $546,373 and no/cents.
Assemblage and photography by Courtney A. Liska
Straight from la cucina povera, comes this Italian soup that is nutritious, delicious and cheap. It takes some time (don’t rush the process) but is worth every minute. Serve with some torn pieces of crusty bread and Parmesan cheese.
Butter, extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 carrots, sliced into rounds
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 large potato, diced
4 oz. green beans, fresh or frozen
2 small zucchini, split lengthwise and sliced
½ small head of green cabbage, roughly chopped
1, 14-oz. can diced tomatoes
6 cups chicken or vegetable stock
½ tsp. dried thyme
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1, 14-oz. can cannellini beans
Melt about 2 Tbs. butter and 1 Tbs. oil in a stock pot over medium heat. Add the sliced onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6-7 minutes.
Next, add carrots and celery, stir to coat. Cook another 3-4 minutes.
Add potatoes and green beans. Stir to coat and cook 3-4 minutes.
Add zucchini. Stir to coat and cook 3-4 minutes.
Add cabbage. Stir to coat and cook 3-4 minutes.
Add tomatoes, stock, thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.
Turn heat to high and bring to a boil.
Reduce heat to medium & simmer, covered, for 45-50 minutes.
Add cannellini beans. Simmer another 5 minutes.
Note: If you have a rind of parmigiano-reggiano cheese, add it to the soup along with the tomatoes. It imparts a wonderful flavor. Remove before serving.