I could tell you all what HGTV is, but at this point, who doesn’t know?
I used to be a touring actress. Like touring musicians, we found comfort in the ability to create the smallest routines. My personal routine involved bath bombs, a can of wine, and HGTV.
Is it even possible to be in a Courtyard Marriott without watching two to three hours of Flip or Flop? Is there anything that exemplifies “work-trip culture” more than settling down for a marathon of Fixer Upper? Anything that feels more like the television equivalent of continental breakfast than Drew and Jonathan Scott?
I fucking love HGTV. Even when I wasn’t on the road, I used to set my DVR to record all new episodes of Fixer Upper, Flip or Flop, and Property Brothers: Buying & Selling (which I believe to be the superior iteration of the Property Brothers Cinematic Universe). I finally had to adjust my TiVo settings to leave space to record actual, good narrative television. So I decided to stress-test my love for HGTV by watching it for an entire day.
Starting my day, I was confident. I knew that this would be a delight. A little Property Brothers. A little My Lottery Dream Home. A splash of Love It or List It. What could be better? With snacks in hand, I put my booty on my couch, ready to begin.
Within two hours, I was calling my mom to discuss deep childhood traumas to gain some respite from the unbearable tyranny that was HGTV.
Where did it all go wrong?
HGTV’s whole deal is that no one really knows what will be airing when they turn it on. You just flip on the TV and hope for the best. I was hoping for a familiar favorite to carry me through my day of big-ticket purchases and remodeling countertops. Instead, I encountered something I haven’t had to deal with in years: a show I had never seen before. “My, my. What’s this? Maruf and Sonal are looking to relocate to the Dutch side of St. Maarten after their three children head off to college.”
My gentle friends, it was a Caribbean Life marathon. If you’re anything like me, you’re probably asking yourself, “What is Caribbean Life?” I was not even aware this show exis—THIS SHOW IS IN SEASON 5?! Caribbean Life is basically House Hunters: International with a little drink umbrella. In all the episodes I watched, an American couple heads to an island in the Caribbean to purchase or rent a new home in search of the “Caribbean lifestyle.”
Why is there no in-depth explanation of the colonial history of all these islands? Why am I watching HGTV and thinking about the colonial history of anything? Is the problem HGTV, or is the problem me?
One American couple, Debby and Mark, are moving to Bonaire, an island off the coast of Venezuela, because their life in Phoenix is getting very hectic and Bonaire is just what they need—a slower pace. What are Debby’s and Mark’s jobs? Yoga teacher and diving instructor.
Y’all. The idea that the lives of two 50-something instructors of recreational activities have become so fast-paced that they have to drop everything and relocate to an island I had never even heard of is preposterous. I currently work no less than three jobs, and it has never occurred to me to move to an island just over 100 square miles large. Maybe I’m thinking too small, or maybe Debby and Mark’s threshold for unacceptable stress is way too low.
In addition to the couples looking for their stress-free life, Caribbean Life opens every episode with a montage of charmingly relatable ex-pats and locals looking into the camera and telling us about the carefree nature of island life alongside trivia questions about the islands.
Something is being flattened here. Maruf and Sonal are looking for a house on St. Maarten, which is split into a Dutch side and a French side—“two nations working together,” Sonal says. Why is there no in-depth explanation of the colonial history of all these islands? Why am I watching HGTV and thinking about the colonial history of anything? Why don’t I know anything about the colonial history of St. Maarten? Is the problem HGTV, or is the problem me?
There was only one couple whose reason for heading to the Caribbean was something other than “umm…. rum, fun, and sun?” Jennie and Frank are a New Jersey couple who live down the Jersey shore. They wanted to retire in Puerto Rico because Jennie’s parents were born there, and when she and Frank visited Puerto Rico for their anniversary, she began to learn more about her heritage. Frank says that living in Puerto Rico has been a dream for his wife, and he’s going to do everything he can to make that dream come true.
Jennie and Frank didn’t end up finding their ideal Caribbean home, but I would die for their family. I would also give my entire life for the lesbian couple from Florida, Georgiann and Stephanie, who met when Georgiann went through the drive-thru and Stephanie gave her her number. Their reason for wanting to move to St. Croix is that the traffic in Florida is becoming too much. But Georgiann won me back over when she said, “Why wait to live your dream?” HGTV, providing the affirmations we need.
Debby and Mark didn’t find their Caribbean home, either. They decide to spend $75,000 to build their Caribbean dream home instead. I cannot and will not ever understand Debby and Mark.
The appeal of watching HGTV is that you can completely shut your brain off. There is nothing challenging or difficult happening on HGTV. It demands nothing—so when Caribbean Life started throwing trivia questions at me about giant obelisks and forcing me to sit through segments with the couples exploring spice markets or going on pedal kayaks, it was really asking a lot of me. Yet after a couple hours of Caribbean Life, I found myself way too eagerly shouting out the answers to the trivia questions, as though I had contracted my own form of Stockholm syndrome. Pina colada! Flamingos! Liberty Day festival celebrated with beef and bread! I wanted to escape, but all that was left was the knowledge that Maho Beach in St. Maarten is famous for being at the end of an airport runway, so that planes land right over your head. The problem with HGTV’s newer offerings is that they want the viewer to care about the people and places featured on the show instead of the houses and gardens themselves. I did not come here to see Jocelyn and Justin swim with mermaids. I’m here for the granite countertops.
After a quick break and a walk around the block, I settled back in for my evening shift of HGTV. My night included a few classic programs, House Hunters and House Hunters: International, along with two new and completely unnecessary programs: Christina on the Coast and Unspouse My House.
HGTV seems to be pivoting away from simply letting me marvel at how much house you can get in Omaha for $275,000 and attempting to make the shows about “the stories”—often stories about completely regular people with zero media training and/or people with privilege or priorities many viewers can’t relate to. On the episode of House Hunters I watched, the producers decided to go for a “wacky mother” storyline. A woman named Jocelyn is looking for a home, and her mom insists that she purchase a traditional ranch house and forgo a personal gym, worrying that she wouldn’t be able to meet other people without going out to the gym. Meanwhile, Jocelyn has a vendetta against oak, rebuking it at every turn.
Is there anything that exemplifies “work-trip culture” more than settling down for a marathon of Fixer Upper? Anything that feels more like the television equivalent of continental breakfast than Drew and Jonathan Scott?
One house has a steam shower and a walkout basement that overlooks a half-acre backyard with a little drop-off. Mom only sees A CLIFF. One house has soft-close kitchen drawers and a room for a home gym. Mom sees HEATING AND COOLING BILLS. At one point, Mom starts crying about the daughter having entertaining space.
I don’t care about this mother’s feelings. Why is the focus of the episode this mother’s journey to acceptance of her daughter’s home gym preferences instead of the butcher-block countertops? Watching HGTV, I’ve always enjoyed inferring the subtle relationship dynamics. A little glance when someone says they prefer a soaker tub to a rainfall shower means, “How dare you value your own luxury? You’re a selfish and demanding partner.” When someone says, “I think it’s over our budget,” what they really mean is, “You are going to ruin us.” And when a couple heads into the walk-in closet and one of them says, “Ooh, this is my area!” it’s a sign that they’ve never really looked into each other’s eyes and seen each other’s souls.
But instead, HGTV is front-loading the emotional stakes. Christina on the Coast is all about Christina Anstead (formerly El Moussa) taking charge of her life as it “heads in so many directions” (her words, not mine). In a half-hour, the show shoves in Christina remodeling a friend’s house, chatting with her friend about her divorce, packing up her family’s belongings, and looking for a new home in Southern California. The show expects my sympathy because it’s difficult for Christina to pack up her numerous Christian Louboutin booties, and it asks me to empathize with her inability to find a multimillion-dollar mansion in Southern California that meets her needs. The image of a millionaire removing overpriced, faux-rustic children’s decor from the wall as she tearfully packs up should be put in a time capsule to represent exactly what white culture was in 2019.
I guess I like Christina Anstead. She’s fine. She’s got the most boring style imaginable because she’s spent most of her career redecorating homes to sell. Gray walls and white subway tiles and white Shaker cabinets. The home decorating drama on the series is that she’s supposedly having to figure out how to cater to a couple’s unique style. Thankfully, these (apparent) friends of Christina’s are also uncomfortable with bright tones, so Christina picks a sample of yellow tile as a HILARIOUS JOKE. Finally, they settle on navy tile as a wild splash of color. Christina only has to redo the kitchen, and she’s got a $38,000 budget, but she still manages to come in over $2,000 above it.
The other new-to-me show that really pushed the emotional narrative is Unspouse My House.
A “cheery” gay host remodeling the homes of newly single straight people and helping them to discover their new point of view and feel like themselves again—HGTV wanted a Queer Eye, didn’t they? The show is hosted by Orlando Soria (pronounced: Or-LAWN-do, and that made me fully scream). He has a lot of little… skits between his remodeling stints, and he isn’t afraid to bad-mouth your ex-spouse because they didn’t use coasters. He’s constantly drinking rosé and saying the demo team has “dad vibes.” At one point, he picks up a block of wood and uses it as a phone. I am undone.
In between the wacky antics, Orlando sets up opportunities for Michelle, the homeowner, to repurpose things her ex left behind. They could destroy or splatter-paint her ex’s armchair, but Michelle chooses to just donate it. So touching. Unspouse my House would be more successful if it just leaned all the way into the glitter and midcentury modern touches and leaned far away from trying to be poignant.
Finally, it was time for my day of HGTV to end. I was drained, but had 15 tabs open about faucets and tile options and flights to Aruba. I also have no desire to watch HGTV again for the next six weeks. What does HGTV offer us? An escape, a diversion—and it’s the most successful when it doesn’t want to be anything other than that. I don’t want an emotional journey. I just want to know how much a two-bedroom is in Dubai.