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Trading Spaces, Carving Faces

The good, the bad & the ugly of television’s makeover mania.

by Mark D. Johnson
December 13, 2002

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Trading Spaces, Carving Faces_Mark D. Johnson-The good, the bad & the ugly of television’s makeover mania. Makeovers have been a staple of daytime talk shows like "Jenny Jones" and "Maury Povich" for so long now that you might think it's all been done before and that people have grown tired of the concept. Yesterday's fad? Hardly. People just never seem to get tired of the old drastic transformation fantasy, so TV producers have given the old format a facelift and a new evening gown, as makeovers make their way onto the primetime schedule, and the results are wowing viewers by the millions. Like the makeovers themselves, these new shows are hit or miss, and sometimes a downright travesty. And they're not just for women anymore: household makeovers like those on the cable smash hit "Trading Spaces" appeal to home improvement-minded men as well. But first, back to travesty...

ABC, attempting to undergo an image overhaul of its own, drew strong numbers this week for an hour special called "Extreme Makeover", in which the physical appearance of three reasonably good-looking people was radically altered in large part by plastic surgery. Perhaps people are drawn to this like gawkers of a car crash – it's hard for me to believe that the public really approves of a show that celebrates frivolous plastic surgery, but feeling it my duty as your personal television watchdog, I taped the show and scanned through it in twenty minutes so that I could honestly say this: "Extreme Makeover" is bad TV, bad for TV, and bad for America. By show’s end, the doctors had performed every procedure allowed by law on these three people, who then could strut their new selves in front of their stunned families and some fifteen million gawkers. If you ask me, Michael Jackson cannot be in the public eye enough as a reminder of what happens when plastic surgery attacks.

Over on The Learning Channel (TLC), you can learn about some less permanent transformations. Yes, I'm fully aware that they air something called "A Makeover Story" that features the evolution of a normal-looking-person-turned-Hollywood, but that’s not the real scoop. "Trading Spaces" (Saturdays, 8/7c) is all the rage, of course, and if you still think I'm talking about a movie starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, where have you been?

Okay, I know that not everyone gets cable, so here's what everyone but you is talking about: two couples, neighbors in fact, swap houses to completely redo one room in two days with a $1000 budget and the help of a professional interior decorator and carpenter. How could that possibly be popular, you ask? Well, the answer is not so simple. There are a lot of factors that contribute to its success. First, there's the surprise factor – the couples see their new room unveiled at the end and viewers wonder what their reaction will be. It's a source of hip decorating ideas that viewers can often imitate at home at an affordable price. For guys, there's the carpentry/"New Yankee Workshop" aspect, as well as attractive female regulars. For women, other than the obvious, there’s a female carpenter, who breaks the stereotype and perhaps lends confidence to their own power tool skills (oh, and there’s also the hunky male carpenter who switches off with the female). There’s the entertaining personalities of the regular cast, interacting with everyday folk like you and me, who might not know a whole lot about professional decorating.

And then there's what I call the Disaster-in-Progress Effect: it's similar to the quick oil painting shows you happen to come across on PBS where the artist, while painting a traditional landscape, makes some extraordinarily bold brush stokes that make you think he’s absolutely ruined the whole thing. You suddenly lose the power to change the channel. How can he possibly pull it all together with just minutes to go and wind up with something even remotely presentable? Often, somehow, with a few last dabs of the brush, he pulls off the miracle, and you see how all the components make up the whole. And then there are those rare, special times when the end product is just crap, leaving you in a state of total disbelief. So it is with "Trading Spaces," the perfect show for those with nothing better to do on a Saturday night. (Really, though, all you need to catch is the last fifteen minutes to experience all of these elements.)

Just how manic is the makeover craze? "Trading Spaces" is the American version of a British show, "Changing Rooms," which can be seen on BBC America several times a day. The Brits also have a garden makeover show, "Ground Force," and a people makeover show, "What Not to Wear," which round out the BBC America schedule. On TLC, immediately following "Trading Spaces," is the spin-off "While You Were Out," in which one room is made over while a loved one is away for the weekend. This person, usually the husband, comes home to TV cameras and strange people all around, having had no clue about their new Egyptian-themed bedroom. He can’t quite shake the feeling he’s just been ambushed, and the anticlimactic ending sinks the show. The Discovery Channel does the same thing on its daytime schedule with "Surprise by Design". Meanwhile, the Home and Garden Television Network (HGTV) is green with envy, having completely missed the makeover boat.

And now, simply to annoy faithful viewers of the show, I hereby rank the "Trading Spaces" designers by talent from best to worst: Vern, Laurie, Genevieve, Edward, Doug, Frank, Hilde, Kya. And by personality, by most to least likeable: Frank, Genevieve, Vern, Edward, Laurie, Doug, Hilde, Kya.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go see about a hair transplant.

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