Nearly everything on television is a guilty pleasure, a concept useful to viewers who need to explain away their addictions to certain shows, especially the trashiest stuff. The dumber the show, the bigger the guilt and the better the pleasure.
I’ve had to watch so much TV over the past five years as a critic — so much of it bad — that I feel the poke of shame only when I watch a show in which real people make an honest attempt to finish a difficult household chore or a major project that I would never, ever want to do, especially in the summer months. Which is one reason I derive some sick, lazy happiness from watching spouses argue with each other on DIY Network’s “Renovation Realities.”
Buried deep down in the schedule of DIY (an offshoot of HGTV) and almost always a rerun, “Renovation Realities” couldn’t be simpler: A homeowning couple (usually married, usually in flyover states) has decided to renovate a room in their house (usually the kitchen) completely on their own, having little to no practical experience in the construction biz.
The cameras are there to merely document what occurs; there is no handsome host in a tight T-shirt and tool belt to goad and guide them through each decision or to come to their rescue with his capable brawn. There is no crew to hammer and saw things to completion. There is no narration, save for some on-screen details (set in drab, white Courier type against a black screen) that tell the viewer how many days the homeowners have set aside to complete the work (usually vacation days from their jobs) and their projected budget.
In seven seasons of “Renovation Realities,” the show has rarely, if ever, included the scene known in the home-improvement genre as the “reveal,” because there is never anything to reveal, except excuses. After days of sweat and sore muscles, the subjects of “Renovation Realities” almost always concede defeat. They run out of time and money. The drywall is only half-finished. The granite guys didn’t deliver the countertops. The refrigerator wouldn’t fit through the door. The mostly demolished wall that prevents the life-altering promise of the open floor plan had in fact masked all the plumbing from upstairs, which will now have to be rerouted by a professional.
Once in a great while, “Renovation Realities” is about a couple still young enough or childless enough or just happy-go-lucky enough to treat the entire project as a useful learning experience. They flirt their way through the dust of their demolition, laugh off the discovery of mouse turds and even affirm each other during the installation of new cabinets, a task that leads so many of the show’s couples to swear at each other and burst into tears. Not so the lovebirds. Hammers fall on heads, cabinets are dropped on toes, drill bits are ruined, and still there’s a charge in the air — not just from the bad wiring. The giggling and cute nicknames never stop. Get a room, you two. (A finished room.)
But, as any couple who have been together longer than a decade already knows, there is more often a dangerous frisson when things come unhinged. If you watch closely, usually between the first and second commercial breaks, you can see marital rage and desire flip as easily and excitedly as a circuit breaker. The guiltiest pleasure of all, I suppose, would be for a couple on “Renovation Realities” to get so angry at each other that they drop their sanders and sledgehammers and make wild love, right then and there, on the Formica countertops they’re so eager to rip away. Like any dedicated voyeur, I keep hoping.
“Renovation Realities” usually finds the couple whose darker dynamics and frayed nerves get the best of them. By the third or fourth day, she just wants it done, he just wants it done right, and they no longer care that we are seeing them at their worst. Their children keep wailing from another room — literal reminders of failure, starvation, sickness, familial despair.
The kitchen (or the new deck or the finished basement) has become a do-or-die fantasy, a vision gleaned from reading too many shelter magazines and watching too many home-improvement shows that made it all look far too simple. I’m never happier than when someone on “Renovation Realities” lets out a stream of obscenities (all of them bleeped out) and storms off. I feel bad about how much I love watching people melt down.
In these fixer-upper homes occupied by fixer-upper Americans, a viewer sees the horrible psychic toll in the mythology of ownership. It’s the only home-improvement show that dissuades you from undertaking any project at all; everything is fine the way it is. “Renovation Realities” is a 30-minute excuse to leave the to-do list undone.