Monday, April 13, 2009

Pity is a Sign of Contempt

"The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall; the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall; but in charity there is no excess, neither can angel or man come in danger by it." - Francis Bacon
Really? Is that so? Huh.

Obviously, Bacon had no access to television shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

For those unfamiliar, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition is ABC's Charity Porn which airs Sunday nights. Featuring the adrenalized Ty Pennington and his team of designers, the program chronicles their efforts to change the lives of destitute and deserving families across the country. This is how it works:

While tooling around the countryside in their souped up Ratt-Tour-bus-cum-RV, Ty and his team of designers and architects watch a submission video from a worthy family. Told in the heart-breaking detail that only a VHS camcorder can define, the family sends its pleas to the producers of ABC: Their home is in a shambles, with asbestos spewing from the vents, rusty nails cover every corner and swarms of bugs or raccoons creep in through holes in the roof. One or more family members is blind or deaf or riddled with disease or some combination of the three. Often the family is a contributing member of a community or a volunteer at a church or a temp- erm, well, church.

A series of quick cuts sends us back and forth between the family's plight and the emotional out pourings of Ty and his Friends. They Must help this family. They MUST. They NEED you, TY, you and your empty blue eyes. Without you, they will spiral further, deeper into destitution and despair.

The Extreme Makeover Bus arrives at the Family's doorstep and, after a whirlwind of insane slobbery screaming (after which the children most certainly barf like shaken puppies), ABC sends them away on a dream vacation so that the crew can demolish the house and build it anew, thereby leaving an even playing field from which the Family can discover a new era of prosperity.

We are then subjected to about 45 minutes of building and design. They incorporate elements that will enrich and enliven the family (In one episode, the designers create a room designed for a blind autistic child, filled with touchable shapes and soft flooring). The designers never really seem to DO anything except explain what's happening...or talk to someone who can. They wear work belts and hardhats made by Playskool and meander from room to room, getting in the way of every worker and Sears delivery guy. Ty and his designers talk directly to the camera, hiccuping with occasional tears over how grateful the family will be when they see their new home. Their hunger for thanks is intense.

The final day comes (this is the section of the program most scabbed over with commercials), and the family returns. A crowd has assembled outside, bearing signs and screaming like the Beatles are about to exit the plane. Ty is waiting for the vehicle carrying the family to drive up. When they exit the car, he descends upon them, drenching everyone in overweening enthusiasm.

He gets right up to the family, hugging the children, jumping up and down, whipping them into a froth. and then...

"MOVE THAT BUS!" The trailer drives away revealing a new, beautiful home. General Pandemonium. The Mother collapses in tears, and the Father - a beacon of quiet strength, until now - chokes on his own sobs. The children go apeshit.

Amid all the screaming, Mr. Ty bounces up and down shrieking at these poor people - "Isn't this what you wanted?!?! This will change your lives! Isn't it beautiful?!?!?

His yelps only cause the family more emotional turmoil as they exhaust all there reservoirs of gratitude. More tears, more thanking of God, more doubling over.

Ty shoves them to see the inside of the house. The crowd roars as they rush in and open the front door to a wonderland of high ceilings and stain resistant carpeting. With each room, Ty approaches the Mother or Son or Daughter or Father (usually whoever is blind) and says "We've installed robots in every room to tell you where you are and help you get audio books off the shelves, and tell you if something is poisonous, and tell you what clothes to wear, and help you into the bathtub, and wash your back and tell you that you are worthy of love. ISN'T THAT INCREDIBLE?" More agonized thanks.

There are quiet moments, too. When the Mother and Father see their bedroom for the first time. They sit and marvel over the King sized bed, and monitors in ever room of the house so they can keep track of their children. They embrace. Then Ty barges in - he tries to be quiet at first, and says "We know this is what you were hoping for...and now you have it." (His voice waivers as he struggles to contain an urge to yell like a cracked out cheerleader.)He waits for them to hug him. To cry. To tell him that he is the great healer. There is a quiet pause and Ty whoops "There's still MORE TO SEE!"

Finally, when the entire family unit is but a shadow of itself, exhausted, covered in dried tears and ready to collapse, Ty leads them into another room Lo! There is Stevie Wonder, or Dorothy Hamil or an animatronic Christopher Reeve - playing piano or waiting with a scholarship check.

Ty is about to totally fucking freak out.

The family is not frenzied enough! He screams at them, yanking more tears from their dehydrated bodies - "Look at what we've done for you! You will never know need again! YOU WILL BE TAKEN CARE OF NOW! YOU ARE THE PARAGONS OF THE NOBLE POOR! AND WE HAVE LIFTED YOU UP FROM THE DRECK OF YOUR LIVES, YOU PATHETIC WARTY RIFF RAFF! MAKE YOUR SLAVISH THANKS KNOWN TO US!"

There are exit interviews. The family is overcome. The designers weep to the camera about the good they've done, how they WERE a member of this family for one week. Ty sighs and tears up...he has saved yet another segment of the great unwashed.

Roll Credits.

This show is wearying. When will weeping, quivering, squawking gratitude be enough? When will Ty stop extracting thankful cries from these families? Never.

The awful nature of this kind of charity is that it forces the Recipients into a terrible performative servitude. IN order to pay for this kind of charity, they must cry, wail and wrench their bodies as if possessed with divine exultation. Can't there be a simple act of giving and receiving?

Nope. That don't sell Antibacterial Palmolive.

Charity is good. Giving a helping hand, supporting programs that give those in need immediate rescue, IN ADDITION to infrastructure to maintain themselves is necessary.

Dumping a bunch of strings-attached-lotto-style opulence on a family only manipulates the guiltiest part of our selves. And it certainly does the family no good when, six months later, they have to sell the house because the renovation shot the taxes out of their pay grade.


joe g said...

Given how closely tied this show is to Sears' Home Improvement department...I'm surprised your post wasn't labeled as part of your "Rage Advertising" series.

Goorne: (n.) in Scottish mythology, a large green lizard-like creature who fights starship captains on desert planets.

S. E. Johnson said...

Sadly, this:

"Goorne: (n.) in Scottish mythology, a large green lizard-like creature who fights starship captains on desert planets."

Has taken away any attention I might have paid to the anti-EM:HE harangue (which I'm always ready for, but still). For, lo, I now have this playing on an endless loop in my head:

"KIRK! I have heard every word you have said. SURRENDER NOW!--and I will be mer-see-ful."

Yeah. Thanks. Glad to have the Gorn back in my deep interior.

Ron K. said...

I wish I had a robot to tell me what was poisonous.


Dianna said...

The genius of the show, though?
I intellectually know all of those things - but I still tune in and cry my freaking eyes out anyway...

rebar said...

Talk about planets alighing...I never watch this show - for all the horrifying reasons presented - and yet, last Sunday, I clicked one channel too many and got sucked into the vortex.

I think I would feel less shame if I was watching a snuff film.

I always wonder why they make the vaulted ceilings so fucking high.

I look at them and think - how will they dust those?

Especially for the families who have children who are allergic to everything...including dust.

And you know from the get-go that Dad was never coming home. To use all that footage of the kids saying, "Dad's coming home! I'm so hopeful! We have a great future!"

I've never wanted to kick an editor/producer in the teeth more.

I adored Ty when he was on Trading Spaces. And while I think helping folks who were dealt a bad hand is truly fantastic...watching the non-stop dance of the monkey grinder as they pay their emotional pennance is gut-wretching.

tromb |’trow•m•bah|
n. a small personal trauma you get over, but which months or years later, your friends totally rail on you about

Anonymous said...

So.. what would be the proper way to conduct a show like this? Especially keeping in mind that this is a capitalist society and any show not on PBS revolves around profit.

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