Allow me to discourse about my guilty pleasure for a few moments. It is the long-running HGTV "reality" series, House Hunters, in which home-buyers look for houses—generally, they look at three, as fitting their standards for budget, "must-haves," and general attractiveness. At the end of each episode, they buy one. In the 30 minutes of the show, you get a little insight into the business of home-buying and how totally dysfunctional human relationships can be, as well as a glimpse into the housing expectations across this fine nation. Favorite phrase from House Hunters: "This master bedroom is small" (as participant surveys football-field-sized bedroom). "I don't think we could fit our furniture in here." Also: "I was really hoping for 2 full baths and a half bath and a new kitchen and a finished basement." Also, when the male portion of a couple surveys their enormous walk-in closet to be: "This one's hers!" (Chortle, wink-wink); and when the female portion surveys it: "I think I can fit my shoes in here!" (Giggle, wink-wink).
Back in the early days of the show, affable narrator and hostess Suzanne Whang (pictured above) would walk around with wannabe home-buyers, checking out which of the housing options were right for them. In the VERY early days there would be some fun Housing 101-type tutorials, sit-downs with the buyers and their realtors and banks, the sort of thing you'd imagine you'd see if you had, perhaps, only recently moved to the U.S. from a far-away land and were trying to immerse yourself in American culture so had borrowed an instructional video about buying a home to help you out. The people in those episodes were not naturals, and often the dialogue was stilted, but it was enjoyable because of the amateur quality. Quickly, producers realized that audiences were more savvy, however, and that dorky documentary stuff from real life got ditched for better bells and whistles. This is what happens when shows get popular. They get more produced.
Eventually, Whang was gone and things were glossier and more refined, with a voice-over narration from Colette Whitaker and then Andromeda Dunker. But the effect was largely the same; after all, the show's on HGTV, how fancy could it get? It remained soothingly predictable. Peacefully suburban, though occasionally, city dwellings were featured, too. It could be counted on as a glimpse into an Americana that, living in the big city at least, I imagined as an other reality, a parallel universe in which I might have lived and spent $100,000 on a 3-bedroom, 2-bath with a carport and a yard.
There were, of course, the spin-offs—themed episodes based on a geographical region, and House Hunters International, for instance, which some claim to love—but I prefer to stick with the original. It's a kind of home-focused Law and Order, with no crime, of course, other than the crime of buying something beyond your means or ugly. The formula and format is always the same, the ring of the doorbell after each commercial break, the jazzy intro, the end scene where the couple has moved into their dream spot, the look at what they've done to it, the friends coming in to visit and pick up tiny squares of cheese set on crackers and pronounce: "You're a home-owner now!" The couple or single person who's bought is always ecstatic, just ecstatic—"Best decision we/I ever made!"—even if you can read between the lines that they're just barely holding it together, or that they hate each others' guts at this point. As with any good reality show, there is schadenfreude at work, in oft subtle ways.
Yet for all that is obviously good, fairly regularly people hope to destroy my adoration of this show with the information that it is not real. It's, maybe, totally fake! Back in 2010, for example, the Hooked on Houses blog posted the following:
For quicker turn-around, producers sometimes choose buyers who are already in escrow with one of the three locations shown. The other two choices that are filmed, are only shown to allow viewers the option of making the choice themselves.
Oh, shock and horror! The thing is, the show itself had gone public with that info already, and this "lie" had been written about as far back as 2008. Now, there are even more damning revelations in the "House Hunters Lied" series. Jezebel's Cassie Murdoch writes, "There is now seriously concrete proof that it is nothing but smoke-colored paint and outdated mirrors." Hooked on Houses offers firsthand testimony from a woman named Bobi Jensen, who, writes the AV Club's Sean O'Neal, described "how the show faked every single aspect of their story, drafting them to appear only after they'd already closed on a new house, forcing them through multiple takes of fake conversations, and—in one of the most revealing instances of how much the show can often be completely staged—taking them to houses that 'weren’t even for sale…they were just our two friends’ houses who were nice enough to madly clean for days in preparation for the cameras.'"
Further, the producers played with the storyline on the reason for the house-buying itself. Explains Jensen, "The producers said they found our (true) story–that we were getting a bigger house and turning our other one into a rental–boring and overdone. So instead they just wanted to emphasize how our home was too small and we needed a bigger one desperately. It wasn’t true, but it was a smaller house than the one we bought so I went with it."
Again: Shock and horror! Producers made something more interesting!? Producers made real people do things over, or fake them, for TV!? The nerve. Except, how is this different than any scripted reality show or, you know, plotted television shows in general? Are we really mad that the people on The Bachelor may not be there, actually, to find true love? Are we pissed to find out that a Tough Love contestant ostensibly there to find out what she was doing wrong in relationships was actually married? Or that in Top Chef, there were re-takes, or Tom Colicchio may have exaggerated how good or dreadful the food actually tasted? No! This all makes for better TV. It's 2012 and the fact is, we're in a post-reality TV world now, in which we are smart enough to know that "reality" is not the same thing as truth with regard to our entertainment. If you're watching for entertainment, you probably shouldn't care about that word at all. Alternatively, if you're watching for real actual things that have been verified as completely truthful and legit, maybe you shouldn't be watching TV. Try reading the Internet instead.
The whole point of House Hunters is to get to look inside someone else's potential home and finances, to gauge the quality of another's existence as compared to our own and live vicariously through a home-purchaser for 30 minutes. And then to have it all wrapped up nicely and handed to us at the end of 30 minutes. Who cares if it's real or not; if our lucky couple didn't pick a house and appear to move in at the end, the show would not be worth the cost of our monthly cable bill. Fortunately, it is. Oh, so worth it.
Update: House Hunters International is fake, too! Ahem—"scripted reality." So what?