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The Extreme Reality Makeover Show

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Symbolic to our era like a sledgehammer to drywall, the biggest house that ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" ever made over -- a sprawling, four-bedroom starter castle, a three-car garage mahal with a turret and all -- has gone into foreclosure, in the 'burbs south of Atlanta.

In that particular episode of the hyper-benevolent reality show, which first aired in February 2005, it took 1,800 volunteers a week to demolish the house with the overflowing septic tank that belonged to Milton and Patricia Harper of Lake City, Ga., and then entirely rebuild a new, larger house, while the Harpers and their three children went away to Disneyland. When they returned, they had the biggest house on Ahyoka Drive, with all the appliances and furnishings, plus enough money to pay taxes on it for decades, plus a fund to send their children to college.

The house will be auctioned off, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, next Tuesday on the steps of the Clayton County Courthouse.

The Harpers had used their home as collateral on a $450,000 loan from JPMorgan Chase and fell in arrears, the newspaper reported. He ran a home security business; she mommed at home. Happy to be on television back then, they declined to be interviewed last week, when a news crew showed up from local station WSB, wanting to know wha'ppen.

The mayor of Lake City, Willie Oswalt, who said he'd helped lift a beam into place in the Harpers living room, told the press that "it's aggravating. It just makes you mad. You do that much work, and they just squander it."

You could (and will) say the Harpers had it coming, but really, we all had this coming. One thing we'll always remember about this decade was the constant home do-over fetish, in real life and in the reality of reality TV -- the constant warping of the consumer's sense of entitlement, the fairy-dust economics, the MasterCard reminder that the experience is priceless. We'll look back and think of all the time we spent watching shows where people flipped houses for easy profit, or traded spaces, or designed it to sell, or were led into rooms blindfolded to experience the paroxysms that came with new paint, new furniture, new life.

All the crying people did for the camera: They cried when television's magic wand touched them, and the hosts always cried, too, while telling the camera how good they felt making the dreams of the sick and wretched owners of substandard tract houses come true. Think of the many tears that were shed on American television over organized closets and new kitchen countertops.

Now comes a long period of tsk-tsk, and tut-tut. The schadenfreude potential is everywhere now in these newly sobered times, and it would be something if the Harpers would make themselves available for an entirely other kind of documented extreme makeover, penny by penny.

Every day, we are greeted with fresh evidence of the great American fire sale. If it was wrong to think the economy could go on forever subsisting on money that no one actually had, then it was wrong to think there was something wonderful about watching shows where people got houses for nothing, and then expect them to live happily ever after. Last week, the new numbers came out: Foreclosures were filed against some 740,000 U.S. homes between March and June alone.

There should be shows on every cable channel about that, hosted by people who don't cry, and who don't have megaphones and plastered-on smiles.

These shows should air only on analog television, after Feb. 17, 2009. A certain kind of television viewer wouldn't mind watching some more of this, please, if certain kinds of television producers are listening.

It's hard to explain, comeuppance. But surely it's as fascinating as installing laminate-wood floors.

Bring on Extreme Failure.

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