TV Preview: Hank Stuever on Bravo's Reality Series 'Flipping Out'

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In some ways you have to love the recession. It's conveniently reduced the number of "destination" weddings you'd have to attend, and greatly pared down the number of people who earn a living as "life coaches." What it's destroyed in equity, it's built in character.

For instance, the recession has made Jeff Lewis, a bossy and seemingly unlovable flipper of high-end Los Angeles properties, a little more human. The star of the reality series "Flipping Out" (returning Tuesday night on Bravo), Lewis is just one of America's many home-improvement experts to hit the economic wall.

"It's been really rough," the 39-year-old Lewis tells the camera right away in the third-season opener. The flipping part of "Flipping Out" has ground to a halt, but the mania ensues. The sort of houses Lewis likes to flip -- neglected modern manses clinging to the dried-out hills above L.A. -- can be snatched up for under $1 million. "But who has access to that kind of cash?" he asks. "I don't know, I'm just kind of trying to figure it out."

Who isn't? I keep wondering when the heads of Bravo, HGTV, TLC, A&E, the Style Network and others will be compelled to appear before a House subcommittee and account for their role in the magical thinking that led to the American real estate bust. At best, we were literally watching paint dry. At worst, the house-flipping shows were egregious lures into random acts of grubby deceit. But "Flipping Out" is an exception and, I think, Bravo's best foray into lifestyle voyeurism.

Only a year ago, Lewis was still juggling several high-end renovation projects at once, screaming at his long-suffering contractors and assistants, the most suffering of which is Jenni Pulos, his squeaky-cute aide-de-camp. (All other suffering is heaped on Zoila Chavez, who is Lewis's maid, surrogate mother and verbal chew toy.)

For many viewers, Lewis is something of a passive-aggressive hero -- mostly aggressive. With his collagen lips, extreme ego and rigid obsessiveness, he is one of the more complicated and perhaps least understood characters on reality television, which is saying something. In better times, he called in expensive psychics to exorcise troublesome properties. He fired and hired people at whim and screamed at clients.

He knows he's cruel, but in his world he must be cruel to be kind. Early in Season 1, Lewis's fastidiousness hit a low point when he commanded an assistant to bring him a beverage of "ideally, 70 percent lemonade, 20 percent punch, 10 percent Sprite. If they don't have fruit punch . . . 85 percent lemonade and 15 percent Sprite. If they don't have lemonade, do 85 percent punch and 15 percent Sprite. Or 7 Up."

Beyond beverages, he is never satisfied with the work of his underlings, hypercritical to a fault and given to steely moods. His decorating aesthetic is strictly out of that gayish, dark-wood, flat-screen, overpriced-condo, Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams sterility that defined the past decade and drove up so much of the real estate market for everyone, from toniest L.A. to downtown Omaha.

That all hasn't changed, but it turns out he's more interesting to watch in the economic nadir. He always tells it like it is, mostly about others, and also about himself, and now about the credit crisis.

We find Lewis forlornly living in the $1.7 million property, "Valley Oak," that so vexed him during its renovation last season. He now hires himself out as a design consultant, his empire reduced to Pulos and Chavez and making sure the part-time help has organized his food pantry properly. Weep not: Lewis is paid to appear in "Flipping Out" -- "It's definitely worth my time," he said in a conference call with reporters last week -- and he ain't exactly Norma Desmond yet.

In Tuesday's episode, while driving in his luxury SUV (where all the good Jeff Lewis drama happens), he is incensed at poor Pulos for giving the wrong instructions to yet another hapless contractor. But he can't drive and yell at them both. While barking at the contractor by cellphone, he glowers at Pulos in the passenger seat and hisses: "You get ready. You just get ready." Then he hangs up and lets her have it.

It takes a certain coldness to find entertainment value in what so often seems to be an abusive relationship between employer and employee. But do consider it. With less drywall installation and more of these kinds of meltdowns, this season of "Flipping Out" provides some of the cathartic outlet that the American mortgage payer so badly needs.

Flipping Out (one hour) airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Bravo.

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