Every day, and more frequently on weekends, Dorito chip suspended midway between bag and mouth, some 5 million people watch "Trading Spaces," a hit cable television home-improvement show. It's the one where friendly neighbors swap houses and redecorate a room in two days, each with a $1,000 budget and the gently dictatorial help of a professional interior designer. They reveal the results to one another at the show's climax, with reactions of shock, or glee, or weeping, or the clenched and polite grimaces of barely suppressed disgust.
Not very deep down, "Trading Spaces" is about human insecurity.
The idea here is that your house might not look as good as someone else's -- which is to say your life, your marriage, your whatever might be inferior. Even early man lamented the way his cave looked, coveted the etchings in Dak's cave. Trudging back from the Ikea of his day, he slipped on the cusp of a glacier and turned up five millennia later, frozen solid, looking depressed. "Trading Spaces" is about that longing within. Comparison, envy, the conflicts around matters of taste.
The show, in attempting to assist us in simple room makeovers, transmits covert information on the real biggies: friendship, fidelity, change, window treatments. It vicariously examines the letdowns and joys contained within the American dream. It shows what happens if you let someone else decorate your world.
It shows that sometimes people have to take a stand on who they really are, whoever that is.
Like these two nice women, both of whom are named Angie.
One of the Angies will soon go down in the footnotes of cable TV history as the woman who refused to let Hildi Santo-Tomas -- a strong-willed, Prada-sandaled designer from Atlanta -- dye the other Angie's beige bedroom carpet a bright, highway-cone shade of orange.
She would lay down her life before she would let that happen.
"This is Plano, Texas," she will plead, while the camera rolls in the kitchen and Santo-Tomas begins mixing the dye. It is a narrative arc so striking that the producer asks to film it twice, an apparent convention of making reality television. "People here are conservative," Angie continues. "We cannot dye her carpet orange. No."
The other Angie, meanwhile, is being just as good a friend:
"Her house is not country," she objects to Douglas Wilson, a New York-based interior designer with leading-man blue eyes. Wilson has just laid out his plans to turn the absent Angie's game room into something that looks like the inside of a pretty, moss-green barn.
"Look around," Wilson tells this Angie. "You tell me this house isn't country."
"It isn't country," Angie says.
Angie lives across the street from Angie.
One Angie and her husband moved in about a year after the other Angie and her husband did.
The couples were some of the first homeowners on Shady Valley Road, set in a sea of houses and subdivisions stretching to the horizon, all across a county north of Dallas where the average home size is 3,787 square feet, and the population has quadrupled since 1980 to a half-million people.
There is neither shade nor a valley associated with Shady Valley Road. Angie and Angie get the joke about that: They make gentle cracks about "Plano princesses," the gossipy housewives tooling around in their sport-utes. They see the wry symbolism in the pitiful little trees tethered to their lawns, trying to grow.
Once in a while, an Angie admits, there is the occasional flash of awareness that the exteriors of life here are governed by certain conventions (every yard has a tree, or should; these drapes go with these pillows), and the interiors are mostly secret. "It's weird here. You want to tell people to get over themselves sometimes," she says. "But it's nice, too."
The Angies became good friends. They both have blond hair cut in sporty, teased 'dos. They helped decorate one another's houses, adhering to a post-country country, upper-middle-class style. Their vaulted, tiled entryways are painted in warm tones. (The "lawyer foyer" is Plano's dominant architectural feature.) They bought the thick furniture and overstuffed sofas you see in popular catalogues. They added big candles, and "tried some different things," such as the plastic fruit and ivy stuck to the distressed-patina mirror frames. They did all the kids' rooms in themes -- in one, they spelled out the lyrics to "Deep in the Heart of Texas" in cursive lariat rope along the walls.
Still, a faint dissatisfaction lingers.
The second Angie had her husband repaint their master bedroom three times in four years. They spent $5,000 on bedroom furniture and have sumptuous white linens on a new king-size bed. But . . . Angie just doesn't know, something's "blah" about it. Even the sage green paint seems "a little too much of the same, like everybody else's house," she says.
The first Angie is unhappy with her family's game room, which is cluttered with toys, an old futon couch, two worn-out chairs, an ottoman, an entertainment stand.
The Angies and their husbands were deemed, by a "Trading Spaces" scout who interviewed them, to be good candidates for the show. They live in that recognizably untrendy, commonly well-off universe. There was room on their street to park the "Trading Spaces" truck. It would be possible for the "Trading Spaces" crew to come and preach the gospel of the bargain makeover, the steady steamrolling of higher design onto the misguided innocence of the rest of us.
Most important, the Angies are eager and willing. Willing to let the world look inside their houses, pass judgment, and decide not only whether the rooms (before and after) are pretty and functional but also whether the people are.
This is how television came for a couple days to Shady Valley Road, where one Angie is married to a man named John. The other Angie is married to a man named Jeff.
Angie and John Doyen. (Three kids under 6, plus a 12-year-old son from John's first marriage.) John works in database sales.
Angie and Jeff Rexford. (Twin boys, age 4, plus a new baby.) Jeff works in medical supply sales.
Sometimes the Angies, both stay-at-home moms, leave the kids with the husbands and go see a weekend matinee. Some nights the Angies take the kids and their husbands go over to a neighbor's house, long after the rest of the world has gone to bed, and . . .
"It'll sound kind of odd," John says.
"It's really fun," he hesitates.
Tell us your secret.
"We play Risk."
A Matter of Taste "Trading Spaces" airs on TLC, which specializes in real-life shows that follow first dates, weddings, emergency room traumas. Formerly known as The Learning Channel, the network has ditched or rescheduled most of its science shows, billing itself now as "Life Unscripted." Though there are two programs about childbirth, forceps and all, it is the home improvement show that gives the purest glimpse into the private world of suburban married life.
"I keep waiting for 'Trading Spouses,' " one camera guy jokes, noting the deeply subtextual, entirely symbolic metaphor of the show. "Trading Spaces" is a peek over the marital fence, suggesting that, if all else fails, let's switch. "Trading Spaces" confirms that real estate is the new sex. It's Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and Medium-Density Fiberboard.
Like many devotees, the Angies have spent hours deconstructing each episode of "Trading Spaces" -- the painting over of heirloom furniture, the gluing of hay to the walls, sawing legs off coffee tables. There was the time Genevieve Gorder (one of the six rotating designers) used real moss. There was Hildi Santo-Tomas's gridded "orthogonal" navy and white paint job in a basement. And the chocolate-colored walls and white fireplace wainscoting by Douglas Wilson that made a woman named Pam cry.
"Oh, she is not happy," her worried husband remarked, in that now-legendary episode taped last fall in Puyallup, Wash., a Tacoma suburb. The wife excused herself to go wail in another room. Her microphone was still on, however, and America will not soon forget the exact pitch of her sobs.
It is generally accepted that the Puyallup episode perfectly sums up all the ecstasy and dread of "Trading Spaces." Pam -- amply sized, happily outdated, stubbornly unadventurous -- mourns the loss of her saggy floral sofas and the dull brick of her fireplace.
Her husband -- doing as he's told, generally clueless -- looks like he wants to flee. What made them recoil in horror seemed to be this: The room strongly suggested a New York kind of modernism. Clean, elegant, dark.
Here you had a familiar and delicious culture clash on the deepest level, like the 2000 election map showing a divided, red-and-blue America. Sophistication vs. lowbrow. (Fat vs. thin? Gayness vs. straightness? City vs. suburb?) "This is going to have to come down," Pam's husband pronounced.
Having seen all this and more, the Angies braced themselves.
"We knew," says Angie Rexford, "that if we were going to do 'Trading Spaces' we couldn't do it halfway and get all freaked out at new ideas. We couldn't tell them what not to do. We agreed to let them come in here and do it. Because let's face it: If we knew what to do with these rooms, we would have done it already."
That is the most important cultural contribution of "Trading Spaces" since it was adapted 18 months ago from a British series ("Changing Rooms") and took on that show's willingness to expose the middle-class train wreck: House by house, city by city, it is slowly being suggested to America that it doesn't know what to do with its rooms.
Death to Ceiling Fans The designers who rotate starring roles on "Trading Spaces" all come from an aesthetic doctrine that deplores the clutter of everyday life. (One exception is the more folksy, artsy-craftsy Frank Bielec -- an effete grandfatherly type who leans toward bright colors and painting animals on the wall.)
"Trading Spaces" is a slow, steady assault on faux-country, gingham-and-basket charm. It's the end of glass-and-chrome dining sets; the designers would sooner fashion something out of particle board and plumbing before consenting to convention. There is an ongoing purge of poorly assembled entertainment centers and computer desks.
In the "before" shots, we see bonnet-wearing ducks and bric-a-brac arranged on Victorian dining-room hutches; we see ceiling fans whirring lopsidedly like boozy drunks. (Ceiling fans are almost always the first thing to go in a "Trading Spaces" makeover, as if they were pestilence.)
We see grimy Formica countertops that simply must go; we see favorite La-Z-Boys doomed for Goodwill; we see bedrooms occupied by sagging TV armoires and ignored exercycles.
We see ourselves.
Reality's Helping Hands On a chilly Thursday afternoon in late March, the "Trading Spaces" truck parks in the alley behind Shady Valley Road and the crew starts unloading for a two-day shoot of Episode 41, where the Rexfords will redo the Doyens' game room with Douglas Wilson and the Doyens will redo the Rexfords' master bedroom with Hildi Santo-Tomas.
Paige Davis, an actress who serves as the show's hyperkinetically gamin host, will flit between houses, prodding the homeowners to meet deadline and stay under the $1,000 budget.
The show's other mainstay -- and in many ways most popular character -- is Ty Pennington, an Atlanta-based carpenter who looks like he's just finished skateboarding the halfpipe. (Pennington alternates episodes with Amy Wynn Pastor, who in contrast to his fumble-fingered antics lends her episodes a Habitat for Humanity vibe, a kind of table-saw Zen.)
Pennington sets up shop under a tent in the driveway, and to viewers his sole responsibility appears to be bringing the designer's furnishing visions to reality. He builds headboards and beds, end tables, countertops, sectional sofas, fireplace mantels.
Off-camera, however, it's soon clear that the homeowners, designers and carpenter cannot, by themselves, pull off a redecorating project in just two days. Coming to their aid is Eddie Barnard, the show's quiet and unassuming prop manager. Known as "Fast Eddie," he quickly pounds together medium-density fiberboard, or MDF, into nicely detailed armoires and shelves. ("Trading Spaces" could be an ode to the cheap and durable glory of MDF; thus Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse is a key sponsor.)
Another secret weapon sets up shop across the street, in the other homeowner's garage, plugging in irons and two sewing machines. Although the crew will film the designers and homeowners doing some of the sewing, it is Daniel Hawks -- a chain-smoking Knoxville seamster with pink nail polish and a CD player blasting techno -- who stitches together a flurry of drapes, slipcovers and pillows.
A "Trading Spaces" shoot requires a crew of 15, with an operating budget of about $30,000 per episode. No one escapes the work of redecorating: From production assistants to producers, everyone helps paint (and sand, stain, saw, staple, move furniture, hold ladders), none of which is shown on television.
"It's just the reality of the reality," executive producer Denise Cramsey explains, having just sanded and primed a child's table and chairs that will go in the Doyens' game room. "Because of the time and energy we spend getting the different shots ready, it's basically an acknowledgment that this is the only way we can make up the lost time. We're helping the homeowners because we're always in their way."
There is an absurdity to it: a husband and wife in their neighbor's empty bedroom, painting, in a moment of supposed privacy, under three bright video lights, with a camera guy, a sound guy, a grip, two production assistants, a producer, the executive producer, a publicist and a reporter all in the same room, watching, just out of the frame of reality.
The Look of Nowhere The show's designers, accustomed to working for picky clients (who, says Santo-Tomas, "will spend a thousand dollars just on a lampshade"), have to think of low-cost approaches to innovation. The trade-off for them, Santo-Tomas says, is the chance to show the audience "that there is no need to fear something new. You can do these designs. You, yourself, in your home."
She admits she'd rather not work entirely with MDF, or the vases she unearths at Cost Plus, or the pillows sewn from the sale bins at Jo-Ann Fabrics. But she enjoys the power of suggestion in a $1,000 budget, laid out here on the everyday turf of the great masses.
In Seattle, she spray-painted two old love seats hot pink, "and it would have worked, too," she emphasizes, if the crew and homeowners hadn't left the couches outdoors in the rain. Santo-Tomas declared victory anyway: Spray-painting sofas is now within the realm of possibility. ("They were ugly already," she says.)
Santo-Tomas, 41, is driving her rented Jaguar around Plano on the evening before the house-swapping, slamming on the brakes when she sees a Pier 1 in a strip mall.
Wilson is following in his rented minivan. The two have already blown into an enormous Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse like mildly panicked tornadoes, announcing to the paint lady the exact colors they'll need (the paint lady seems unaware of the celebrities in her midst). Then they coast over to the lumber department, where they bicker with Ty Pennington about measurements and costs.
Now they are back on the rush-hour suburban boulevards, looking for, in no particular order, a fabric store, a Bed Bath & Beyond, a T.J. Maxx and some decent sushi. Customers in stores recognize them, whisper. A cashier in Target pleads: "Will y'all come do my house? It needs somethin.' "
It's as if they've been here a hundred times. There is an intuitive landscape to the Geography of Nowhere: A Target always indicates the presence of a T.J. Maxx nearby; the Pier 1 means you're closer to a mall. This homogeneous world creeps out Santo-Tomas but also inspires her.
When she looked at Angie and Jeff's bedroom, she says, pushing a wobbly-wheeled shopping cart through Target, "I said, 'Why are we here?' This room is done, more or less. These houses are all alike. The walls are painted, they have their furniture, it looks, you know, like how they would want it to look.
"But see," she goes on, answering her own question, "that's just it: A room like this, you have to really think of something new. I am going to do something, that, okay, they might not like. I'm going to completely change it." She's going for something like a boutique hotel room. It will be all white, except for the bottom 12 inches of the wall and the floor, which will be orange.
In the Target parking lot, Santo-Tomas and Wilson argue over whether to make a return trip to Lowe's or to Cost Plus World Market, with minutes before each closes. They zoom off in different directions.
Wilson, who is 37, navigates his way across the suburban grid and considers his options for the game room and settles in with a last-minute "barn" concept: green walls, faux rafters, corduroy. He thinks of what the futon frame would look like if he took it apart and rebuilt it.
It was Wilson who designed the room that made Puyallup Pam cry. "Once it's over, we're still there," Wilson says. "It's not like I was already on a plane, trying to get away."
Did he apologize?
"I liked the room. I thought it worked. So many people thought it worked. I didn't apologize," he says carefully. "I said, 'I'm sorry it disappoints you.' "
Later, lost among the starter mansions of Texas, he talks about his own apartment, on Manhattan's Upper West Side -- all 500 rent-controlled square feet of it, the bare-bulb fixtures, the spartan furnishings, the lack of color. He hasn't had time to decorate.
Revelations The crew is setting up to interview Angie and John Doyen and Angie and Jeff Rexford in an early establishing scene in the Doyens' living room, in which the couples will sit -- the men with glasses of beer -- and chitchat about their lives.
"We need to shut that door to the bathroom in the hallway," the camera guy says, looking up from his viewfinder. "Because, as we well know, on television there is no such thing as toilets."
The two days of shooting "Episode 41: Shady Valley Road" unfold with the simultaneous pressures of redecorating the rooms in each house, keeping the progress secret from each set of owners, and making television.
For every lighthearted, hammy moment on camera, there is a tense moment off camera between crew members and the designers. Each element of the room must be explained to viewers, then executed. The crew and homeowners spend an hour working to set up a shot where a piece of wood is sawed; at the same time there is the fact that the wood is part of a deadline project.
"Trading Spaces" groupies have begun turning up at each location. On a recent shoot, a woman appeared in a wedding dress and asked Ty Pennington to marry her. A teenager burst into tears when she spied Paige Davis crossing Shady Valley Road. Plano princesses cruised by in their cars, pointing and waving. Neighbors hitherto unknown to the Doyens and Rexfords now loitered in the alley and adjoining yards, trying to sneak a peek at the houses, which are cordoned off with yellow caution tape.
Angie and Angie, separated now and spending 36 hours in one another's houses, seem to be communicating telepathically. This is an interesting thread in each "Trading Spaces," the way the wives (best friends, usually) look out for one another's taste, and in so doing represent all of America against the designer-sophisticates.
Angie Rexford is defending Angie Doyen on the "barn room's" country look, relaxing only when she talks Doug Wilson into changing fabrics one more time. Angie Doyen stands firm against Hildi Santo-Tomas's orange carpet dye.
As the second day lumbers to a close, the crew readies the climax. It is here where "Trading Spaces" betrays reality most, insisting that life is but a series of befores and afters, instead of all that intermediate gray. The show's splashes of color and innovation stand in sharp contrast to the dullness of all the other rooms.
Which, in their dullness, scream "real life."
Which, it turns out, feels lived in.
The "Trading Spaces" "reveal" someday may be viewed as an artifact of an age where real estate and domicile took precedence over the content of our lives; when experimentation met the rigidity of the suburban existence, and cracked a laminate of faux intimacy.
In the Rexfords' house, perky Paige is slowly leading Angie and Jeff up the stairs for their reveal. They have their eyes closed. Most of the crew is crammed into one of the children's bedrooms, lights out, not making a sound. Hildi Santo-Thomas, bags packed, smelling of expensive perfume, who claims not to care too deeply if the homeowners are pleased with her designs or not, nervously watches on a small TV monitor.
The couple are led blindly into their bedroom.
It is all white, except where it is bright orange. Long white drapes with an orange border descend from the vaulted ceiling. Candles flicker on the nightstand; all $5,000 of their bedroom furniture has been polyurethaned. There are bright orange rose petals (a last-minute Hildi touch) scattered over the undyed carpet.
"Okay, Angie and Jeff," Davis giddily commands them. "Open your eyes -- "
Epilogue Things worked out okay, both Angies report, a week after the crew has gone. The Doyens loved their moss-green-barn-rafters game room. (John enthusiastically ranked the TV taping as one of the greatest things that ever happened to him.) Angie and Jeff Rexford tentatively and politely appreciated the direction taken in their master bedroom.
Angie thinks she'll redo the bedroom, keeping the white and changing the orange baseboards, curtain hems, bed and ottoman to "something else, maybe a mocha kind of brown?" The Rexfords are thinking of resale value, motion, upwardly mobile restlessness: "We'll probably move to another house in a couple years," she says. (The ceiling fan is going back, too, she says. "Hello? Texas in summer?")
Curious neighbors have been dropping by; the rooms have taken on celebrity status. "I started telling people to all come by at the same time for a showing. I don't have time to deal with them all. I don't want all these strangers in my house," Angie Doyen says. Except for the millions who will see her house on TV next month and will go on seeing it in rerun perpetuity.
Angie Rexford notes that one of her twins already threw up on the carpet in the bedroom, a peach-colored barf of fruit juice that left a stain.
"The ghost of Hildi," the other Angie remarks. "She got that carpet orange after all."
Trading Spaces: Episode 41 -- Shady Valley Road is scheduled to air May 8 at 4 p.m. on TLC.