The war on clutter continues. In previous reality-TV skirmishes with America’s junk-filled closets and overstuffed garages, shows about clear-cut cleaning tried to sass and snark people into a state of tidiness. Before she found her way as an actress, Niecy Nash came to people’s homes a decade ago on the former Style network’s “Clean House” and decried their “foolishness” before unleashing a trio of helpers to pare down the mess and redecorate rooms to minimalist perfection.
Viewers later became transfixed by the tragedies seen on A&E’s “Hoarders,” a tough-love approach to a form of mental illness, in which troubled homeowners and renters living amid unsafe piles of belongings and filth were forced to part with however much of it would return them to a semblance of sanity — or appease the enforcers of some local ordinance who had declared their homes uninhabitable. Despite its sincere intentions, “Hoarders” (which last aired in 2017) was a sad and occasionally intrusive wallow. It allowed us to cloak our morbid curiosity in safe-distance empathy.
Now it’s Marie Kondo to the rescue in Netflix’s happily engaging new reality series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” (available for streaming Tuesday). The show isn’t all that revelatory, but it certainly qualifies as a fine New Year’s Day binge for people who intend to drag the Christmas tree to the curb sometime before Easter.
If you haven’t heard of Kondo, a successful Japanese home organizer, then you’ve probably been buried under a mound of still-tagged bargains from T.J. Maxx and Kohl’s.
The rest of us already know (and perhaps adhere to) the principles detailed in Kondo’s international bestseller, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which advocates a five-step “KonMari” approach to evaluating one’s belongings on an emotional level. If an object does not “spark joy” (in Kondo’s terms), it probably needs to go.
“Tidying Up” puts Kondo’s methods to the test in eight different Los Angeles-area homes, starting with that of Kevin and Rachel, whose situation seems most common: Two married adults with busy careers and two small children, not enough space and not enough time or energy left at the end of the day to stay ahead of the stuff they own.
Kondo, who is in her early 30s and also has two young children, arrives at her clients’ houses (accompanied by her translator, Marie Iida) full of squeaky, irresistibly cute enthusiasm, greeting their engorged closets and chaotic junk drawers with giddy discovery. “I love mess,” she declares.
Unlike her TV predecessors, Kondo brings a calming influence to the surroundings — even asking the owners if she may take a moment to kneel in a particular spot and silently greet their homes.
Sometimes she asks the homeowners to join in and offer unspoken thanks to their home for the shelter it has thus far provided.
This is a noble and overdue concept for the home makeover and real estate genre — a chance to express gratitude for any home, rather than the perfect home. Years of HGTV’s programming have placed homeowners and home-seekers on a narcissistic pedestal of entitled complaint (our house is too small, too ugly, too outdated) and criticisms. How many couples, by now, have we seen walk through homes for sale and disparage the countertops, bathroom tiling and size of the backyard?
Where’s the reminder that we should be so lucky as to have lived in a state of acquisition rather than sacrifice?
The gratitude extends to Kondo’s lessons in culling. Once Rachel has dragged a few closets’ worth of her massive, mostly casual wardrobe and piled everything on the bed, per Kondo’s instructions, she is asked to “thank” an item of clothing before discarding it.
It’s a long process, topped off with Kondo’s insistence that the remaining T-shirts, underwear and socks be folded into consistent rectangular shapes that line up in drawers like cute, obedient children.
Herein lies the happiness. You might not run to your dresser to immediately duplicate it, but you’ll at least be tempted.
Kondo’s journey continues to other families and couples facing various anxieties about their mess. Margie, recently widowed, confronts a closet full of her late husband’s clothes. (“Creepy!” her daughter callously declares later, when Margie attempts to show off the hard-won progress of its emptiness.)
A male couple, Frank and Matt, seek Kondo’s help tidying their shared L.A. apartment as a way of asserting their adulthood, especially for family members who still think of them as young slobs.
Clarissa and Mario are expecting their first baby and must reckon with a surfeit of clothes, especially his stacks of collectible sneakers and athletic shoes, many of which he bought with no intention of wearing. And Ron and Wendy, empty-nesters married 42 years, must tackle layers of accumulation, including the dreaded Christmas decorations and decades’ worth of baseball cards.
The vicarious, lookie-loo factor can be appealing on its own. Other viewers may watch to get the inspiration to tackle some of their own closets and drawers. Kondo’s methods make good sense, dividing the work into categories — clothes first, then books, then papers, followed by a catchall category, “komono” (miscellaneous), which includes the kitchen, bathrooms, garage and miscellaneous spots where stuff accumulates.
She saves sentimental objects for last, and it’s here where the owners must really buckle down and assess whether they are keeping something out of a sense of duty or true joy.
To her credit, Kondo is not a makeover artist. She effuses over any form of progress, happy to overlook matters of taste and decor. As such, “Tidying Up” isn’t filled with the sort of visually appealing reveals that viewers expect from other home-improvement shows.
It’s also worth noting that “Tidying Up” is so relentlessly encouraging that it cannot bring itself to feature a failure, such as a homeowner who gives up in the middle of the process, even with the promise of inner peace. It can sometimes feel as if Kondo and her producers settle for small victories without addressing some of the homeowners’ personal issues that still simmer just beneath the surface.
She’s here to tidy up and spark joy, which ultimately includes a bit of glossing-over. The joyless, Judgey McJudgerson stuff is left to viewers like you and me, and Lord knows, we’ve watched enough reality TV to easily pick up that slack.
Tidying Up With Marie Kondo (eight episodes) premieres Tuesday on Netflix.