We’re All “Fixer Uppers”

The growing popularity of HGTV suggests, among other things, that many viewers are drawn to the realities of restoration and redemption

Home and Garden Television (HGTV) is a guilty pleasure for many of us, an escape for those who need a respite from watching non-stop coverage of the news on cable television. Home improvement shows such as Property Brothers, Rehab Addict, and Fixer Upper provide a kind of refuge—a haven from the relentless news coverage of conflicts, horrors, and scandals.

It is clear that HGTV is more popular than ever. Last year, the Home and Garden Television network added more than 39,000 viewers ages 25 to 54, bringing its average audience to 532,000 viewers in the key demographic. According to Nielsen, HGTV has one of the most affluent viewerships in extended cable, regularly dominating what is referred to as ‘upscale’ viewers—those with household incomes over $125,000 (47% of HGTV’s total viewership has an income above $75,000). More than 75% of those viewers are already homeowners.

Overall, HGTV has more than 1.3 million viewers—eclipsing the once-popular Food Network—leading a writer for the New York Post to suggest, “It looks like American viewers would rather learn how to redesign their kitchens than cook in them.” According to Pacific Standard, a media and culture website, HGTV is so watchable because it provides viewers with “attainably realistic ritual re-enactments of the American Dream every half-hour…HGTV is selling a capitalist fantasia that would be severely complicated, even frequently unspooled if it were to be extended past the space of the episode…HGTV is not interested in progress, only process.”

While it may be true that HGTV shows can be viewed as celebrations of consumerism, or as distorted reminders of the pre-housing bubble days when we looked at home ownership as an investment, in some ways HGTV is more than an escape. For some viewers—especially those of us who appreciate redemption stories—HGTV can be viewed as a reminder that no matter how hopeless things appear, or how bad things seem, they can and do get better.

For example, Fixer Upper’s Chip and Joanna Gaines take what they call “the worst house on the block” in Waco, Texas and make it beautiful. Tearing down walls, revealing the beauty of the shiplap underneath, Joanna discovers beauty underneath the ugliness. Rehab Addict’s Nicole Curtis buys broken, dilapidated old houses in Detroit auctions—houses that have been unloved or poorly taken care of—and she makes them spectacular. She restores them from the inside out—addressing the brokenness first by removing the moldy walls, the filthy carpeting, and the layers of lead paint on the wood trim. Choosing to restore rather than remove old windows and ornate moldings, Curtis appreciates the old houses for what they are, revealing the beauty trapped inside.

Each episode presents a property “challenge”—a serious problem with the house that has been purchased. Sometimes the problems seem insurmountable: asbestos, lead paint, drainage problems, or unstable foundation. The Property Brothers often warn new homeowners that they won’t know “how bad” the problem is until they “open up the walls,” so viewers are engaged in the process of problem identification. But viewers also get to participate in seeing the solutions, sympathizing with the homeowners who are sometimes overwhelmed with the burden of unforeseen expenditures.

Occasionally, trade-offs have to be made. Financial constraints might intrude—the homeowner won’t be able to renovate that second bathroom or master suite because she has to spend her budgeted funds to shore up the foundation first. Few buyers on HGTV have unlimited funds—and this is part of the appeal because we are reminded in every episode that we cannot always get what we want—and so the open concept kitchen/family room with the subway tile backsplash will have to wait until the house is made sound again.

In a certain way, these shows touch on a sense of redemption, of being “bought back” and restored; they remind us that we are all fixer-uppers. We are all broken and in need of renovation from the inside out by a Carpenter willing to address the rot, mold, and cracked foundations in our lives. As Christians, we know that none of us are beyond repair—God is not “finished” with any of us. Each of us is a “work in progress.” But, these shows, in their own small way, give us hope that anything—and by God’s grace, anyone—can be restored and renovated: “Restore us to thyself, O Lord, that we may be restored! Renew our days as of old!” (Lam 5:21).


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About Anne Hendershott 95 Articles
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is the co-author of Renewal: How a New Generation of Priests and Bishops are Revitalizing the Church (Encounter Books).