I don’t watch House Hunters a lot. But when I watch House Hunters, I watch a lot of House Hunters. Get me in the right bored moment, a holiday weekend, an aimless evening with nothing compelling on the DVR, and if I flip on HGTV I’ll watch 3 or 4 in a row. (Maybe more. OK, many more.)
It’s partly the diabolically clever way HGTV airs the shows—a new episode begins, with no commercial break, the instant the previous one stops, and I feel myself getting sucked deeper and deeper. But mainly, as a mild-grade real-estate obsessive, I find it irresistible, the chance to watch and second-guess all those nervous couples looking sadly at big blank sheetrocked rooms and wondering where they’ll fit the three-handled family gredunza and where the “man cave” will go.
You can tell so much about people by the way they shop for a house—or at least you can pretend to guess about them: their level of imagination, their idealized lives (sure you’ll have garden parties every weekend!), their worries about the future, their compatibility. The house? It’s merely a stage, a metaphor for a relationship. That guest bedroom will never be big enough to hold all your emotional baggage, pal.
If you watch the show for even an episode or two, you start to wonder how real it all can be: How do they manage to find three available houses for each decision, in presumably a tight production time? What if the buyers don’t manage to buy anything? So I can’t say I was scandalized to hear the latest report of HH producers pulling strings behind the scenes of the show, though I was agog at the details.
According to the blog Hooked on Houses, a former Texas participant in the show, Bobi, says the producers changed several details of her house hunt. For starters: it wasn’t a house hunt. She and her husband had to buy a house before they were accepted, at which point, they got friends to “lend” the production their own houses, for the couple to visit and pretend to consider. Producers also fiddled with the “narrative” of the house hunt: rather than say, as was the case, that the couple was buying a bigger house to rent out their old one for income, they said that they “needed a bigger one desperately.” Also, because Bobi’s husband was a Realtor at the time, they spiced up the episode with a conflict: Will his wife be his toughest client ever? This report comes on top of similar ones that has been out there for a while—some of which House Hunters producers have openly acknowledged—that the show works with buyers who have already closed on properties, and stages “hunts” for drama.
This is, I suppose, an offense against documentary realism. It is also not really my problem. Yes, I am bothered a little by producers imposing narratives like “They need a bigger house!” on the searches, but mostly because this reinforces a larger, advertiser- and agent-friendly message of HGTV generally: You need a bigger house! You need to upgrade! You need more room to buy more useless crap! But you could just as well apply that same consumerist frame on a totally unmanipulated show.
On the other hand, the “revelation” that HH producers will have the shoppers do five or six different takes of scenes? I do a lot of broadcast interviews in the course of my work, and many is the time that a radio or TV news show—including very well-respected ones that I trust—has asked me to repeatedly answer a question, to get a better phrase or a cleaner, more usable take.
The fact that many house hunters are not, in fact, hunting will make me watch the show not a whit less—and it seems I am not alone. Admittedly, there’s a certain brattiness to my reaction: why are you jerks trying to ruin one of the few pleasures of my sad, pitiful life? But also, I’m not watching House Hunters to learn the raw data about certain real-estate transactions in Texas or West Virginia or Belize, or even to learn the truth of the featured house hunters’ lives. I just want a little window, from my narrow house in Brooklyn, on another kind of life—or, if I get caught in a lengthy Hunters marathon, several other kinds of lives. I want to imagine myself weighing the options of price vs. size vs. location. I want to imagine that feeling of possibility, without having to hire movers and brokers and pack all my crap into boxes.
I could get that, I suppose, by a more technically truthful show that simply showed me what was on the market in, say, St. Louis in the $250,000 range, but watching the decision made—or playacted—by a human couple allows me to better place myself in the situation, and to have the delicious satisfaction of mocking their decisions and reasoning.
Would I be a better person if I did not need that? Would a better person be more bothered by deceptions? Perhaps. But I do not live in a perfect world, which is precisely why I watch House Hunters—no matter how much its stories have been interior-decorated.