- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Keep your hankies handy.

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the popular ABC reality series, is about to kick off its fourth season Sunday night at 8.

The show, a home-renovation-themed spinoff of the network’s plastic surgery series, reaches an audience of up to 18 million and brings its enormous commercial influence to bear on the real-estate plights of impoverished or overburdened families.

Although their eyes may be humid with tears, some viewers may find themselves with a nagging sense that the show’s titular extremeness is an outgrowth of America’s excessive appetite for household luxuries.

“Are we worthy of our kitchens?” Christine Rosen asked in a recent issue of the technology-and-culture journal the New Atlantis, referring to the “restaurant-quality kitchens, six-burner stovetops and cappuccino-making machines” that grace the homes of many an overfed American.

Such inventory aside, the show’s beneficiaries, who typically have suffered trauma of Dickensian proportions and send the network videotaped appeals for help (they also may be nominated by neighbors and friends), basically come into a massive material windfall.

Inescapable is the question of whether money can, after all, buy happiness.

Probably not, according to Anthony Ahrens, an American University professor who’s researching the psychology of gratitude.

“The data shows that people adapt,” he says. “Lottery winners, for instance. If you come back over time, you find that their happiness has returned pretty close to that of average people. There’s temporary euphoria, but then people tend to return.”

Oh, but the euphoria found on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” sure is fun to watch — if, that is, you can see through the happy tears.

And one feels a Scrooge-like spasm of irascibility just for bringing up this business.

Truth be told, the show, unscripted but slickly packaged, is one of the most consistent prime-time delights.

Each episode follows host Ty Pennington, the irrepressible carpenter who traded up from the Learning Channel’s “Trading Spaces,” a stylish team of bubbly designers and a horde of hard-hatted workers as they magically transform a dilapidated home into something one drools over in the back pages of Washingtonian magazine.

Even more impressive, they do so in a dramatically compressed seven days, while the family vacations at a Disney theme park. The crescendo of each show comes as Mr. Pennington and a crowd of well-wishers scream “Move that bus” to reveal to the returning family the sight of their new habitat.

Goodbye grime, hello Corian countertops.

Only it’s much worse than grime.

In her book “The Party: A Guide to Adventurous Entertaining,” Washington social hostess Sally Quinn said her only rule about where to throw a party is that “it should be someplace that’s too small” — a cruel upper-crust joke to the family featured on Sunday’s two-hour season premiere.

The Rogerses of North Pole, Alaska — 13-strong — crammed a single mother, her eight children, her brother (ill from kidney failure) and his three children into a mere 900 square feet. They lived, ate and slept, cheek by jowl, in a dangerously run-down structure that was all but laid bare to Alaska’s subfreezing winters.

Now they enjoy close to 5,000 square feet, plus a football field for a back yard, complete with regulation-size goal posts.

Veronica Ginyard, a single mother of eight, was experiencing similar stir-craziness when Mr. Pennington and company came knocking on her Capitol Heights door last year. (The Ginyard episode aired in October.)

Her two-bedroom house was a frequently flooded tangle of exposed wires and mold.

She still can tap into the euphoria. All it takes is a repeat viewing of the show. “Everything comes running back to me,” says Miss Ginyard, who had fled an abusive relationship and now works at the House of Ruth Maryland, a domestic-violence center in Baltimore.

Human nature being human nature, Miss Ginyard occasionally catches wind of backbiting talk along the lines of, “Is she taking care of the house?”

“I’m still anal about it,” she laughs. “If I see dog hair, I’ve got to vacuum the whole 3,700 square-feet.”

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” treats its families lavishly, and product placements are quite aggressive.

Yet the overarching ethic of the show is to create a communitarian web of volunteers to help the truly needy. It extracts donations from corporate sponsors and local contractors and vendors. And it organizes Edmund Burke-like “platoons” — “battalions” is more like it — to do grunt work on the construction site.

“When we roll into town, we present a huge opportunity for people to help,” says Denise Cramsey, the show’s executive producer.

What about what happens when the cameras leave and utility bills and property taxes come due?

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” has built 74 houses, Ms. Cramsey says, and so far “none has been sold, and no one has gone into bankruptcy or moved because they couldn’t afford it.” (The network asks owners to keep the house at least until their show airs, but they are legally free to cash it in at any time.)

“People say that if I sold the house, I could get a mint,” Miss Ginyard says. “Yeah, I could. But there’s no way. Where I live is not the best neighborhood in the world, but our little niche is quiet. We all just want to keep it clean and drug-free.”

American University’s Mr. Ahrens says that, since 1956, inflation-adjusted per-capita income in the U.S. has nearly tripled. Yet, according to the National Opinion Research Center, happiness levels have flat-lined.

There is, however, a threshold below which one finds a correlation between income and subjective well-being, Mr. Ahrens says.

“Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” seems to find that threshold, and the transformation it offers is not simply from poverty to Pottery Barn.

Miss Ginyard is careful not to use the word “happiness” when she speaks of her “Extreme Makeover” experience. Remembering what it was like when her children huddled at night in an attic with no air-conditioning, she uses, instead, phrases like “relief” and “stress-free.”

“I missed a lot of the simple stuff in life, worrying,” she says. “Now things are normal.”

Here might be an important element of the show’s success: It offers a kind of relief to its audience, too.

Ms. Cramsey: “It focuses on the thing that Americans take pride in — homeownership. The home is such a centerpiece of American life.”

It is perhaps heartening for the well-heeled and jaded among us to know that the less fortunate find genuine joy in the gift of stainless-steel subzero refrigeration — luxury goods that ordinarily make us green with envy of the Joneses next door.

Let the happy tears flow.

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