In some respects the perfect “reality” replacement for “Desperate Housewives,” this intriguing sociology experiment highlights a side of domestic life seldom seen on TV while managing to condescend toward both halves of its equation — the white Christian (read: “normal”) families in an Austin, Texas, cul-de-sac and the minorities, of one stripe or another, vying to become their new neighbors. At its best when focusing on awkward interaction between the two camps — providing a rare glimpse through the eyes of red-state America — the program is marred by its game elements, which feel forced and tired.
The three families allowed to select who wins the house adjacent to them are Christian conservatives, and there’s clearly an underlying element here of seeing them recognize that a family different from them is worthy — that we’re all brothers, essentially, under the skin. It’s the kind of flag-waving, feel-good notion ol’ Walt Disney himself would have championed, minus the arched eyebrows and groans when the candidates exit their cars.
Yet while this falls into the feel-good category ABC has staked out, it’s still “Extreme Makeover: Most of You Don’t Get a Home Edition,” as both those judging and being judged are set up to be judged, in turn, by the camera’s unforgiving eye.
The families competing to become homeowners are African-American, Korean, Hispanic, pagan worshippers, tattooed, and a gay couple with a black adopted son. Oh, and there’s one white family, but anyone who thinks they’re going to be a latter-day “Father Knows Best” hasn’t been watching enough reality TV.
The neighbors, we’re told, frequently socialize among themselves and “are always watching,” which makes you wonder if any of them has a job. Nevertheless, it’s undeniably interesting to watch Mr. Stewart, the cul-de-sac’s self-proclaimed “governor,” his wife — who could easily be the mayor of Stepford — and their pals debate the merits of the too-eager-to-please Mrs. Gonzalez or the too-gay Messrs. Wright.
Those elements should appeal to “reality” junkies, provided that they don’t give much thought to the cheating done to make the execution seem less morally dubious. Children, for example, participate in the process but are fastidiously kept off camera whenever someone is evicted from the game. Inherent in the premise, too, is a class element, inasmuch as the newly arrived families must jump through hoops to please the well-heeled residents.
Based on two episodes previewed, the eventual message here will endeavor to be an uplifting one, watching people from disparate backgrounds forge unlikely bonds. In point of fact, though, the producers want to have it both ways — indulging in prejudice and stereotyping, the saving grace being that the players will leave more enlightened than they were at the outset.
The true lesson is actually more subtle — namely, that even the privileged enter reality TV at their peril, given how skillful editing and staged situations can manipulate the “story” that’s told.
That might not be the fairest way to treat a bunch of well-meaning Texans with a heartfelt love of Jesus, but welcoming a TV crew into your homes is much like inviting a vampire into the bedroom. It might seem thrilling at first, but pretty soon, whoops, there goes the neighborhood.