NBC’s “Home Sweet Home,” in which families swap houses in order to see how their counterparts live, is pitched to audiences as a social experiment. But it’s one that unscripted TV has conducted before.
Granted, past instances of this particular genre were significantly more geared towards provocation. ABC’s “Wife Swap” and Fox’s “Trading Spouses” both spelled it out in their titles: Each episode of these series placed members of two families in unfamiliar environments whose contrast seemed specially selected to engineer conflict. Indeed, both shows had one of their family members go viral, with “Trading Spouses” personality “God Warrior” ranting about the unholy things to which she had been exposed and “Wife Swap” kiddo “King Curtis” complaining about having his access to bacon restricted by his new substitute mom.
“Home Sweet Home,” created by Ava DuVernay and produced by her ARRAY Filmworks shingle, is unlikely to cultivate similarly massive personalities. The interactions between the two families in an episode provided to critics seem studiously tamped-down, even as the standards of reality TV have grown somewhat less wild since “Wife Swap’s” heyday. This is a low-fi, comforting watch that is persistent and pleasant, built towards small-scale acknowledgments not that our differences are jarring but that our similarities are fundamental.
The episode provided begins with the Vasiliou family’s patriarch saying “I think no matter what culture you are, no matter what religion you are, we’re all humans, and we should all love each other.” This is not excessively complicated over the next 40 minutes. This fellow, who is Greek-American, takes up residence briefly with his wife and four children in the home of the Wixxes, a Black lesbian couple raising three children.
For some time, the families are left to ponder what their counterparts’ lives must be like, using the home decor as general guide. The Wixxes explore Greek Orthodox practices, while the Vasilious undergo a guided meditation while holding crystals. (Among the first episode’s chewiest and most well-drawn elements are the Wixx parents’ attempts to create new traditions, and their anxiety over having lost ties to ancestral foodways and religious practices, due to the rupture of slavery; the Vasilious, in their time on camera, have far less with which to grapple.)
Later, all parties meet friends of their counterparts and share what their assumptions had been. To wit: Nick, the Vasiliou father, explains to a lesbian couple who are friends of the Wixxes that he believes that he’s in the home of a single mom: “I didn’t see a lot of husband, man stuff around. Or maybe a mom and grandma.” Informed that he’s incorrect and that, indeed, the Wixx children share a donor father with other children he sees playing in front of him, he replies “I never would have said that, even if I’d guessed that, because that’s… yeah…”
This is a moment of intrigue. One of this episode’s four parents doesn’t believe it’s appropriate at least to speculate about alternative methods of building families. Or something! It’s impossible to know, because in allowing him to trail off, the show reveals a tendency one wishes it might have pushed past: Politeness. The impulse toward constant reconciliation is a virtuous one, but one doesn’t need to crave a drag-out fight to acknowledge that there’s something dramatically inert about a culture-clash show that is all culture and no clash.
The road to the Vasilious and Wixxes meeting is paved with mild misunderstandings, all of them rushed past in service of a larger sense of the families’ ability to come together. Indeed, they are united in a shared meal with much left less unresolved than not satisfyingly established. “We could talk for hours, just all the questions I have alone,” the Vasiliou family father says as the episode ends; it’s telling that we move on before these questions are delved into, having simply established that asking probing questions is a good thing to do when you meet people who are different from you, but also the same.
“Home Sweet Home” comes from a good place in a moment of national division, and families looking for a group watch could certainly do worse. But some of DuVernay’s powerful curiosity and ability to transmute real discomfort into grace, so plainly in evidence in other of her TV work, is missing here. If “Wife Swap’s” title pointed towards its embrace of provocation for its own sake, “Home Sweet Home’s,” a cliché that tells us little, does a similar thing in an opposite direction — indicating just how easy it is to let best intentions take the place of something that much more challenging and nourishing.
“Home Sweet Home” premieres Friday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.