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Realty TV

Illustration by Brent Holmes

They may be full of shiplap, but I can’t stop watching HGTV’s home fantasy shows

Late at night, in the comfort of my Spanish-tiled mini-McMansion’s master bedroom with en suite bathroom and dual vanities, I watch people shop for their dream homes. Part vicarious house shopping, part judging other people’s marriages, part do-it-yourself home renovation education, it’s a rich bit of voyeurism that’s hard to shake. Fortunately, HGTV delivers 24-7. 

“It’s got good bones,” says everyone who has ever appeared on House Hunters, one of my favorite indulgences. If you’ve never seen this show, it goes like this: A couple looks for a home in a new city, and an agent is charged with finding a house that meets their needs within their budget. The agent shows them three houses, and they pick. Simple enough, right?

But due to a combination of strategic video editing and the real peccadilloes of relationships, the couples rarely want the same thing. “It’s not the ranch house I was looking for,” he says as they pull up to House No. 1. “But it’s the Craftsman I was looking for!” she says jubilantly. The tension builds for 30 glorious minutes into a show some viewers have suggested be renamed, Will This Marriage Survive?

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“But I don’t like these steps,” says Evan from Kansas. “I have bad knees.”

“But I really want a Craftsman-style two-story,” says his wife, Jamie, completely disinterested in his pain.

Even more amusing is hearing everyone spout their crackerjack expertise in design: I want a vintage 1920s Tudor with an open kitchen island and huge en suite bathroom with jetted spa tub.

At the end, the couple has a staged discussion about which house to choose, one of them whines a little about compromising, and then they make up, hug and move into their Cape Cod Ranch Spanish Colonial with tons of historic charm and industrial slaughterhouse pocket doors. And I feel happy: They’ve overcome their trumped-up differences, found the house of their dreams and will live happily ever after. I am not particularly proud that this contrived love story is a source of pure joy, but whatever. HGTV feeds my feels.

The king of HGTV guilty pleasures is Fixer Upper, in which a random couple moves to Waco, Texas, formerly known for the horrifying standoff between cult leader David Koresh and the feds, now known for America’s sweetest darn couple you ever did see, Chip and Joanna Gaines. In this show, the lovebird Gaineses are the centerpiece as much as the houses. They give a down-home welcome to the random (so far, always straight) couple, show them three old houses that could be remodeled into the couple’s “dream home,” and get to work.

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I know how contrived this is; I know the couple doesn’t get to keep the staging décor; I’ve read the controversies about the Gaines’ anti-gay church pastor. And yet I watch.

 In the course of the renovation, we see Chip’s construction work and Joanna’s decorating (gender-appropriate tasks!), but mostly, we see the relationship between this wholesome couple with a pack of towheaded children and a farm full of adorable goats. Producers lay on the family values extra thick. The other night, I watched the scripted Gaineses roast s’mores with their kids at their 40-acre Magnolia Farm. Chip, a goofy character with rugged charm, said, “Raise your hand if you’d like to live out here the rest of your life.” And all the little darlings do. Because life in Waco is dreamy. Even when — or especially when — there’s a TV crew to film your most cloying moments.

If House Hunters sells us the fun and fuss of shopping, Fixer Upper sells the fantasy of a perfect, conservative American family life, where everyone is good and untouched by life outside the farm. And you want to appreciate that the down-home Gainses are down-home rich, shrewd enough to stay out of the political fray, savvy enough to market the hell out of their charm: They own Magnolia Market boutique, Magnolia Realty and Magnolia Homes. If you want to buy Magnolia Premium Interior paint in the shade of “Blessed,” you can do so on

At some point, though, I reach sweet Magnolia burnout and begin to grow nauseated, and literally guilty, about my HGTV guilty pleasure. And I drift off to sleep, glad I won’t wake up in Waco.