Perfectly Preserved And Wallpapered With Nostalgia, 'Trading Spaces' Returns

Apr 6, 2018

There is no shortage of television shows built on the premise that whatever your home looks like is wrong. The paint is wrong, the furniture is wrong, the floors are wrong, the floor plan is wrong, and it's entirely possible that your plumbing was put in by marauding vandals who cackled gleefully as they connected your upstairs shower to your kitchen sink in a way that has been causing you to unwittingly wash your hair with Dawn for the last 12 years. Someone must fix it! And film it! But before a lot of those shows even existed, neighbors were painting each other's walls and testing their relationships on Trading Spaces on TLC.

Trading Spaces wasn't the first home-renovation show. In fact, it was based on a BBC series called Changing Rooms. But it had quite a run from 2000 to 2008 — that means it ended three years before Property Brothers even started. And now, after 10 years, it's returned. And other than everyone being a bit older, it's almost exactly the same.

The conceit of the show is that two sets of neighbors "trade" houses and work with a designer to redecorate one room in the other home. So let's say Connie and Charlie work with one designer to redo Debbie and David's living room, while Debbie and David work with the other designer to redo Connie and Charlie's bedroom. Each team only had $1000 to work with on the original show — it's now $2000 — and they have the help of a carpenter to build furniture and other items. At the end, there's a "reveal" where the C's see what the D's did to the bedroom, and the D's see what the C's did to the living room. They might love it! But they might not.

Now, the myth about Trading Spaces is that the whole point was that the room was always awful. Everyone was always miserable. Everyone gritted their teeth and tolerated what they clearly hated. Not true! Certain designers did specialize in wacky concepts that not only weren't attractive, but often seemed likely to damage the room. Hildi Santo-Tomas, who was notorious for this kind of thing, covered an entire kitchen with wine labels, for instance — for, as I recall it, a pastor who didn't drink. She stapled silk flowers to the walls of one room. (Enjoy getting those staples out! Maybe just replace the drywall?) She pasted hay all over the walls of one room. She built a room with a beach theme and piled sand on the floor.

But some of the designers really did make beautiful rooms. The point wasn't reliable awfulness; it was reliable chaos. There were a bunch of designers in the cast, so you'd only get two on each episode, and as longtime viewers will tell you, an episode where the designers were Doug Wilson and Hildi (both likely to intentionally provoke shock) was very different from an episode where the designers were Vern Yip and Genevieve Gorder (both eager to genuinely please).

It says something — but nothing surprising — that the first episode back features Doug and Hildi. Crying on camera decays much more slowly than the pleasant satisfaction of a job well done, so the show's legacy, over 10 years, has emphasized the room reveals where the homeowner started crying — and not with happiness. But it's logical that they don't want to start with an episode that would lead newcomers to think the whole point was tormenting people and destroying their homes. So you shouldn't expect calamity in the first episode. But you should expect ... doubts.

There are a lot of differences between this do-over and Netflix's reboot of Queer Eye, to say the least. They didn't change the cast here, and the designers aren't confronting the same considerations about social change and how it affects the fabric of the program. But the two have something in common nevertheless. Even when a show is fairly well-executed and popular, as both Queer Eye and Trading Spaces were, if it relies on a formula, people become fatigued. After a while, they move on to something else fairly well-executed and popular that's made with a different formula.

But then, after a while, they remember that they liked that formula — like they might remember a restaurant they used to visit and eventually started to take for granted. The food's not perfect, but it's familiar, and when they've been gone a while, it appeals.

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