Opinion

Port Orchard 'Extreme Makeover' wasn't extreme enough

Back when the electronic media were still in their infancy, there used to be a wildly popular program called “Queen for a Day.”

I’m not quite old enough to have watched it myself, but as I get it, the idea of the show was to find five down-on-their-luck women willing to tell their story on camera — preferably as tearfully as possible — in a competition to come off sounding more pathetic than the other contestants.

Then at the show’s humiliating climax, the cloyingly sympathetic host asked the audience to vote with its applause on the episode’s most heart-wrenching case, with the winner (loser, actually) to be crowned queen and showered with riches that always seemed to include new kitchen appliances.

The whole thing was unbelievably manipulative and embarrassing, but it got boffo ratings for more than 20 years, first on radio and later on TV.

Left unsaid, of course, was the fact that, when the klieg lights where turned off and the queen went back to her newly refurbished castle, she was still going to be confronted by the same litany of hardships that entitled her to appear on television in the first place.

And her shiny new refrigerator provided cold comfort, so to speak, in dealing with these problems.

Not that it mattered to the producers of the show, you understand, who by that time had moved on to find some other queen in need of a vacuum cleaner to brighten her world — if only for a day.

Inflation being what it is, the cost of exploiting misery in exchange for a big Nielsen share has reached the point where no one’s going to tune in these days just to watch you hand out toaster ovens.

But a $500,000 dream home might do the trick.

Which is the general idea behind “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” the popular modern TV program that visited South Kitsap three years ago to assist the Kirkwood family, whose modest home had developed a health-endangering mold infestation problem.

Quick as you could say “Thanks, Ty,” local contractors and an army of well-meaning volunteers had demolished the old structure and erected in the course of one week a 3,182-square-foot monument to excess that included, among its other nifty features, custom-installed piping to extrude Play-Doh into the bedroom of a young family member said to be especially fond of the stuff.

How helpful.

Kim Abel, who as Port Orchard’s mayor at the time was instrumental in persuading the “Extreme Makeover” crew to descend on South Kitsap, likens the effort to a home built by Habitat for Humanity.

Well, not quite. The Habitat blueprint doesn’t normally include a Play-Doh pumping station, I’m fairly certain.

More to the point, Habitat for Humanity has strict requirements about how many hours its clients must spend working on their own homes and those of others — as opposed to the “Extreme Makeover” model, which involves vacationing at Disney World until you can be brought back by limousine for the grand unveiling.

“People can still take pride in (the home),” Abel said. “You can always drive by and talk about how you helped your community.”

Again, not quite.

Evidently the Kirkwoods weren’t helped all that much — at least not in ways they really needed — since their dream house turned up with a for-sale sign on it last week.

And it’s priced to move, too. Originally listed for $650,000, the broker will currently sacrifice it for a paltry $550,000.

Not surprisingly, one of the main obstacles to the family’s continued occupation of the “House That Ty Built” has been keeping up with their newly inflated property tax bill.

Being relieved of their mortgage payment may have been a big help, but trying to maintain a mansion on an income that wasn’t sufficient for their more modest digs presented a different set of problems.

Even more troublesome, however, the recipients have divorced since the home was constructed and, Washington being a community property state, the only way it can be shared now — short of sawing the dwelling in half — is by selling it and divvying up the proceeds.

This speaks to the underlying problem not only of “Extreme Makeover,” which is entertainment masquerading as actual charity, but also to more traditional forms of assistance — which are too often more entertainment than charity, as well.

Not to be too hard on the Kirkwoods or any other family that finds itself in need of a helping hand, but there reasons why you suddenly find yourself living in a house overgrown with mold and no means of removing it yourself.

Likewise, the fact that the couple went through a divorce isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but it couldn’t have helped their financial or emotional outlook, and quite possibly could have be avoided through counseling.

Which brings us back to the question of whether the family was actually helped by building them a Taj Mahal when the real fixer-upper was their lives.

As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat forever.”

In this case, “Extreme Makeover” may have substituted “whale” for “fish” and “three years” for “a day,” but the effect was roughly the same.

It probably wouldn’t make for quite as gripping a TV experience, but one has to wonder if the masterminds who conceive of schlock like “Queen for a Day” and “Extreme Makeover” have ever considered offering things like job training, financial management or marriage counseling to people who need that kind of help far more than they need a mansion.

Maybe instead of the family’s house getting overhauled, the family itself could go for a little work.

If, in fact, solving their problems is really what you’re after — which is debatable.

Like a grand funeral staged to honor someone who isn’t even here to appreciate the spectacle, you have to wonder whether “Extreme Makeover” isn’t at least as much about making the people who swing the hammers and watch it all unfold on TV feel good about themselves as it is about actually benefitting the recipients.

They get the washing machine, or in this case the mansion, and we get the self-satisfaction.

Such a deal.

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