Few things threaten the secular order more than a happy family. A recent essay by Caitlin Flanagan for New York featured strange—and strangely un-illuminating—commentary on several HGTV shows. HGTV, for the few out there not charmed by its family-friendly offerings, features wildly successful shows like “Fixer Upper,” “Property Brothers,” and “House Hunters.” “Fixer Upper” is consistently one of the biggest shows on cable; in the past year, HGTV has seen historic growth and in 2016 was eleventh in total viewership among 112 channels (boasting 5 percent growth over 2015).
Flanagan’s article is titled “HGTV Is a Never-ending Fantasy Loop. Look Deeper, and It Gets Pretty Ugly.” From this clickbaitish headline, one might expect a deep-dive into the shady practices of the network, a full reveal of the twisted lives of its reality-show stars. But aside from some scattered facts that many readers will already know, the essay mostly functions as an opportunity for Flanagan to snark at certain shows’ depictions of familial happiness, traditional gender roles, and upward mobility.
Flanagan has penned an arch and very long op-ed, when one might have thought a journalist of her stature—she’s written regularly for The Atlantic—would be offering new information or delving extensively into the background of her subjects. Here’s my suspicion: the very things Flanagan singes in her essay are the features that are drawing huge numbers of viewers. Here are three contributing factors behind the success of HGTV.
1. Happy, Thriving Families
First, people want to see happy, thriving families represented on TV. Ours is a disillusioned age. Many folks undoubtedly connect with Flanagan’s cynical take on “Fixer Upper” and “Property Brothers.” But tons of people don’t want to just hate-watch shows today. They find their spirits lifted by watching Chip and Joanna Gaines interact. They love seeing this Waco-based couple tease their kids, make games out of everyday events, and generally invest in their family. The hit-job on the Gaineses backfired; their popularity only continues to grow.
I suspect many people are watching shows like “Fixer Upper,” in fact, because they have only a vague sense for what marriage and family can be. They want to know more. They have tasted plenty of heartbreak in the non-traditional sexual script pushed upon us from all angles today. They know that a secular vision of human identity, personal sexuality, and children does not fulfill. They want something better.
2. Good, Clean Fun
Second, people enjoy seeing folks have good clean fun. In line with the foregoing, if you’re a glutton for dystopian, morally gray dramas with anarchic antiheroes, you are the belle of the ball today. Have at it on your favorite new-media platform. But if you don’t want a steady stream of sex, lies, and videotape, you don’t have a ton of options, really. When the day is done, my wife and I find that we’re often down, in general terms, to two options: Food Network and HGTV.
American culture doesn’t seem oriented to clean-living folks these days. But there are actually a ton of us who like this kind of programming. We don’t want to watch some angsty bed-hopping drama. Less seriously, we enjoy seeing the “Property Brothers” cultivate their deep friendship. Flanagan writes as if it is strange that Jonathan and Drew would like one another and goof off together. But this is what your average happy person does. They don’t walk around plotting to take down the system. They enjoy life.
I’m reminded at this point of the comments of a conservative professor I knew at Bowdoin College, my alma mater. She remarked to a group of us students that conservatives liked nothing more than the simple pleasures of life—a big steak on the grill, a truck with some horsepower behind it, and a trip deep into the woods for hunting. There’s truth in that, and I think it relates at some level to why so many people enjoy HGTV shows and personalities. They’re not over-thinking things; they’re enjoying life.
3. We Like Upward Mobility
Third, many Americans are pursuing prosperity, and we should be glad that they are. Flanagan also takes aim at the upward mobility some HGTV shows capture. Surely, we should watch our hearts for covetousness. But in general, shouldn’t we be glad that people are doing well? It’s a good thing to make a profit, build an investment portfolio, and be able to take care of your family. We need not distrust prosperity, as if anytime anyone enjoys it there must necessarily be some horrible backstory.
What the various HGTV shows present is what many of us are doing. We want to save more than we spend. We don’t want to stay in student-level housing for decades. It’s a beautiful thing to have a playhouse for your kids in the backyard. It’s nice to have a kitchen in which the family can gather and enjoy time together. Many Americans know these things. Our immature, this-moment-directed culture might laugh at us, but many have figured out that there is significant happiness to be found in financial wisdom, prudence, and patience.
Stop Despising the Middle Class
There is a long history of despising the petit bourgeoisie in America, and making a comfortable living while doing it. I recently read Terry Teachout’s engrossing biography of H. L. Mencken, who shot to fame by mocking the attitudes and practices of the “booboisie.” Humorously, the scourge of the American Protestant middle-class himself lived a comfortable, quiet, clean existence. Perhaps what we mock we actually, in some way, yearn to have.
HGTV is no fantasy-land; the sad outcome of the stars of “Flip or Flop” shows it. There’s plenty one can find on the network to poke fun at — I’m not sure I can watch many more entitled young married couples list all the luxury features they expect on a $160,000 budget on “House Hunters.” Neither am I a big fan of reality TV more broadly. HGTV itself does not seem deeply conservative, either. But if the network’s shows have quirks and shortcomings, I’m also not convinced that it is the harbinger of doom.
HGTV shows attract viewers for some obvious reasons, including that there’s not much out there that affirms, rather than tears down, the traditional American way of life. In our jaded, angry, snarky era, few things stand out more than the normal, pleasant, and fulfilling gifts before us, available to those who follow wisdom—and get a middlebrow thrill up their legs when that shiplap wall comes into view.