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Lynn Spigel's "Installing the Television Set" & Renovation Narratives

by Megan Reilly

In “Installing the Television Set,” Lynn Spigel notes the synergy between the interior space of the 1950’s suburban home, as imagined by design magazines, architectural trends, and family sit-coms, and the television medium in their shared aim to collapse the division between public and private life. Revising a conventional narrative of post-war isolationism, she conceives of the 1950’s home as a theater, designed to let the outside world in via large windows, flowing common spaces, and the television set.

Spigel writes of the “rambling domestic interiors” which “appeared not so much as private sanctions which excluded the outside world, but rather as infinite expanses which incorporated that world” (Spigel 14-15). I was reminded of the obsession with open-concept floor plans that pervades most renovation-focused programming on HGTV. On shows like Fixer Upper and Flip or Flop, both of which emerged in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, old houses are made new through the knocking down of walls to attain the highly coveted “open floorplan,” much like the interiors of 1950’s homes which, according to Spigel, “allowed residents to exert a minimum of energy by reducing the need to move from room to room” (14).

The preoccupation with “open-concept” renovations on HGTV showcases the space-merging illusion that Spigel locates at the heart of the “ideological harmony between technological utopias and housing utopias [which] created an ideal nesting ground for television’s introduction to the public in the postwar years” (17). Specifically, I’m interested in the use of 3D modeling software on Property Brothers to construct a utopian flow between spaces of domestic labor and spaces of entertainment as a means to market the “fixer-upper” concept as the key to domestic bliss.

The conceit of Property Brothers is rather cruel; Jonathan and Drew bring the – usually straight, white – couple to a recently renovated house that fulfills all of the items on their respective lists of requirements, letting them extol the home’s virtues before revealing that it costs twice their budget in order to sell them on the idea of purchasing a fixer upper. The brothers use 3D modeling software to render the space of an older home according to the couple’s specifications; walls tumble down and windows widen to showcase an imaginary landscape, much like the painted backdrops beyond the windows of The Burns and Allen Show (18). In this episode, aptly titled “Suburban Reality,” the opening of the interior space is narrativized as ensuring social and familial ease.

The virtualized open floorplan creates sight lines for the couple to interact effortlessly with guests, keep an eye on their daughter, take in their miraculously expansive backyard, and, though Jonathan doesn’t mention it, to see the television from the kitchen. On these renovation shows, the open concept is often advocated by women as a means to multitask while working in the kitchen, so that they can simultaneously cook or wash dishes and monitor the children or socialize. An item on the wife’s list of requirements is often placed in opposition to the husband’s desire for a mancave, or a workshop, and differing spatial priorities create tension that the show dramatizes through budgetary constraints but resolves via some form of compromise visualized as the family contentedly occupying the new space.

Spigel highlights the way in which the development of television restructured and reinforced notions of the family – how formal and narrative elements of sit-coms, advertising, and the spatial orientation of the home coalesced to orient domestic space around the TV set, and to reconfigure the home as a fusion of private and public life. In prioritizing flow between spaces of labor and leisure within the home, HGTV renovation shows perform similar ideological work, with the domestic sphere functioning not as a backdrop but as the source of conflict and means of resolution. The open concept, particularly when rendered in a sleek 3D model set against a fantastical rolling landscape, promises familial cohesion and social success, and embodies, like the television set, the “illusion of the outside world” within the confines of the home (21).

I’m interested in how the renovation show format might be analogous in some ways to that of the 1950’s sitcom. If sitcoms served as a means to reinvest audience’s trust in commodity culture in the wake of wartime austerity, then perhaps we can read the open-concept obsession on renovation shows following the financial crisis as an attempt to reclaim faith in real estate via narratives of thrift, customization, family values, and social success. Though, the Property Brothers were recently chased down the street in New York by someone shouting “Open Concept Sucks!” so perhaps audiences are not as susceptible to HGTV’s interpellative powers as I think they are (Reynolds).

Works Cited

Reynolds, Megan. “A Fan Once Chased the Property Brothers Down the Street, Screaming 'Open Concept Sucks!'.” Jezebel, Univision Communications, 6 Nov. 2017, jezebel.com/a-fan-once-chased-the-property-brothers-down-the-street-1820191166.

Lynn Spigel. “Installing the Television Set: Popular Discourses on Television and Domestic Space, 1948–1955.” Camera Obscura 1 January 1988; 6 (1 (16)): 9–46.

Property Brothers: Visualizing Domestic Space

Property Brothers visualizes domestic bliss through 3D rendering software

from Property Brothers (2015)
Creator: Cineflix
Distributor: Hulu
Posted by Megan Reilly
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