A Man Needs a Cave

Assessing the latest crop of home-improvement shows.

Kirsten Kemp of Property Ladder 

A house is not a home, except on home-improvement shows, where it’s everything: An investment opportunity, a status symbol, a safe haven, the spot where you’re most likely to pursue happiness, a nail-gun accident waiting to happen. Home-improvement is self-perfection. A home is a dream. A house is a house is a house.

Property Ladder returns to TLC in July, along with its sister series Flip That House, for a third season of French doors and American ambitions. On Property Ladder—note the aspirational/motivational/spiritual tones of that title—scrappy middle-class folk bet some portion of the nest egg that they have the vision, discipline, and uncompromising venality needed to become real-estate developers. It would be a pleasure to watch if only the producers toned down the pointlessly flashy camerawork, with its slicing linoleum jump-cuts and toilet bowls captured at expressionistic angles. After all, the threats hanging over the heads of these tender Trumps—foreclosure, ruined marriages, and the possibility of the kitchen island really just not working out—produce genuine tension.

Meet, for instance, gay partners Chris and Rodney—one’s a big thinker, one’s a details guy, and both exclusively wear bright solid shirts with button-down collars. They’re attempting to turn a crappy ranch house in suburban Atlanta into a more valuable crappy ranch house. The goal is to make $44,000 in eight weeks. That their one earlier experiment in real-estate investing has become tied up in red tape—”We still haven’t gotten our Hurricane Katrina settlement”—brings a certain emotional weight to the new project. Chris and Rodney like to imagine that their target buyer will be people with taste and values identical to theirs. At points, they appear so hopeless as to have induced seizures up in the writing room. Can you count—will you ever stop counting—the crimes against grammar and style in this one representative sentence?: “While their debt deepens and their bank account bottoms out, time is running out on these fledgling flippers as they chart a course straight for financial disaster.”

In keeping with the alliteration theme, the show’s host goes by the name Kirsten Kemp. She arrives to teach Chris and Rodney subtle lessons, such as, “Grow up and figure out how to make the most money.” Kemp, her hair frosted and charm frozen, tends to carry herself as if she’s a Heather Locklear character trying to reason with 2-year-olds. She’s so devastating that I nearly began to feel pity for Sergio and Robert, who are buddies trying to rehab a place in Pomona, Calif., and whose lead contractor proves to have two warrants out for his arrest. And yet these hapless dudes are able to get the job done, rebounding from having their kitchen tiles stolen cuz someone left the window open. Despite finishing a four-week project eight weeks behind schedule, Sergio and Robert grow in their friendship and put some money in the bank, and you and I learn a thing or two about plumbing.

Meanwhile, it’s unclear what you can learn from a special called Your Best Built Home currently airing all the time on the DIY network. Flow rate, formaldehyde off-gassing, Dolby Surround Sound, indoor air quality, recycling bins on a Lazy Susan, you lost me. The show means to let us in on all the latest trends in home design—to tell us how to be most correct with regard to everything from style to the environment to health to state-of-the-art electronics. The target buyer for the house they describe in the show is equal parts Al Gore, Howard Hughes, and the Julianne Moore character from Safe. Also, the target buyer for the house they describe in the show is a moron, if the descriptions are any indication. Regarding the use and care of a “fireplace-draft stopper”: “Just remove the pillow when the fireplace is being used and reinsert it after the fire has burned out.”

If you want to find the party on DIY, you need to turn on Man Caves, which tells a Regular Guy—someone who imagines himself, sitcom-like, as a henpecked husband trapped in a perfumed McMansion—how to build a reeking testosterone pit of one’s own. Your host is the charismatic and somewhat cross-eyed former NFL lineman Tony Siragusa. On a forthcoming installment, “The Goose rolls into Massachusetts” to help create a sanctuary for a dude name Larry. “We’re here to give him his own space,” says the Goose. “Nobody comes in except him and his boys.” They want to recapture the carefree days when they were just out of college and the Celtics were good. Goose first assesses Larry’s needs—”I’d love to have a kick-ass bar down here”—and then turns his basement into a scale model of the former Boston Garden, but with a bigger exercise room. The guys bust each other’s balls a lot. Jason, the “man cave specialist,” says things like, “In order to create four different rooms in Larry’s man cave, we need to build the walls from the ground up … .” A house is not a home, but, on this show, a man’s cave is his castle.