Marie Kondo’s New Show Sparks Joy but Fizzles as Reality TV

Marie Kondo smiling, carrying a neat stack of boxes, next to a wood wall with tasteful picture and plant mounts.
Marie Kondo. Netflix

If you’re planning to watch Marie Kondo’s new Netflix show so that you can gawk in horror at the unmanageable messes of others, you’d be better served tuning in to Hoarders instead. Kondo, the Japanese organization consultant who has transformed decluttering into something of a religion with her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is now converting hapless Americans to her minimalist lifestyle in front of a camera. But the very first family she visits on Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has a living room so spotless that your mother would be proud to let company sit there, and it’s furnished like an Ikea showroom, right down to the inspirational décor reminding guests to “Imagine” and “Believe.” Are these people really in need of Kondo’s magic?

Maybe they are. Kevin and Rachel Friend have two toddlers, which means, as you might expect, they’re battling quite a bit of mess in the other, less public parts of their home. Clothes are strewn throughout the playroom, closets are overstuffed, and dishes are piled up in the sink—though, again, it’s hardly a gasp-inducing level of clutter for a family with two very young kids. Really, it’s the (ugh) emotional mess that requires Kondo’s intervention. Kevin resents that they’ve had to hire someone to keep up with the laundry. Rachel, who works part time and is home with the kids more, expresses both frustration with her inability to keep up with the disarray and with her husband’s expectations. They might be better off seeking a therapist than a decluttering expert.

Fortunately, Kondo is willing to act as both, even if it is utterly unconvincing when she assures the couple, cheerfully, that “my house is even a mess sometimes.” With her perfectly cut fringe and impeccably tailored clothing, Kondo is a soothing presence whenever she enters a home, with participants regularly comparing her to a kind of fairy or a genie. But unlike the more hands-on approaches taken by the hosts of Netflix’s Queer Eye or many of the shows in the TLC and HGTV oeuvres, Kondo rarely makes decisions for Tidying Up’s mess-makers. Instead, she teaches them her methods, gets them started, and then leaves them to their own devices for weeks on end, returning merely to act as a cheerleader or give the gift of storage boxes. She sticks to her teach-a-man-to-fish approach even when participants are more than eager for her to cast the line for them.

Except for a few with outsized collections—baseball cards, Christmas decorations, 160(!) pairs of sneakers—the people Kondo instructs are all like the Friends, ordinary clutterbugs whose messes are mostly contained to cabinets and garages. “They don’t have to airlift me out of this house,” one points out. Always, though, there’s psychological chaos that needs to be put right. Over the course of eight episodes, Kondo oversees the decluttering “journeys” of people at different stages of their lives, from an expecting couple who need to make room for the baby to empty nesters who want to enjoy a simple retirement but are reluctant to let go of memories. In the process, she eases the guilt of mothers who shoulder the burden of the housework and, in one unusually dramatic case, consoles a widow who can’t bring herself to clean out her husband’s closet.

Those emotional stakes are the only things that distinguish one episode from another, because tidying, it turns out, is pretty much the same no matter who’s doing it. That’s especially true when you’re all following the same rulebook. Kondo’s method has a specific order for when to attack different materials: first, clothing; then, books, documents, kitchen and bathroom miscellany; and finally, sentimental goods. Again and again we hear her give the same advice: Pile everything in one place so you can see it all. Keep only those items that will spark joy. Thank the ones you plan to toss. Put similar items in boxes so they will look neater. There are occasional pop-out segments in which Kondo demonstrates how to fold a fitted sheet or correctly store bras, but mostly, the series settles into a pleasant monotony.

Netflix is wisely dropping the full, eight-episode season of Tidying Up on New Year’s Day, when millions will have added “get organized” to their lists of 2019 resolutions. If you’re too lazy to actually read Kondo’s books, or you’re just in need of an extra motivational boost, then by all means, watch Kondo’s tactics in action and listen to the testimonials of her new disciples as they tout the advantages of her minimalist methods. (As you do so, try to ignore the cognitive dissonance of watching Tidying Up on Netflix, with its obscene glut of content.) But if you’re not already a KonMari convert, there’s a chance the series won’t spark anything at all. By avoiding the typical extreme-makeover excesses, the highest-high inspirations and lowest-low humiliations that we’re used to from our reality television, Tidying Up offers a kind of gentle moderation that should make its star proud—and leave everyone else mildly underwhelmed.