The Middlebrow

Ty Pennington

TV’s home-improvement messiah.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Some years ago, a bearded carpenter appeared before the world, speaking in a voice so gentle and wise that it rendered grown men helpless. Then Bob Vila was fired from This Old House. Into the void has stepped Ty Pennington, the host of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, which airs Sunday nights on ABC. To Vila’s expertise with crown molding and 2x4s, Pennington adds an unusual dose of hunkiness. No carpenter has ever been quite so eager, for the sake of his artistry, to remove his shirt. “If I hear the words ‘hunky handyman’ one more time, I will freak,” Pennington has said, but the former model styles himself like a surfer: tousled brown hair, copper skin, and a soul patch under his bottom lip. He solved the carpenter’s sartorial lament—pants pulled low by power tools—by working his abdominals until they looked like river stones.

Pennington and Home Edition have become prime time’s most gratifying couple—so much so, in fact, that viewers demanded a second weekly benediction, How’d They Do That?, which airs on Mondays. Pennington preaches unyielding generosity. He and his eight-man “design team” search the country for hard-luck cases—flood victims, cancer sufferers, parents of sextuplets—and reward the victims and their families with free remodeling. Ty believes in home repair as therapy—for anything. “The good news is, we’re here to help,” he is fond of saying, while furrowing his brow at the sight of some sad tract house in the exurbs.

It’s tempting to dismiss Home Edition as treacle—Habitat for Humanity: The Series—but with Pennington as megaphone-toting cheerleader the show has achieved a kind of delirious grandeur. The Feb. 20 episode found Pennington and his troops trying desperately to rescue the Harper family. The Harpers had been conned into buying a home that flooded with raw sewage at the first rain; the smell was so repulsive that the family had taken to sleeping in the car. The Harpers would probably have settled for new pipes and a working toilet. But Ty dispatched them to Disneyland for a week’s vacation. Then he and his crew razed the house, re-jiggered the sewer lines, and—almost as an afterthought—erected on the lot a monstrous 5,300-square-foot home that included a lush master-bedroom suite and a DJ room for the family.

Seven days later, the Harpers waited eagerly across the street for the “reveal”—the show’s money shot. Their supersized home was obscured behind a long bus. “I cannot wait to show you your new house and, hopefully, a new life for you guys,” Pennington crowed. Then he shouted, “Hey, bus driver, move that bus!” The bus moved. The Harpers took one look at their new palace and broke out in a kind of end-zone dance. Then they began to weep. Pennington put his arm around the father and said, “A lot of dreams are coming true today, huh? That’s why we’re here, man.”

Whence did this benevolent saint come? Gary Tygert Pennington was born in Atlanta in 1965. While studying at a local art institute, he was spotted by a model agent, promptly forgot about carpentry, and set off on a career of posing on behalf of J. Crew and Sprite. When the modeling gigs dried up, Ty returned to woodworking—he painted sets for the film Leaving Las Vegas—until he landed a job that honored both talents: the resident “hunky carpenter” on the Learning Channel’s Trading Spaces. That show, which aired on the northern side of the cable dial but often drew more viewers than the network shows down south, heralded the beginning of America’s infatuation with Ty. He traveled the country, doffing his shirt and fielding marriage proposals. He wrote a remodeling book in which, according to one account, his editors asked him to tone down the double-entendres in the caulking chapter. In 2002, People named Ty one of its top 50 bachelors, alongside such luminaries as George Clooney and Carson Daly.

As an artist, Ty is a bit of a cipher. He alternately calls his school of design “modern primitive” or “creativi-Ty.” In both cases, it seems to involve fashioning kitsch into household items: He made a countertop out of parts from a flatbed truck and a lamp out of a toilet plunger. His summa, Ty’s Tricks, which promises to further elucidate this philosophy, is instead stocked with beefcake photos, including one of Ty in the shower. Asked what moves him, Ty is prone to say, “I have the skills to pay the bills.” Or: “I make crap craptastic.” Or, more puzzlingly: “I’m the kind of person who can amuse himself in a closet for six days.”

What we’re saying is, Ty is not an excessively introspective creature. His do-gooding can be so relentless that it sometimes leaves its recipients in a pinch. As Newsweek has pointed out, an Extreme Makeover makeover could add thousands of dollars in new taxes—which, in all likelihood, the owners couldn’t afford. Last year, Ty led his troops on a mission to house on a depressed block in Watts, in South Central Los Angeles. The team performed its usual miracles, never bothering to consider the social consequences of erecting a fortress that towered over every other house on the block. And then there’s the nagging feeling that building a 5,300-square-foot home, however magnanimous an act, may not be the most appropriate solution for a problem like sewage backup.

The recipients of Ty’s benevolence do not much mind the disparities. “They came in here, and those guys felt our pain,” said Milton Harper, after surveying his new bedroom suite. Ty Pennington has become television’s leading purveyor of wish fulfillment—dispensing the kind of reassurance that Queen for a Day provided in the late-1950s and, with slightly edgier methods, Publishers Clearing House and Benny Hinn have doled out since then. Pennington offers the consumerist American dream: that leather sectionals and flat-screen TVs—all thoughtfully provided by the show’s sponsors—will bring happiness, no matter the affliction. He pushes aside the flimsiness of such assumptions and aims right for the gut: “When you see a kid who’s in a wheelchair, he’s looking you straight in the eye and wanting to know are you really here to help. It affects you in a different way than I had ever experienced. So it’s a pretty cool thing.” Thus spake Pennington.