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There’s No Place Like a Woefully Insufficient Home

HGTV’s ‘Love It or List It’ is maddening, nonsensical, and strangely inspiring

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During a month in which we’ve had ample time to consider when it is best to stay and when it is best to go, I offer this: The most infuriating thing about one of the most infuriating shows in HGTV’s lineup of shows about infuriatingly tasteful real estate coups is actually great. Love It or List It is ostensibly about the comparative merits of remodeling a home versus moving to a new one. In reality, it is more like a documentary on mankind’s pathological inability to in any way depart from the familiar, even when it is comically decrepit. It is a master class in making lemonade.

First, a disclaimer: Most everything about HGTV programming is either wildly exaggerated or else a straight-up gimmick. Of course it’s a gimmick! That’s what you signed up for when you hungoveredly embarked on a binge-watching marathon: a pleasant and enduring suspension of disbelief. No one is that cheerful or expeditious or devoted to crown molding or kitchen fixtures. If you really want to pull up the lovely cobblestones and look for spiders, you’ll find them: There are theories suggesting that the producers of Love It or List It engineer each episode’s ending for optimal dramatic results, regardless of what happens, or that entrants game the system to get a bargain remodel. A 2015 lawsuit against the show’s production company, Big Coat TV, alleged that the program “is scripted, with ‘roles’ and reactions assigned to the various performers and participants, including the homeowners.”

But I would counter that whether the machinations are real hardly matters. Love It or List It wants to be a show about loving the dump you have, and everyone who appears on it — including the dump lovers themselves — has agreed to support this mission. If Love It or List It says it portrays serious real estate decisions, we will believe it. These days, there are not many nice things available for us to have; let us take this one and celebrate it.

The premise of Love It or List It is that a home-owning couple, dissatisfied with said home, secures the assistance of Hilary Farr and David Visentin, a pair — though not, emphatically, a couple, even if their strange and hateful tension is perhaps the single most fascinating element of the show — of real estate specialists. But the homeowners are not united in dissatisfaction: In a shocking turn of reality-TV events, one member of the couple thinks the home will be just fine with some minor remodeling (to be carried out by Farr), while the other is ready to burn it to the ground for the insurance money and move on to something new (to be located by Visentin).

Now, a little bit about the homes: They are woefully, stupendously insufficient for the families living in them. Usually, the couple moved into the home as newlyweds — the rehoming target of many other HGTV programs, whose narrative drama derives from interspliced images of wedding cake sampling and burgeoning baby bumps — and then proceeded to do what newlyweds are wont to: adopt three dogs, conceive a child, birth said child, conceive two to five more children (six kids, HGTV suggests with dogmatic frequency, is the mark of a truly well-established family), convert a majority of the rooms lacking toilets and refrigerators into what can only be considered toy dungeons, and age. They come to the Love It or List It hosts out of desperation, we are told. They have completed none of myriad home improvements they swore to carry out when they moved in; the people they have stuffed into the house are actively growing larger and more hormonal; and they need something bigger/better/more able to handle the giggling fruits of their loins and, especially, their many toys. That these houses are totally and dramatically unviable is the foundation of the show.

So Love It or List It resolves the family’s dilemma, procuring a new home that solves all of the old one’s problems: It is bigger, newer, nicer, the right price, etc. Meanwhile, the family sets a budget for the remodel that is roughly on par with the new-house budget (e.g. the old house is worth $325,000, the new house can cost up to $400,000, and the remodeling efforts are allotted $75,000), and Farr sets about improving the original, chiefly by knocking out a living room wall and orchestrating a Pinterest orgy. The couple is then brought back to the home, shown the improvements, and asked to decide whether to stay in the current house or move to the new — and, again, demonstrably goddamn better — home.

And they never fucking move. OK, fine, they sometimes do: Over the show’s first nine seasons, couples decided to move about 40 percent of the time. But for the other 60 percent, a kitchen island and some fresh paint is all it takes for these bozos to stay. Nearly two-thirds of the time, Love It or List It’s families decide that sleeping four kids to a bedroom and storing the treadmill in the front hallway is A-OK, no matter how many bedrooms (so many) or specially designated workout rooms (specially designated workout rooms) the new, same-budget option offered in exchange. It’s only natural that couples would sentimentally value their places as more than the sum of their leaky-roof parts, but still: Mashable’s “22 Things That Happen on Every Episode of Love It or List It” ends with no. 22, “And the couple decides to stay in their current, newly renovated home.”

You will not, then, be surprised to learn that to watch Love It or List It is to scream at your television. WHY WOULD YOU STAY? you holler. The dated kitchen remains! The bathroom is still carpeted!(?!?) The cherubic toddlers are going to turn into teenagers and they are going to be so mean and loud and unwilling to sleep in a bunk bed! THE OTHER HOUSE HAD A ROOM FOR BAND PRACTICE!!!

It’s nonsensical. Of course it is. And remember, it’s not even necessarily reality: Love It or List It wants to show a world where people figure it out, where accepting McMansion perfection is too easy, where the mess matters because it’s your mess. It isn’t logical, and doesn’t want to be. HGTV paints a scenario where in the end, things will be OK; where six months later, nice families sit around their dinner table surrounded by friends and stylishly appointed furnishings and smile. There’s something admirable about that. They’re making it work.