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The Unexpected Joy of ‘Tidying Up With Marie Kondo’

Netflix’s latest reality gambit is an organizational makeover show from the creator of the KonMari method. It is also a moving meditation on the meaning of home.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

When I first learned Marie Kondo—“organizing consultant,” best-selling author, tidying evangelist—was getting a Netflix show, my first instinct was to make jokes. Kondo famously advocates a lifestyle of rigorously maintained decluttering: combing through all of one’s worldly possessions, one by one, and holding onto only those that “spark joy,” the kind of instantly memeable concept that turned Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up into a global smash. (Though originally published in Japan in 2011, when Kondo was still in her 20s, the book finally made it to the States in late 2014.) If Kondo believed in stripping one’s life down to its bare essentials, and Life-Changing Magic taught the reader everything they needed to do so, then wouldn’t a TV show be exactly the kind of superfluous, redundant item she so persuasively argues against?

But Kondo is a minimalist, not an ascetic. What distinguishes her worldview from the no-nonsense imposer of order or pragmatic conservationist is the sincere and careful attention paid to objects’ emotional benefit as well as their practical use. Rather than an unsentimental appraisal of what’s necessary and what isn’t, Kondo advocates a deeply sentimental process of checking in with items’ histories and relationships to their environment. Sparking joy is more than a euphemism for deciding a certain pair of jeans makes the cut. And Tidying Up With Marie Kondo sparks joy.

Released on New Year’s Day, Tidying Up is very much an extension of Kondo’s internationally renowned persona. But true to Netflix’s notoriously data-driven programming strategy, it also shares DNA with some previous hits for the streaming service. Like the recent reboot of Queer Eye, Tidying Up is an old-school makeover show with a host of modern tweaks. Like Salt Fat Acid Heat, it transitions the author of a popular, seemingly definitive text into a new stage of their domestic goddess career. Like Terrace House, it acknowledges and exploits that cultural differences with countries like Japan can be as much a draw for American audiences as a hindrance. But where Terrace House adapts a quintessentially American format like reality television to a Japanese sensibility, Tidying Up makes the cross-cultural exchange literal. Kondo, of course, is Japanese; each of her eight clients in Tidying Up’s first season is American. She communicates with them through an interpreter, an unmissable extra body in a litany of tight spaces and overflowing mess.

Even through a language barrier, Kondo is a magnetic, natural screen presence. At just 5 feet tall, with a kindergarten-teacher wardrobe of prim cardigans and tastefully patterned skirts, Kondo comes across as a Mary Poppins for inanimate objects instead of human children. (Though Kondo’s preferred mode of transportation is a modest black minivan, not an enchanted umbrella.) Most of her interstitials are shot at a slightly wider length than the traditional reality testimonial, the better to capture her elegant, expressive hand motions. As a host, Kondo is somehow both placid and energetic, a counterpoint to the chaos of her surroundings.

But Tidying Up’s most surprising innovation is to divert much of the focus from its host to its subjects. Most makeover shows emphasize the genius of the interloper, who saves the beneficiary from themselves then institutes a camera-friendly 180. Queer Eye’s Bobby Berk infamously transforms entire homes in the space of a week; HGTV has developed an entire programming slate around the same premise. Kondo, on the other hand, merely gives the guest stars of Tidying Up the tools they need to reorganize their space themselves. Over the course of several weeks, Kondo and her interpreter drop in periodically to guide her charges through another step of her five-phase program, outlined in the 60-second introduction to each episode: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous items, and belongings with sentimental value. The actual tidying, and the intensely personal choices that come with it, is left to the subjects, with much of the show’s footage coming from charmingly amateur home videos. Tidying Up is a “teach a man to fish” type of show, not a “serve a man an impossibly complicated bouillabaisse he can’t possibly replicate on his own” one.

This seeming pivot away from Kondo, however, turns out to be an organic extension of her guiding principles. The word I keep returning to when attempting to describe the appeal of Tidying Up is “intimate”: People’s homes are a reflection of their lives, and in talking about what they’d like to change or fix about their space, Kondo’s clients inevitably lay bare some of their most personal hang-ups. As with Queer Eye, makeovers frequently come with a mission that’s as much emotional as material. A recent widow needs help clearing out her husband’s things. A young couple wants to show their parents they’ve reached maturity. Multiple married families with children express a desire for a more equal split of domestic labor, which often falls to overburdened mothers. Kondo is fully aware that this is how her method works. “Tidying not only changes your home or life,” she says with a smile. “It also allows you to create a space that suits your ideal self.” I’d go even further. According to Kondo, there’s no such thing as home or life—home is life.

Which is why Kondo talks about everyday objects in terms that are almost disarmingly animistic, even spiritual, for the average American. (As a teenager, Kondo volunteered at her local Shinto shrine.) Kondo begins every tidying process by silently introducing herself to the house and thanking it for protecting its occupants. She never calls it a prayer, exactly, but that’s what it is, moving her clients to silent awe and, in the first episode, tears. Chores as mundane as folding laundry are phrased in terms of giving love and appreciation to valued companions. Under the namesake KonMari method’s most famous and idiosyncratic quirk, every item to be discarded is individually thanked for its service. Some of Kondo’s solo segments are practical tutorials in how to fold a fitted sheet or store a handbag. Others are mini-sermons in how to properly sanctify a space for tidying. All of them are presented the same.

Over eight characteristically efficient installments—the editors of Tidying Up manage to convey the magnitude of each household’s project while also winnowing their journey down to a tight 40ish minutes—Kondo takes tired buzzwords like “gratitude” and “mindfulness” and gives them new life. This is what Tidying Up adds to what’s already on the page: a series of highly specific applications of Kondo’s technique, and with them, proof that anyone, including you, can tidy up their own life in their own way. The timing—at a moment when millions of viewers are freshly compelled to take stock of their lives and make adjustments for the year ahead—is almost diabolically apt, magnifying Kondo’s charisma to the point of almost superhuman motivation. Without thinking, in the middle of my binge watch, I found myself pausing the episode to get out a trash bag, gather some old clothes for donation, and rearrange a few newly empty shelves. I’d discovered the magic of tidying up, and now, so can you.