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Into the Gaines-verse

Now with an entire network of their own, Chip and Joanna Gaines have graduated from being television personalities to a whole, self-sustaining vibe. Because at this point, the only option is to keep growing.

Ringer illustration

I would say it’s been awhile since any of us have heard from Chip and Joanna Gaines, but it absolutely has not. Maybe you’ve seen the omnipresent glossy magazines in checkout aisles, or the cookbooks (one of which was reportedly the second-best-selling book in all of 2018, after Michelle Obama’s Becoming), the children’s books, the, um, No Pains, No Gaines. Maybe you have a tasteful Magnolia olive wreath ($68) hanging from your front door. Maybe you know someone—maybe you are someone—who’s made the pilgrimage to the Gaineses’ bona fide commercial kingdom in Waco, Texas. Maybe you bought your whole dang house from them. Maybe, well, you can just hear Jo’s plaintive y’all in your head.

The Chip and Jo industrial complex, friends, is still growing. Earlier this month, as part of the launch of the streaming service Discovery+, the real estate impresarios debuted their very own television network, the Magnolia Network. At its center is a revival of Fixer Upper, the home renovation show that first brought the Gaineses to national prominence on HGTV and that went off the air in 2018 after five seasons—at more or less the same time that calling the couple “real estate impresarios” began to feel like calling Jimmy Carter a peanut farmer.

The Gaineses were, in a way, the peak of the HGTV dream. The network specializes in feel-good reality TV, chiefly delivered by pairs of wholesome home-renovation gurus—siblings (both twin and not), married couples, once-married and now very-not-married couples, mother-daughter duos, conspicuously flirtatious business partners, and so on—who help each episode’s clients achieve the American dream: a home office, an accent wall, and a mortgage. Many of HGTV’s stars are cast more for their telegenic potential than their actual real estate credentials: The El Moussas of Flip or Flip, for example, had flipped just three houses when their sizzle reel caught the network’s eye, while Jonathan Scott, Property Brothers’ contractor to brother Drew’s realtor, had worked as a flight attendant and a magician and only put on a tool belt when Drew’s pursuit of acting led to an offer for both. But the Gaineses’ origin story has some truth to it: They were flipping houses and were discovered when a talent scout spotted a post by Jo on a design blog.

Each of HGTV’s offerings provides its own little twist, and on Fixer Upper, it was twofold. First: Texas (the setting, but also the twang, the super-saturated shots of horses cantering through fields, the idea). And second: the Gaineses themselves—both extremely attractive and charismatic, and seemingly with an eternally growing brood of polite offspring to skip through the show’s interstitials and address their parents as “sir” and “ma’am.”

Chip and Jo were selling not just the brighter, whiter kitchens found in all of HGTV’s offerings, but also themselves. Embrace the Gaines lifestyle—the farmhouse sinks, the giant clocks, the family and togetherness—and you could be a little more like them.

For this, they were rewarded with blockbuster success. In the five seasons that Fixer Upper was on the air, it was a reliable hit; by its fourth season, it was HGTV’s highest-rated show. Even Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez seemed to be fans, enlisting Jo to redesign their home in Malibu, California. (Don’t be fooled by the shiplap that she’s got, etc.)

And then, well, they left. There were so many irons in the fire, plus a new baby on the way and a Waco homestead that now draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. What’s a home reno demigod-slash-influencer to do once they’ve scaled Everest?

The answer, apparently, is to keep climbing. The Gaineses serve as the chief creative officers of the new Magnolia Network, as well as the stars of some of the new offerings, including Magnolia Table (a Jo-helmed cooking show in which she throws together multicourse meals from the aforementioned cookbooks in a spotless, über-fashionable show kitchen, and winningly fails to be remotely relatable) and, of course, the rebooted Fixer Upper, which will debut later this month.

Most of the shows, though, feature neither Wacoite, opting instead to funnel some Gainesian essence into a new format or host; Chip and Jo are no longer merely people, or even television personalities—they are a whole entire vibe. The premise of Homegrown: A charming and handy farmer helps families build backyard farms of their own. The premise of Super Dad: A charming and handy dad helps families build cool stuff for their children. (Super Dad’s host, Taylor Calmus, recalled Chip pulling him aside after a chance encounter and telling him, “I’m about to change your life.”) There are documentary series anchored around plucky entrepreneurs and the virtues of hard work and perseverance: Growing Floret follows a Washington-based flower farm run by—yep—a telegenic married couple (they, too, were personally recruited by Magnolia), or The Lost Kitchen, which is focused on an acclaimed restaurant in rural Maine. And there are survey series, seemingly meant to showcase the gumption and diversity of our great nation. (The best of these is Family Dinner, in which chef and TV host Andrew Zimmern turns up to have dinner with Real People. The worst? Restoration Road With Clint Harp—that is, the go-to woodworker on Fixer Upper, who makes for significantly worse television when he’s not falling deep into the eyes of the supernova that is Joanna Gaines.) Magnolia Network is relentlessly about family and unity and tenacity, set in some lovely, loving bizarro America where maybe Facebook was never invented. It’s comfort television, cast in the triple-platinum comfort mold of the Fixer Upper universe. Sunsets abound.

Discovery+ joins an ever more crowded market of streaming services—and meets an ever more fatigued audience that is increasingly inclined to cancel their subscriptions just as soon as they’re done with a desired show. In 2018, Discovery acquired Scripps Networks Interactive, the parent of HGTV, the Food Network, the Travel Channel, and others, and its unified streaming platform offers shows from those networks as well as other stalwarts like TLC, A&E, the History channel, OWN, and Discovery proper. Which is to say that it is, more or less, the de facto home of endlessly renewable reality programming, from House Hunters and Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives to Storage Wars and MythBusters. In these times of subscription weariness, one-stop comfort TV is probably not a bad bet.

And so we have the Magnolia Network, too. Launching your own television network in the age of streaming is a wholly different proposition than it might have been if it were, say, an actual channel: Many of the Magnolia efforts seem positioned more as serialized documentaries than something designed for weekly installments, as with The Lost Kitchen, whose first episode documents the restaurant’s annual closure for the winter in late 2019, and whose teasers for Episode 2 show the staff grappling with the pandemic in 2020. Other shows seem to be one-offs: The Courage to Run follows, erm, Chip’s attempt to take up jogging. The episode ends with a marathon in Waco, so one thinks that is probably that.

The Courage to Run offers one of the more revealing moments in the Magnolia Network’s early offerings, as Chip dabbles in introspection. “Fame is a really weird thing to get acclimated to,” he says in a voice-over. “When you’re a normal family in Waco, Texas, and somebody calls you up and says ‘Hey, we love what you and your wife do, do you mind if we feature you on a television show?’ nobody really tells you the what-ifs and the how comes.”

There have been plenty of what-ifs and how comes. But in the process, the Gaines family has built a veritable empire. The most preposterous part of the Magnolia Network might be that it doesn’t actually feel very preposterous at all.