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Dens of Iniquity

June 08, 2003|Stephen Randall | Stephen Randall is executive editor of Playboy and author of the novel "The Other Side of Mulholland."

Recently, a very dumb kid trying to copy a stunt he had seen on MTV's "Jackass" jumped off a five-story condo, aiming for the swimming pool below. He missed, breaking both legs, cracking his pelvis and pretty much ruining his summer.

There will be those who use the kid's pain to attack reality TV shows. I intend to be one of them. My problem is not with "Jackass" -- frankly, anyone who voluntarily jumps off a 60-foot building has bigger problems than what he watches on TV. My problem is with another breed of reality programming, one that is far more insidious.

"Jackass," hosted by Johnny Knoxville, at least runs a disclaimer, urging -- in fact, insisting -- "Don't try this at home." But a certain group of shows has no disclaimers. Instead, they cry out: "Please try this at home. We want you to do this. Really. It's fun. It won't hurt at all."

This evil has a face, and that face belongs to Paige Davis, the Johnny Knoxville of the Learning Channel and host of "Trading Spaces." She seems harmless. But she's not. And neither are her co-stars on "Trading Spaces," although they pose as well-meaning interior designers and carpenters.

The premise of "Trading Spaces" is simple. Two sets of homeowners swap houses and "redecorate" a room in each other's house, assisted by a demonic designer and armed with a budget of $1,000. Those of you who have tried to buy a sofa lately might think that you can't do a lot of damage with $1,000, but you'd be underestimating Paige and Company.

For a mere $1,000, the crew from "Trading Spaces" can take an ordinary ugly room and turn it into something extraordinarily ugly, a room so over-the-top, so garish and cartoonish, it feels like a Disney theme restaurant -- but less tasteful.

How bad? Genevieve Gorder, one of the "Trading Spaces" regular designers, once made over a room for a San Diego couple in floor-to-ceiling moss. The unsuspecting couple was led blindfolded in the room. "Something smells," said the couple, becoming the first (and so far only) people to reject a room redesign before taking off their blindfolds. "I'm sorry the San Diego homeowners didn't get it, and that they had allergies," writes Gorder in "Trading Spaces: Behind the Scenes" a book enthusiastically displayed at Home Depot.

Most room redos are not so dramatically bad, but they are bad. Paint is hastily slapped on by amateurs in order to meet the program's deadline. Photocopies are fastened into bargain frames and passed off as art. Weird treatments -- "Let's make this wall look like cheap, fake leather!" -- are standard. And strange themes -- "This room cries out for a jungle look" -- dominate.

But Paige, Genevieve and the rest are not alone. Now MTV has followed suit, with "Crib Crashers." Feeling kindly toward your college roommate? Of course you are. Wouldn't he love to see the apartment turned into a carbon copy of Tommy Lee's famed in-house party spot, Club Mayhem? Of course he would. What apartment doesn't benefit from purple velvet, a disco light and a Jacuzzi swing?

"Crib Crashers" shows up, and the rest is easy. Within a weekend, the apartment is transformed. Add a pair of fuzzy dice, and you'd think you were in the accessories aisle at Pep Boys.

There are others -- the Learning Channel features hour after hour of cheesy make-over shows. But the problem isn't the lack of programming imagination -- "Hey, let's repackage the same simple concept 12 different ways" -- it's the message. These shows suggest that we can do it, too. Bored with that den? Hang a net from the ceiling and fill it with stuffed animals. Bedroom a bit ho-hum? Why not make a bedspread of artificial turf and silk flowers? (Well, yes, it does look like a grave, but what are you afraid of?) It's easy, it's fun, it's inexpensive.

It's also hideous. I know. My wife is a "Trading Spaces" victim. Our house, which seemed plenty good enough to me, has been tweaked beyond recognition. Our bed's headboard, once white, now sports a "treatment." "See, it looks like an antique," said my wife. The mirror frame, which was a stately brown for a decade, has been painted four times in four months. There was a treatment involved too, so it would match the headboard. I think it just looks dirty.

Then there's the weird blue thing in the backyard. It's a "found object" -- a pole with inexplicable arms and no base. My wife painted it blue and put plants on it, but even she isn't sure if it's right side up or not.

Even my wife is beginning to see the downside. "This doesn't look like 'Trading Spaces,' she admitted, examining her latest project with dismay. "It looks like 'Sanford and Son.' "

Sadly, that hasn't stopped her from watching the shows. She openly fantasizes about "While You Were Out" -- that's a show on the Learning Channel in which a hapless husband like me is sent away for a weekend, unaware that when he returns home his den will look like a high roller's suite at Caesars Palace.

Of course, that might be better than moss-covered walls. It's certainly better than jumping off a five-story building.

Still, until these shows start running disclaimers, I'm refusing to travel.

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