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Virtue, by the mop bucket

Your home must be pristine, it seems, or you're not a decent sort.

September 06, 2004|Meghan Daum | Special to The Times

It's no accident that earthiness as a household aesthetic -- think macrame wall hangings, abundant houseplants and those pesky little droppings they leave -- took hold in the early 1970s, right around the time women cut the cord between their vacuum cleaners and their value to society. But one glance at TV these days makes it clear that dirt and debris, like body hair (that other relic of the '70s), are out of style in a very big way.

On the heels of the shelter-porn cable boom comes an army of missionaries poised to help the messiest cases. Now Lifetime has joined in with "How Clean Is Your House?," a reality program premiering tonight.

The show practices rehabilitation through outright humiliation. When I took a peek, I had to hide my eyes under the covers. Images of mold, grease, clumps of hair and animal waste appear in such unflinching close-up that I found myself longing for that digital scrambling technique used on exposed nipples and explicit T-shirts.

But I also found myself thinking that 30 years after cleanliness gave up its seat next to godliness, it's realigned itself with the entire notion of morality. As we see on "How Clean Is Your House?" as on the countless home improvement shows that promise better living through paint sponging, being a respectable member of society is now contingent not just upon earning a living or loving one's neighbor. It also means good hygiene, a flattering wardrobe and a pristine, stylish home. "Before" and "after" pictures have become stand-ins for religious conversion. Always, they elicit tears. All over cable television, the rapture comes again and again -- even to a condo in Alhambra.

The name "How Clean Is Your House?" suggests that we might learn how clean our own houses are. Instead, the program is the closest thing we currently have to a public stockade. The subjects of the first episode, a middle-class family from Tujunga that has somehow failed to do the dishes for weeks and allowed traces of human fecal matter to collect on the sofa, appears to have been cast solely to make us feel better about ourselves (another empowering moment from Lifetime). Comprising five children, 10 cats, two pet rats, a pet snake, and two addled parents who are given to remarks like "there's just too much to clean" and (on the subject of the grease-laden microwave) "throw it away and buy a new one," the Bradfords are in as much need of a licensed therapist as they are a steam cleaner.

"How Clean Is Your House?" is chiefly about Kim Woodburn and Aggie MacKenzie, its droll and starchy British hosts, who are already stars in England and may just be headed for cult status here. But even their endearing, larger-than-life presence cannot eclipse the enormous elephant that lurks in every rancid room of the Bradford home. As the hosts survey the damage, the theme from "Psycho" screeching in the background at the sight of unflushed toilets, pet droppings and a master bed containing a brick, a screwdriver, and box of old French fries, I wanted nothing more than some answers to the questions that tumble from this show as if from an overloaded dryer: What's really going on when there's cat poop in your bed and pet rats running loose in your kids' bedroom? When does run-of-the-mill messiness become pathological and where is the 12-step program that will treat it? Unfortunately, and unaccountably, "How Clean Is Your House" doesn't address any of that.

BBC America's program "The Life Laundry" does, exploring our relationship to our possessions with some interesting depth. Whether we hoard them or just abuse them, our things can become a stand-in for our very souls.

In every segment of "The Life Laundry," a heap of household clutter is placed in a yard or warehouse for the owner to behold in all its meaningless glory. Then, only a few items are allowed to be salvaged. "I've been forced to face the fact that I probably can't do everything," says one tearful hoarder who risked losing his wife if he didn't pare down the debris that blocked her movement through the house. "It is," he adds, "at great personal cost."

The new clutter consciousness is about financial as well as personal cost. That's because it's ultimately a matter of social class. Cleanliness can be bought in the form of professional help. But does that mean morality can be bought? When I was growing up, I believed only rich people had housekeepers. Today, there is a vast force of cheap immigrant labor that cleans the houses of those who can't be bothered or, increasingly, just don't know how. When I think back on the messy houses I knew in the '70s, I remember their occupants as distracted college professors, hippie-ish artists, maybe even (horrors) feminists. The messy house was an anti-bourgeois statement. Today it suggests poverty, possibly even mental illness.

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