Wednesday, March 09, 2005

"They Survived Doug and Hildi: Drama in Real Life"

Okay. Here's what I know about the "black room"/"white room" episode of Trading Spaces, otherwise known as "Los Angeles: North Cherokee Avenue."

Now, I'll tell you right upfront: this is secondhand information. I do know one of the foursome who were featured on the episode - I've known him for maybe twelve years -- but we're not close friends. He is one of my best friend's best friends. A friend of a friend -- or a FOAF, as they say. But such are the crumbs I have to scatter today.

Starting at some point in Season Two, David and I were hooked on Trading Spaces. We were just slightly ahead of the curve ... most people knew the show vaguely: "Wasn't there a woman who hated her room so much she cried?" Why yes, that was Crying Pam, the Seattle woman who inadvertently made the show's reputation by her reaction to Doug Wilson's modern design for her fireplace. Considering some of the crap he's pulled since then, his design for Crying Pam was the height of restrained taste.

Back then, I almost wrote a song about Crying Pam and Trading Spaces - I was working on a revue of my stuff at the time - but thought it was too obscure. Very funny to those who watched, but not familiar enough yet to your random audience member. I mentioned it to the pianist one day, and it turned out that he knew Doug Wilson from the days when Doug was still trying to make it as a musical theater performer, and only doing design on the side. Apparently they all worked together on some rent-a-show that was hired out for parties; in the van on their way to various gigs, Doug would talk about his design ideas (he first became known for his wall treatments). They thought he was crazy. Apparently he would also talk about girls he was dating. The pianist said to me, "We would all look at him like ... 'girls?!' But he was serious."

My best friend Richard, an actor in Los Angeles, was spending some time in New York, and was doing the revue while he was there. He hadn't heard of Trading Spaces. Fast forward to a year and a half later, when he came back to New York with the news that our friend had just finished taping an episode with Doug and Hildi, and that it had been a disaster.

(Another strange connection from this tiny revue of mine to Trading Spaces; when we were casting, my director called an actor friend of hers from Yale to ask if he wanted to do the show. No, he said, it sounded great, but he was burnt out from having spent months doing shows out of town. He was just laying low, not performing, just going on an audition or two. So, we moved on. One of those auditions he went on was apparently to be the host of Trading Spaces Family - and he got the job. Ka-blink.)

So, back to the Doug/Hildi debacle. If you haven't seen the episode, it featured two gay male couples in Los Angeles. Doug designed an all-white room, and Hildi designed an all-black room. The couple whose living room was painted all white were extremely unhappy. Actually, no one was happy, but they hid their anger and dismay less successfully.

Our friend B. - nameless to avoid the Googlebots - was part of the couple who worked on the white room and had the black room created for them. Things had gone wrong from the very beginning; the producers, perhaps hoping to cash in on "Sex and the City" season finale fever, had brought special versions of the "Trading Spaces" shirts that the homeowners wear. These had the names of the SATC characters appliqued on the back like an ├╝ber-gay bowling team - Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda. The guys were quizzical. "Oh come on," the producers said. "It'll be fun. We'll shoot you eating brunch, having cosmos, you know, a weekend with the 'girls.'" As fey as a couple of them admittedly were, they weren't girls, and said as much. "Oh come on," they were told. "Don't be difficult." So they put on the shirts.

Of course, they are made to look as though it was their own idea, like they ran home and got out their Bedazzlers and put the SATC characters names on the shirts themselves. Paige quizzes them about it ... "Which one of you is Carrie?" They laugh about who is who... "Oh yes, I'm Samantha..." It's one step away from, "Which one of you is the wife?" B. was gritting his teeth through this, but figured it was all part of the show. Trading Spaces had had a few gay couples by this time, but these particular producers (there are a number of different producers who oversee things) were out to make them look like the gayest gays who ever gayed. Of course, it didn't help that one guy in the other couple knotted his shirt into a blouse a la Daisy Duke. But still.

Trouble began when Doug revealed his monochromatic white plan for the living room that B. and his partner would be working on. The other couple had just painstakingly restored the floor and wood trim of their Arts and Crafts style bungalow, and now Doug proposed painting over all of it. Besides that, the couple had expressed their wish for something colorful to express their personalities; this was as far from that as you can get.

Of course, by this time, I think anyone going on the show had to be ready to be shafted. Ever since Crying Pam shed her tears, the show went for high drama, pointedly ignoring anything the homeowner might actually like or want. If you had just spent a ton of money fixing up your living room and then invited Doug Wilson in the door, you were a fool. But, the lure of the show was still great at that time; I probably would have done it too, and taken my chances.

But B. and his partner knew in their gut how wrong a choice this was - I believe that it was the other couple's idea to go on the show in the first place, so it would be particularly hurtful when their home was ruined. B. tried to express his misgivings a number of times, but you're really in a powerless position once production is underway. Finally, Doug snapped at him, "Listen Dorothy, just click those ruby slippers and back off."

B. had had it. He's a great guy - very low key, and very slow to get angry - but he had been pushed too far. He was ready to walk off. The whole SupaGay! angle was really distasteful to him. Paige tried to calm him down, and Doug was sent to apologize. "Listen," he apparently said. "I'm gay myself, I didn't mean anything by it."

So B., not wanting to ruin it for everybody, went back to work.

If you saw the Season Four outtakes show, you saw even more instances of B. and his partner trying to reason with Doug, and then getting stressed with each other when it was clear the All-White-Room-of-Doom was inevitably going to happen.

When they went to the reveal of their own room and saw it done up in all black, the theme of the episode became clear; the designers had never considered the homeowners for a minute. The producers had selected these two couples to be guinea pigs for an episode that would be about a high-concept design - never mind how wrong it was for them.

They actually didn't mind their own room so much; they had chosen a low-stakes room that didn't matter much to them (a wise decision.) Apparently it looked much better in person than it did on camera.

When the other couple were shown their icy white room, they were stunned at first; then the more emotional of the two (well, flamboyant is what I mean to say, but I don't like that word) became so upset that he eventually tore his mic off and left the set. Honestly, I don't know how much of that was a genuine reaction - it might have been partly a self-conscious attempt to become another in the pantheon of Crying Pams. But that may be ungenerous; I think they were truly looking to have a good time being on a show that they loved, and they were screwed from the very beginning. And not in a good way.

I don't know how long they left the white room that way; it was a few months until the episode aired. B. and his partner left their room all black, at least until they had their screening party.

By the time the episode was on, my enthusiasm for TS was waning. Watching someone I knew endure all the humiliation - especially of those damn shirts - really killed any last bits of warm feelings I had for the show.

As happens so often, I think the producers got too interested in short-term gain (drama! they cried! they hated it! they threw a fit!) and lost sight of why people liked the show in the first place - you loved it when people were thrilled and happy. Friends helping to create something for their friends - and it was great to see designers come up with new and interesting designs that took the homeowner's lives and personalities into account. When they started hiring no-talents like Kia, and purposely pissing people off by giving them ridiculous and ugly designs - well, I was done.

Ironically, the pendulum has swung the other way with Ty Pennington's new show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition", which pours on the syrupy smarm by the gallon. It's a giant love-fest of epic proportions. Trading Spaces tried to mend its ways - giving homeowners more say, letting the neighbors choose the room to be redone - but it was all too late. They had lost our sympathy and our interest. And now, losing Paige, the one person who seemed to care when someone like B. was upset - there's no more reason to watch.

The next time I talk to Richard, I'll see if there's anything major I've forgotten to include. I do remember this, though - what really pushed B. over the edge was the hypocrisy of the production team. At first he was treated like just another know-nothing homeowner; then, when they all discovered that B. is a fairly well-known agent (a partner in his own agency), they were all handing him their business cards.

So, that is the secondhand tale of the black and white rooms, and the gays who survived them. Drama in Real Life.


Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

Second-hand information or not, it's just appalling! Now with Paige leaving, we'll probably be watching TS less and less ourselves.

Soooo....nothing juicy about Carter? :(

6:10 AM  
Blogger David said...

I can't believe you revealed all that, thus depriving me of my position of power! NOW who's going to want to bribe me?

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob, that's a pretty spot-on analysis of why Trading Spaces has gone downhill. After I saw Doug and his prison bedroom with toilet bench, it was pretty hard to go back.

And David, what more do you want from me in bribes?

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Brian said...

Rob, that's a pretty spot-on analysis of why Trading Spaces has gone downhill. After I saw Doug and his prison bedroom with toilet bench, it was pretty hard to go back.

And David, what more do you want from me in bribes?

11:14 AM  
Blogger eyduck said...

I hopped off the TS bandwagon back when they got rid of Alex. It was the "don't you love my moss glued to the wall and/or silk flowers staple gunned to your drywall" episodes that make me walk away and flip on Cleansweep.

I went over to the TLC site to look up the pictures... Oh. My. God. Doug and the entire production team should be blindfolded and shot without that final cigarette. Tragic.

2:35 PM  
Blogger crumblord said...

Hanuman: all they said about Carter was that he was sweet, but a dum-dum.

Brian: Ah, the prison bedroom. Another high point. The worst for me was the air force family who got screwed over by Kia when she painted their house gray and decorated with camouflage wallpaper borders.

eyduck: I didn't like Alex so much -- she seemed very flat to me -- and it was a different production company then. Apparently they taped everything and edited it all together later -- when Banyan came on board, they saved money by only taping certain staged "scenes" (the paint reveal scene, the "homeowners talk about what might be happening in their house" scene, the "husband has to do girly fabric sewing" scene, the "wife ogles carpenter or learns sistah-power from Amy Wynn" scene.) This sameness killed it, too.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

April 7, 2018 8/7c on TLC: They're all back - run for your rooms' lives and bolt the doors!

7:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

TLC is airing the episode as I type this.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Sara Destin said...

If this is going to be the same old trash where the make people work to make their neighbor's room look unliveable while their own is being trashed as well, I won't watch it and I will avoid all sponsors. There is too much mean in the world.

5:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I felt so sorry for both teams on this episode. It was incredibly disrespectful. What's fun about the show is all the ideas that the 'good' designers come up with on a budget. This episode, along with all of Hilde's antics-feathers, hay, records, silk flowers-is like the Jerry Springer of design shows. Totally not interested in a revamp of bad ideas in 'home design'. Give me more Vern, Laurie, and Ed. If it's more of the disrespect like what we saw in this episode, no thanks.

11:30 PM  
Anonymous AJ said...

Wow. I just saw this episode for the first time. Appalled, and concerned for the well-being of the participants, I decided to look it up online. I stumbled across your blog post. Your insight at the time of filming took some of us years to develop. Perhaps we are a more sensitive society now (or at least parts of our society are more sensitive) but I am actually flabbergasted that TLC is even airing this episode. As someone who, like you, enjoyed the first season or two of the show, I've been looking at this "Big Return" recently with a somewhat skeptical eye. But today, seeing that there was an episode on North Cherokee grabbed me- I lived in WeHo for years... I thought that maybe this would be the ticket- I'd finally find the nostalgia I've been hoping for with these reruns! Instead I was left with an icky feeling about every gay reference and a desire to hug everyone involved. Maybe buy them a drink at the Formosa or Jones... (BTW: I love your writing style)

3:27 PM  

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