Designer drug

May 1, 2002 at 12:00 am
How well do you trust your neighbor? Do you trust them enough to redecorate your house?

On TLC's unlikely hit "Trading Spaces," neighbors who have volunteered to be on the show swap houses for two days while they redecorate one room in each other's homes. The participants (usually two suburban married couples) each work with one of a rotating cast of interior designers and a lowball $1,000 budget. Both couples/designers share a carpenter, and a fleet of cameras record it all. The trade-off is that the homeowners can't see their own homes until the end of the second day and have nothing to say about what's going on in their house.

What makes "Trading Spaces" really work, though, isn't the budget design work or the quality of the quickie carpentry. It's the potential for disaster, playing out suspensefully before your eyes, that makes the show downright engrossing.

Now ending its second season, "Trading Spaces" features a regular cast including host Paige Davis (a peppy sorority-girl type with a punky/hipster makeover) and two rotating carpenters, sardonic Ty Pennington and practical Amy Wynn Pastor. Then there are the designers, who also rotate each show: Frank Bielec (who has a flair for that obnoxious "country craft" look), Genevieve Gorder (who will take an object found in your room and base her whole design on it, whether the object is a discarded fork or a photograph of your hated mother-in-law), Laurie Hickson-Smith (pretentious and often indifferent to the desires of the participants), Hilda Santo-Thomas (the forward-looking designer every timid Middle American homeowner fears), Doug Wilson (whose designs tend to be on the dark and slick side), and Vern Yip (warm and sincere, with a flair for fabrics and paper). When the homeowners are thrown into this mix, the results are often stressful and nail-biting.

Conflict usually arises almost immediately, when participants try to talk the designers, who have already planned their work, out of certain elements they know their neighbors will hate: "We can't paint the walls black!" "She hates pink, please don't paint the ceiling pink." "Why are we hot-gluing hay to the walls when they have a young child who will only pick the hay off?"

Unfortunately for the participants, their protests rarely stop the designers, whom they have no control over selecting. Because of this dynamic, the show's designers achieve first-name personality branding similar to professional wrestlers. Hilda is a bad guy. Genevieve is a good gal. Doug is ruthless. Vern is compassionate. Frank will rely on his handy country-craft move. Laurie will say something to reveal that she is completely out of touch with people in general. This friction creates a slowly building cringe factor as the designs play out and you wonder to yourself, What were they thinking?

As the carpenter runs behind schedule and the neighbors frantically try to fit in all the work that the designers need done (often working into the wee hours on Day 1, long after the designers retire to their hotel), host Davis will occasionally lend a hand. More often than not, however, she contributes to the stress level by wielding her own handheld "Paige Cam" and interviewing them as they work. Imagine having to paint a thousand small wooden squares in two hours while someone sticks a camera in your face and asks, "What do you think of this green?" and you get the idea.

Day 2 is usually more stressful than Day 1, as time runs out and disasters must be compensated for somehow. (For example, there was the time Santo-Thomas decided to paint one family's furniture bright magenta and two chairs and a couch were accidentally ruined by an overnight rain.) Meanwhile, the viewer's anticipation is rising, as is interest in how the room is taking shape -- either, "Hey, that doesn't look too bad," or, as is often the case, "Look what they've done to that room."

Finally, the show peaks at "The Reveal." Davis leads each couple back to their house in turn, their hands over their eyes. As soon as she tells them to take a look, the seasoned viewer begins furiously scanning their faces for reactions. Do they hate it? Do they like it? Are they just saying they like it but really hate it? How could they actually like it? Are those tears of joy or horror? And so on. The Reveal is simply orgasmic, the essence of "Trading Spaces". Every minute of the program has been building to this point as the neighbors have been frantically trying to complete their respective rooms. What will the payoff be? Will these suburbanites have wasted a weekend and destroyed a room in the process thanks to a designer's misdirection, or will the seemingly disjointed room elements finally come together?

The neighbors' reactions, ranging from undeniable horror to gritted teeth to tears of joy, are almost unbearably rewarding to the viewer. And in some instances, the results have garnered as much press as the show itself is currently getting (including coverage in Entertainment Weekly magazine and on NBC's "Today"). There have been well-publicized incidents where dangerous design work and shoddy carpentry have ruined someone's traded space. But that's part of the gamble and, inevitably, what makes the show so compelling: Participants sign releases before going on the show and are stuck with whatever results, and possibilities for dream room to turn nightmare are rife from the premise on down. Carpenters watching "Trading Spaces", for example, may be appalled to see wall mountings that avoid studs. But with only one carpenter between two houses, two days, and $2,000, participants are not getting fantastic room makeovers; they are getting a hastily thrown-together room revisions.

So, how well do you trust your neighbors? Yes, "Trading Spaces" may be able to help you get rid of that drop ceiling or the puke-green carpet covering up those beautiful hardwood floors. But you may end up with unfinished 2x4s mounted at regular intervals into your black-painted dry wall. Or worse. Now that's good television.

For more information on "Trading Spaces" — or to sign up as a participant with your neighbors — visit the official Web site.

Benn Ray writes for City Paper, where the original version of this feature appeared. Send comments to [email protected]