Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Real Simple, Real Life

My review of Real Simple, Real Life (the reality TV show) ran at Culture11.com today. I'm also reprinting it, below.

Real Simple, Real Life, Really Must-See TV

Real Simple enters the reality TV world -- and leaves life a little better behind it.

By Laura Vanderkam, December 15, 2008

Wendy’s life borders on chaos. She works more than full time as an associate professor at a local college because she chairs so many committees that her meetings stack up. She has 151 unheard voice messages. At home, food goes bad in her war-zone pantry because she can’t find things. Disaster seems to follow her around; when her husband takes her sons to volunteer at an animal shelter, a dog bites her 6-year-old, necessitating a trip to the ER. What could make her life easier?

If you answered “a team of experts in colorful blouses with good hair” than you’ll understand the appeal of Real Simple Real Life, Real Simple magazine’s new venture into the reality TV realm. Every week, host Kit Hoover and her team of designers, money coaches, life coaches, wardrobe consultants, and the like descend upon a hapless woman – usually a working mom of young kids – and try to improve the most disorganized aspects of her existence. By the end of 60 minutes, she’ll have a budget. She’ll have an organized kitchen. Sometimes she’ll even land some colorful blouses or at least a household message center. As the print ads for the show promise, “Life doesn’t have to be this hard.”

It’s a seductive concept, that all that stands between us and a perfect life is labeled bins in our closets. Indeed, as a daily barrage of emails and stuff threatens to overwhelm the good intentions of American women, decluttering has practically become the religion of the modern era. With its promise of redemption from chaos, Real Simple Real Life is closer to the Old-Fashioned Revival Hour than the usual reality TV sludge. That fundamentally optimistic (if unrealistic) premise makes you want to keep watching – even if the show is so awkward at times that its uncanny sense of the cultural zeitgeist is all that keeps you hooked.

Real Simple, a magazine devoted to “life made easier” debuted 8 years ago, in March of 2000. It remains one of Time Inc.’s best launches ever. I was working at another Time Inc. publication shortly after the first issue hit news stands, and was told that it had tested off the charts with focus groups.

As a longtime subscriber myself, I believe it, though at first glance, the magazine’s appeal is hard to understand. The features are a hodgepodge of unexceptional how-tos – how to decorate a house in five-minute chunks; how to make squash and white bean soup with Parmesan biscuits. There are often clever essays; in December, the editors asked several famous writers to pen letters to Santa “sent” at different stages of their lives. But the feature well is not nearly as full of great writing as, say, O magazine (which has a similar target demographic). There’s not as much fashion as Vogue, or as much housekeeping advice as Martha Stewart Living. Women looking for career or financial advice are better off reading the Wall Street Journal.

Yet month after month, millions of readers flip through the pages, even though those pages more resemble museum catalogs than the usual happy, multi-color spreads of, say, Good Housekeeping. Text is kept to a minimum with lots of white space. Illustrations are composed in muted colors; a page of December’s gift guide suggesting a cast iron pot and a wooden salad tong is styled on a worn beige cloth with sprigs of green berries sprouting from twisted branches. There’s no particular reason for it. But the aesthetics are so striking you don’t care. The magazine is a fantasy – of clothes modeled on dressmaker dummies or even against a white background, rather than on models who might distract us. It’s a diversion for women whose lives feel busy and cluttered, and wish they weren’t so busy and cluttered.

Real Simple Real Life brings this fantasy to TV. Wendy, for instance, the subject of one early episode, has “been wasting food, money, and energy trying to keep up.” Her cluttered home looks nothing like the pages of Real Simple. Her husband Greg reports that “something’s always missing.” There is hope for her – the camera keeps flashing to stylish Real Simple-esque family photos that show Wendy, Greg, and their three boys in crisp, unfussy white shirts – then cuts to a scene of her rushing to work, late. On the way home she stops at her favorite clothing store. This is a problem, because the family has credit card debt, but as Wendy points out, after she works all day, she likes a little retail stress release. The kids have no place to put their backpacks and lunch boxes, so they wind up on the dining room table – so there’s no place to eat family dinners. The kids are also always underfoot because they don’t have a place to play. The garage-turned-playroom is too full of junk to be useful. “I need help organizing my life!” Wendy pleads.

Enter the Real Simple team. Alas, as soon as the cameras arrive, the dog bites the 6-year-old and the family decamps for the ER. But in the meantime, organization expert Jodie Watson cleans out the pantry, removing all expired food – including one item from 1998 – and puts everything in labeled bins. Finance expert Farnoosh Torabi calculates exactly how much money Wendy wastes on sale items she never wears, expired food, and her morning convenience store coffee. Designer Gia Russo creates a “circus-like” playroom with a 42-inch plasma screen TV that no kid in his right mind would ever want to leave.

After a whirlwind three days, Wendy has weekly meal plans, chore charts with stickers for the boys, and a resolution to make her coffee at home. At a one-month follow-up visit, she gushes that she’s making fewer supermarket trips. The family eats at the dining room table. The boys can play, unsupervised, in the safe playroom, so she has time to pay the bills and catch her breath. “I feel so much calmer and more organized,” Wendy says. Or as Torabi puts it, “considering how we started, wow.”

It’s uplifting television. Of course, there is a fundamental disconnect. One reason modern mothers feel so harried is that we spend our time watching reality TV shows like Real Simple Real Life instead of, oh, labeling storage bins.

Also, like Real Simple magazine, the show is still struggling to figure out its format. For eight years straight, the magazine has sported a section featuring oddball new uses for old things – such as storing scarves on an empty paper towel tube. Yet, as managing editor Kristin van Ogtrop admitted in a recent editor’s letter, it’s unclear how many readers try this sort of thing themselves.

Likewise, Real Simple Real Life operates under strange rules. For instance, Kit Hoover announces each week that she can only take three of her colorful-bloused experts to each subject’s house in a Saturn (Saturn sponsors the show; one suspects the contract requires at least three product mentions per episode to reach the TiVo audience). She then plucks the three lucky contestants from the couch as the others complain loudly. Maybe the three-expert limit is because of budget problems. Maybe it’s to inject a game-show type element into the mix. The reasoning is never explained. Regardless, it adds nothing to the show.

Furthermore, we never learn enough or care enough about Hoover, the host, to tune in just to watch her. She tells her experts that her own pantry is disorganized and, as a working mom of three, her life is chaotic, but given her high-maintenance ensembles (how many moms-in-chaos can pull off skinny jeans with shiny high heels?), it’s hard to believe. Nor does she have the kind of chemistry with her co-stars that launched Stacy London and Clinton Kelley of TLC’s What Not to Wear to prominence. The focus stays on the harried princesses in need of rescue from the clutter dragon – a risky strategy for a TV show. It’s not easy to hook enough appealing “real people” to renew for a second season.

On the other hand, we live in a navel-gazing era. We like to watch ourselves, and the hapless stars of Real Simple Real Life are very much like us. Sometimes exactly like us (one episode featured a woman who worked full-time from home and whose 1-year-old looked a lot like my son). These women may not end the show with perfect lives. Indeed, Wendy’s whole life would have been vastly more improved if Hoover had tapped a workplace coach as an expert. That coach could have told Wendy that no one in human history has advanced her career by sitting in five committee meetings per day.

But Wendy does have a perfect pantry. She does have a perfect playroom. How many TV shows feature such happy endings? As her husband Greg told the cameras, he didn’t want to see the Real Simple team leave. And, despite all the show’s flaws, neither does the audience at home.

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