Home & Garden Columns

Why I Hate Norm Abrams

By Matt Cantor
Friday September 08, 2006

I don’t actually hate Norm, I sort of like the guy. It’s nice to see someone on TV that would never have made it on his headshot and a screen-test. Those other folks on Hometime, now them I hate. They’re all cute and American looking and blond. Kachunk, Blam, Kachunk, Blam. Ah, that’s better. There’s nothing like large caliber gunfire to sooth the chakras. 

I do genuinely hate these shows. Hometime, This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop and I hate them for one simple reason. They make most people feel like idiots. 

They’re a lot of fun if you have accepted the popularly promulgated notion that you, as a homeowner or stock broker or bank clerk, know nothing about houses or furniture or nails and that you’ll never stand a chance of doing more than hanging a picture on the wall.  

Even the shows that try to show you how to build a chest of drawers do such a lousy job of preparing the average Joe or Joan for the job that they become nothing more than boutique shopping and showing off. 

Let’s take This Old House. Kuchunk, Blam. The thing I hate about TOH is that they don’t show you how bad things often get. I have yet to see an episode of this show in which you see a red faced homeowner screaming bloody murder at Steve and Norm and don’t tell me that it’s never happened. I don’t care how good a contractor is. 

When you’ve been working on someone’s house for 10 weeks, there is absolutely no way that 10 percent of the clientele aren’t going to be going into anaphylaxis. It’s well known in the industry that some people just can’t take it, even under the best of circumstances and I am certain that those videos are hiding in a vault somewhere at PBS central, waiting for the day that Steve or Norm step over the line. 

Again, the show doesn’t show the mistakes, the overages and the heartache often involved in home remodeling. They make everything look easy. You never see a subcontractor show up drunk. You never see a guy going to the emergency room because he stepped on a nail and you never see a job sitting incomplete for 18 months because the couple is getting a divorce or went into bankruptcy. 

The camera cleans up all the messes. I’m also quite sure that PBS has footed the bill more than a few times to get the job completed so that they could get everything in the can. 

On shows like this and Hometime, the jobs are made to look so darned easy. This is the problem with cooking shows as well. The kitchen is clean when they start. (How does your kitchen look? I usually can’t find a clear counter to work on.) All the materials are waiting for assembly and nothing is spoiled, the wrong type or missing. 

Dean and Robin’s air gun never misfires and the compressor never needs to be drained (yes, you have to drain compressors daily because they fill up with water and will rust out if you don’t do so). 

That’s another point. There are so many small details that fill a contractor’s day (or your day when you play contractor) and, just like the cooking show, they’re neatly edited out. Just pop the raw one in the oven and Voila, the new freshly baked one comes right out of the other oven. 

Now, how educational does this end up being? The average viewer of these shows isn’t sure which nail to use to fix the trim on the side of the house, so it’s a little high-handed to try to show, even over 3 episodes, how to rehabilitate an 1860 farm house into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with an office in the basement. 

Can the viewer replicate any of these actions or is it simply a fashion show designed to make you salivate, believing falsely that you could do all this yourself if only you had just a wee bit more free time? 

Not that I don’t think that people can learn this stuff but it’s just a tad more complex and definitely more hairy than they make it look.  

I DID once see one of those extreme remodeling shows in which we got to see the workers freak out, fight and loose their cool but it’s still a little like watching brain surgery on TV. 

It’s not like you’re going to turn to your wife and say, “Hey Honey, I’ll bet I can remove that tumor for you right here on the kitchen table.” 

By the way, if you’re husband gets that Jack Nicholson/Shining look while watching the Home Neuroscience channel, best to go stay with Mom for a few days until the cable company can come downgrade you from the Gold package to regular broadcast TV. 

I have, on occasion, watched Norm do his New Yankee Workshop thing and my complaints with that show are essentially the same as the aforementioned, although I’ll add one major complaint. Actually, this complaint applies to the previous shows but it’s never so apparent to me as when I’m watching Norm build a Georgian breakfront. Norm has really, really nice tools. 

His tools are sharp and clean and new and they’re all hanging on the wall in exactly the right place courtesy of the sponsor, Stanley tools. He has attachments for routers and drill presses that I’ve never seen. I’m not saying that most of these are not to be found in the average cabinet maker’s shop but I’ll bet even they would say that the quality and completeness of his assembly of tools far exceeds theirs. 

So when Norm starts to build his breakfront and you start to build yours, (assuming you’re retired, moderately wealthy and sufficiently well-adjusted) you’re going to have a lot to emotionally contend with as nothing that you do comes out quite as well and certainly as fast as the one that Norm does on screen. You’ve been set up. 

Here’s what I’d like to see in place off all these shows (if there are any TV producers reading, I’m waiting for my close-up C.B.):  

An episode would go something like this. Mrs. Jones’s faucet is leaking (maybe we have a few other small repairs too) and she calls the handyman to come fix things. The “handyman” (me) arrives with no tools and has to rely upon what Mrs. Jones has in the tool-drawer in the kitchen. 

Then he and Mrs. Jones go to Ace Hardware, buy the tools they need, the parts they need and proceed to struggle through all the steps in fixing the leak including trying to find things at the hardware store. This will, of course, require a second, and possibly, third trip to the store and will all end with cheers of joy and turkey sandwiches eaten on the kitchen floor in sopping jeans once the drip has finally been tackled. 

Now that’s what I would call Reality TV.