Home & Garden

About the House: Why I Hate Norm Abrams

By Matt Cantor
Thursday August 20, 2009 - 10:53:00 AM

OK, I don’t actually hate Norm Abrams of “New Yankee Workshop,” “This Old House,” etc.; I sort of like the guy. It’s nice to see someone on TV who would never have made it based on his headshot and a screen-test. Those other folks on “Hometime”—so cute and all-American-looking and blond: them, I hate. (Kachunk, Blam, Kachunk, Blam.) Ah, that’s better. There’s nothing like large caliber gunfire to sooth the chakras. 

I do genuinely hate these specific shows: “Hometime,” “This Old House” and “The New Yankee Workshop.” I hate them for one simple reason: they make most people feel like idiots. Even if a show only demonstrates how to build a basic chest of drawers, it does a lousy job of preparing the average Joe or Joan for the task. In the end, the show provides nothing more than boutique shopping and showing off. I suppose that would be a lot of fun if you only want to learn 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.  

On shows like these, the jobs are made to look so darned easy. All the materials are waiting for assembly and nothing is spoiled, the wrong type or missing. The 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 thing I hate: in actuality, there are many small details that fill a contractor’s day (or your day when you play contractor) but they’re neatly edited out, just as they are in a cooking show. 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 is this, really? The average viewer of these shows isn’t yet 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 three episodes—how to rehabilitate an 1860 farm house into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with an office in the basement. Can you the viewer replicate any of these actions, or are they simply a fashion show designed to lure you into the false belief 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 the TV makes it look, even for a skilled contractor. Let’s take “This Old House.” (Kachunk, Blam.) I hate that they don’t show you how bad things often get. The show doesn’t show the mistakes, the overages and the heartache often involved in home remodeling. I have yet to see an episode of this show in which a red-faced homeowner screams bloody murder at Steve and Norm. 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 ten weeks, some per cent of your clientele will go into anaphylaxis. It’s well known in the industry that some people just can’t take it, even under the best of circumstances. So I am certain that those cinema verité videos are hiding in a vault somewhere at PBS central, waiting for the day that Steve or Norm steps over the line. 

Yes, I hate the way these shows 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. You never see a job sitting incomplete for eighteen months because the homeowners are getting a divorce or going 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.) 

I did once see one of those extreme remodeling shows in which we got to see the workers freak out, fight and lose their cool. That was pretty refreshing. 

I have another major complaint, one that is never so aggravating 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 anywhere else. I’ll bet that even professional cabinetmakers 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 as well or anywhere near as fast as the one that Norm does on screen. You’ve been set up. 

I think home repair TV should be more like watching brain surgery on The Discovery Channel. When those operations are accurately presented, you are not persuaded to turn to your spouse and say, “Hey, Honey, I’ll bet I can remove that tumor for you right here on the kitchen table.” (By the way, gals, if your husband gets that Jack-Nicholson-in-The Shining look while watching the Home Neuroscience channel, it’s best to go stay with Mom for a few days. At least until the cable company can come downgrade you from the Gold package to regular broadcast TV.)  

Here’s what I’d like to see in place of 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 has a leaky faucet and maybe a few other small repairs, too. She calls the handyman (me) to come fix things. The handyman (me) arrives with no tools and attempts to make use of whatever Mrs. Jones has in her tool drawer in the kitchen. Then he and Mrs. Jones go to the hardware store, buy the tools and the parts they need and proceed to struggle through all the steps in fixing the leak. This will, of course, require a second, and possibly, third trip to the hardware store. All will 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.