Viewers looking for a dash of verisimilitude in their TV diets would do well to avoid "reality" shows, where the realest question is likely to be how many arachnids an ex-centerfold can have arranged on her face before she screams, and look instead at House Hunters, which airs every Thursday at 10 p.m. on cable's HGTV network.
The idea is blissfully simple: Follow prospective buyers through the process of finding their new homes. Here it's a young career woman looking to move out of her condo; there it's a couple wanting more space for when their grandchildren come to visit. Each episode telescopes the dizzying process of home-buying into 22 vertiginous minutes and in so doing heightens the drama (will the newlyweds find their dream house?) and sanitizes the mess (a recent divorcee sunnily tells the camera, "My husband and I are no longer together," and that's that) of buying property. Viewers, meanwhile, are encouraged to play what amounts to the home version of the House Hunters game, looking on like an eye in the sky as the increasingly exhausted and discouraged buyers tromp gloomily through one open house after another. (You'll shudder at the dated wallpaper in one house ... eyeball the undersized yard in another ... calculate how long it'd take to scrub the smell of despair from the 1950s kitchen in a third ... all without ever actually leaving your own home!)
The show also allows viewers to observe from a safe distance one of the defining rituals of home-buying: the ongoing power struggle between buyer and bullying real-estate agent. The producers don't waste much time showing who's boss. Five seconds after we meet Jamie Ramstead, the broker charged with finding Scott and Mary Fisher their new home, Ramstead is muttering grimly that "the biggest challenge in helping the Fishers find a home is going to be availability. ... There's quite a few buyers out there." If you press your ear right up to the television, you can actually hear the Fishers' dreams begin to die. Shown a house that violates just about every wish they've expressed, they can't backpedal fast enough. "We'd like to be able to have a pool," Mary tells Ramstead, adding quickly, "If possible." Anybody who's ever been browbeaten by their broker knows that beseeching tone. Here too are the tricks realtors use on buyers whose eyes are beginning to carry that telltale glaze. In one episode it's Jedi mind control: The kitchen in an older house is "a nice size," agent Tamara Thomas tells clients Phillip and Cecile Hoag. "Great potential in here." "It has potential," Phillip echoes dully. In another show it's the card hustler's classic misdirection: "This seems kind of small for a dining room," client Brian Lao mumbles. "Well, it does open up to a really nice backyard," agent Terese Ivory trumpets right back. Lao nods meekly, as if the non sequitur were the most sensible thing in the world. Every customer is eventually cowed by his or her broker: Every House Hunter becomes a House Buyer by the episode's end. No one ever decides to stay in their old place, or rent, or wait the market out. (A tip: Look closely at the third house shown. House No. 3 is always the money house.)
What lifts House Hunters above the realm of cheap voyeurism is that something real and important is in play: a home. It's hard to argue that the stakes aren't genuinely high for the 50ish buyer who needs a bigger place where he can live with his elderly, infirm mom, or even for Lao, a young software engineer whose primary need is a yard where his potbellied pig, Mu Shu, can roam free. (This episode does take on a different undertone when it becomes apparent that Lao is terrified of his enormous pet. The camera crew catches him in his old backyard waving some indeterminate food product in the air a good 24 inches from the animal's snout, then dropping it in the dirt and hurriedly stepping back when the pig feints a lumbering step toward him.)
And almost in spite of itself, the show frequently gives a revealing portrait of the harried home-buyers who are its cast. As much as it streamlines the process, the program can't quite hide the real emotional messiness that underpins its buyers' house hunts. "I'm not as frivolous with my money now," young first-time buyer Becky Polis says in what The Real World would call her confessional, six weeks into home ownership. "I was a shopaholic, and I liked to buy a lot of clothes. And now I can't do that. I have responsibilities." She pauses, then continues faintly, "It's OK." The tug in her heart and mind—between youth and adulthood, freedom and responsibility—is palpable.
You want to settle down next to Polis in her freshly painted living room. You want to pat her hand and tell her everything's going to be OK—that real estate is its own terrible reward. And then, once she feels better, you want to tell her what to do about that pink tile in the bathroom.