Trading Spaces—the Learning Channel's low-budget design show in which couples make over a room in each other's homes—has become cable comfort food for millions. There's a good reason for that: The show is a feel-good jaunt through home remodeling, a fraught process that has led to the dissolution of marriages and turned families into little debtor nations. Anyone who has attempted even the most fundamental renovation can attest to the fact that it's rarely as fun or as anxiety-free as Trading Spaces makes it look. The appeal of the show lies in its ability to manufacture satisfactory resolutions to intractable problems.
If Trading Spaces is TLC's shiny, happy home-design show, then While You Were Out is its snark-bit cousin, a show that more closely approximates the hellish reality of what happens when you give over your living space to bullying home-wreckers armed with fabric swatches and buzz saws. Ratings-wise, While You Were Out is a perpetual second banana to Trading Spaces, and no wonder; for viewers accustomed to Trading Spaces' insta-kit bliss, it's pretty painful to watch. But for those of us who get our kicks from the bittersweet taste of schadenfreude, it's a pure crack hit of pleasure.
The premise of While You Were Out is inherently more invasive than the house-swapping of Trading Spaces. One spouse tricks his or her partner into leaving the house for two days, * allowing the WYWO crew to remake one living space—a den, bedroom, porch, whatever—with a $1,500 budget. The participating homeowner really has no input on the redesign; it's passive wish fulfillment, a calculated risk with an unknown result, at least until the "reveal" at each show's conclusion. The best episodes feature pitched battles between the sanguine designers and the fretful owners, who try their best to deflect bad paint and furniture choices with passive-aggressive comments, like, "Oh, do you really think pink stripes are a good idea?" They are no longer masters of their domain, and it scares them to death.
Unlike the Trading Spaces crew—fresh-scrubbed do-gooders who eagerly plunge into their work—While You Were Out's ensemble seems to look down their noses at their daily assignments. (TLC airs repeats every day, following Trading Spaces, with original episodes every Friday night.) Teresa Strasser, one of the hosts from the first season, * is a raven-haired, quick-witted hipster with an acid tongue, the kind of person who might make mordant jokes at funerals. (She's been replaced by the handsome though dull Evan Farmer, but she thankfully lives on in reruns.) Chayse Dacoda, the show's only female designer, is a sexy-chic taskmaster (the fussy name is a dead giveaway) with an imperious streak, a talented artiste who's slumming it to redo middle-class ranch homes on television. Lead carpenter Andrew Dan-Jumbo, with his plummy Shoreham accent and bulging tool belt, has become something of a housewife's heartthrob; he was one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful celebrities for 2003. Dan-Jumbo's relationship with Dacoda is the most intriguing aspect of the show; she invariably gives him an overwhelming work load, he chafes and complains about the lack of time, and a tense Mexican standoff ensues. Who will give in first? Are they in fact secret boot-knockers, concealing their ardor behind a smoke screen of intractability? Or is it a class issue, management exploiting labor?
More often than not, While You Were Out's reveals, in which the unwitting ringer finally sees his or her newly decorated room, are muted displays of bemusement. If the female member of the household initiates the makeover, which tends to be the case, the prodigal men find themselves lost in a fun house of pastels and tchotchkes, wondering when they might have slipped through the time-space continuum. Instead of joyous gratitude, the women are met with glum expressions of thinly disguised contempt. While You Were Out fans live for such moments, when an altruistic gesture suddenly morphs into an ugly home invasion. Downer reveals contradict every tenet of home-design shows, the notion that telegenic interior designers always know what's best. There's something reassuring about a homeowner pining for his ratty Barcalounger. If While You Were Out teaches us anything, it's that not everyone wants to live in Metropolitan Home picture spread. Sometimes, folks just want to be left alone.
Corrections, Sept. 30, 2003: This article originally reported that the WYWO crew remodels a room in 24 hours. It sometimes takes more than 24 hours. (Return to the corrected sentence here.) Teresa Strasser was not the show's original host, as the article initially stated. She took over from Anna Bocci. (Return to the corrected sentence here.)