My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
When I was a kid, my family moved towns six times before I turned 13. We settled down in Flagstaff, Arizona in 1999, and since then I have never felt the need to look at a house that is for sale, not even if it’s an open house with free pizza and cute female realtors willing to pay attention to me. This has been a problem for me in the past, when (to take a random example) my college roommate has decided to move to South Korea within the week, coincidentally right before the rent is due. But it has prevented me from ever having to walk through more than two houses pretending to be interested in “curb appeal” or “storage potential,” so overall I’d consider it a win.
What I’m trying to say is that there is no human being on Earth less well-equipped than me to watch House Hunters International, a TV show where people not looking for a house can vicariously look at houses by watching a show about two generally unpleasant people looking for a house together. But my dad and his wife have voluntarily watched this show three nights in a row, and I’ve been trying to spend more time with them, so here we are. House Hunters International (and its domestic equivalent, House Hunters) pretends to be about a couple trying to find a house that fits a budget (which in theory is nonnegotiable) and the desires of each partner (which in theory is highly negotiable). In reality it is a show about the politics of the marriage, and the show’s main appeal lies in speculating about the circumstances thereof.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a brief description of the show: House Hunters International begins by introducing us to a couple who is from the US and moving to a different country, generally because of a job. The couple is always heterosexual* and upper-middle to upper class, and is white about 83% of the time. If any of the couples have children, they are kept offscreen. The two people who comprise the couple will each state what they are looking for in a house, and whether it’s editing or casting, these wish lists will always conflict in some fundamental way. Then they will look at their first house. The husband will like it, the wife will hate it. Then there’s a commercial break. When the show comes back on, a 30-second recap will explain that the husband liked the house, but the wife hated it. Then they will look at a second house, which the wife will like but the husband will hate**. Another commercial break. Another 30-second recap, explaining that the husband prefers the first house while the wife prefers the second house. Then a third house, which will just be completely wrong for the couple (it’s over their budget, it’s too big/small, it’s in the wrong part of town- something fundamental). Then a final commercial break, followed by another 30-second recap re-stating all the positions, followed by the couple making their decision, followed by a look at what the house looks like after they’ve moved in.
*actually, I may have seen an episode with a gay couple once. But the class rule is ironclad- you never see a family trying to choose which public housing facility to move into.
**it’s not always in this order- sometimes, it’s the wife who loves the first house, while the husband hates it. But the polarization is always there.
So that’s the show. Probably the most pertinent detail is that, no matter how far into the show you go, the whole thing can always be recapped in 30 seconds. It’s the sort of show that becomes background noise even if you’re actively trying to watch it, and I’m used to sitting through it reading my copy of The Economist while my dad and his wife watch, but what got me more interested than usual was the recent three-day repetition, during which I noticed that every single comment directed at the screen was about the couple looking for a house, rather than the houses that are ostensibly the main attraction for a large amount of the audience.
Because make no mistake, there are people who love to look at houses. Two of them produced me, strangely enough. And the stated appeal of House Hunters International is that the show allows you to sample the exotic real estate markets of foreign countries, briefly imagining yourself living in the Swiss Alps or a Pacific atoll or Paris, but in an actual location that was presumably for sale 6-8 months ago. But the way the show frames its narrative, as a power struggle between two people (who, again, are in a stable marriage/partnership) with fundamentally incompatible ideas about the ideal way to live, draws our attention to the people who, if this really was the lifestyle porn it’s marketed as, would be little more than ciphers for the viewer’s own desires.
One thing that seems to characterize almost all the people who appear on House Hunters International is a conspicuous lack of intimacy. The couples often want separate closets, separate bathrooms, and a “personal space” for each member of the partnership. Often couples with no apparent plans to have kids really want two bedrooms, which invites questions about the sleeping arrangements. By far the funniest symptom of this incompatibility are the filler shots that show the couples walking to each new house. In every shot, the couple are holding hands; in every shot, it looks like their hands have been filled with Novocaine and stapled together. Most of the time, I find myself wondering what these people are doing in the same marriage, when they clearly want a single apartment that happens to be adjacent to someone who will occasionally have sex with them. At one point in the most recent show, a disagreement arose between husband and wife about the second apartment, which the wife hugely liked, but which was missing some key element that the husband absolutely wanted to have. Her response:”Maybe you could make it work some kind of way?”
This seems to be what most of the interactions in House Hunters International boil down to: I want this, so you’re just going to have to deal with it. It is the most shockingly jaundiced view of marriage one can find on a reality TV show that does not begin with the words “Real Housewives.” Whatever tension there is to be found this show mostly resides in discovering how the marital politics will play out. Who will give in? Who will refuse to compromise? Will they eventually agree to take the house that fits neither of their plans, content in the knowledge that at least they’re wrecking the other person’s life too?
The biggest question I take away from the show, though, isn’t “what are these people doing married to each other?” but rather “what do these people think marriage is for?” Few of them are planning to have kids. Most of them seem to view the house as a piece of property to be carved up equally between them. There seems to be little passion or even companionship existing between them, and they generally seem to have different ideas about the way they would ideally like to live. Haveethey ever looked at their own marriage? Have they ever questioned what they’re doing in it? Are they going to be questioning it in seven years?
The strangest thing, to me, is that they only look at three houses, a necessary limitation that improves the TV experience while failing to adequately represent the realities of a house hunt. When my parents searched for a permanent house for our family through 1999 and 2000, they went to dozens of houses, never agreeing in the affirmative on one. Eventually there were a handful of houses my Mom liked, and a handful of houses my Dad liked, and each one represented a completely different lifestyle, a completely different vision of how the family would operate. They would be divorced within three years.
I brought up the “three houses” thing with my dad, who as I’ve mentioned watches the show, and he explained something I should have realized before: obviously the people don’t only look at three houses- they probably don’t even start filming until the couple has already bought a house, then reverse-engineer the whole thing by having the couple go through two other houses they’ve already rejected for various reasons, and have them recreate the experience on-camera. As with most reality TV, the narrative is heavily predetermined, and the couple’s perceptions of the house hunt they’ve already finished likely color their own impressions. So we’re not seeing a dysfunctional couple so much as we’re seeing inadvertent couples’ therapy, the new houseowners recreating their experience, and by doing so establishing a narrative that they (and we at home) can go back to in order to make sense of the whole thing.
It also helps the last part of the show, where the couple discusses the houses, make more sense. It was always shocking to me how fast one person gave in, how immediately two people who had been at loggerheads for the whole episode suddenly fell into accord with one another. Is this what a healthy marriage looks like? I wondered. Turns out, it probably isn’t. But it might be what these people need their marriage to look like in order for it to make sense to themselves.
The show always ends with an underwhelming postmortem where the couple describes the changes they have made to the house and how much the whole thing ended up costing- the sort of thing you might nod politely at if you somehow got shanghaied into attending a social event at this incubator of marital sadness, but nothing that any audience seeking actual entertainment should ever have to sit through. There are plenty of other problems with House Hunters International– the people tend to come across as the vanguard of a wave of international Ugly American gentrification, frequently pricing their budgets at the standard corporate housing rate ($2000/month) and being frustrated by how small everything is. They are ridiculously self-centered and frequently underinformed about the most basic aspects of the country they will be living in, and treat their own ignorance with a breezy arrogant unconcern. And yet nothing in the show makes me as queasy as the way they treat each other.