There is perhaps no better way to understand America's ongoing culture wars in than flipping back and forth between TLC and Bravo. With shows like Sarah Palin’s Alaska and Toddlers and Tiaras, TLC has a distinctly middle-American vibe. Sure, the network attracts plenty of ironic viewers, but if an alien were to turn on the channel, he/she/it would be convinced that America is a land populated of active churchgoers, spray-tanned toddlers and overweight Midwesterners whose garages are stuffed with the boxes of Fruity Pebbles and rolls of Charmin they got for free using triple coupons at Kroger. Flip over to Bravo, and our extra-terrestrial friend would get a different impression altogether: America is a country made up of coastal-dwelling, spray-tanned gay men and divorced women who fawn over their pet dogs and live by mottoes like, “No budget is the best budget.” Bravo’s tried-and-true formula of conspicuous consumption and general fabulousness has proved surprisingly durable—recession be damned. And while the network almost always delivers juicy, entertaining fare, their niche programming is beginning to feel tiresome, and more than a little tone-deaf.
Consider the latest incarnation of the Bravo brand, Million Dollar Decorators, a reality series that goes inside the world of extremely high-end interior design. In some critical ways, it’s a cut above many other Bravo shows; in the very least, it’s a vast improvement over the network’s previous foray into the world of décor, the dull and clunky Top Design. At its best, Million Dollar Decorators is a far less staid version of Architectural Digest come to life, lifestyle porn of the most explicit and lavish variety. Yet, at the risk of sounding like a dour old stick in the mud, the rampant, voyeuristic consumerism of this show, fun as it is at times, feels like a throwback to 2003. The only way to enjoy it fully, without residual feelings of guilt, shame or self-loathing, is to contract a sudden case of cultural amnesia—or to be Marie Antoinette. So what if they have no beds! Let them sleep on 1000-thread-count sheets!
But first, let’s talk about the good stuff. Formally, the series represents a slight deviation from the proven Bravo formula. For one, rather than focusing on a single central character and his/her colorful underlings, a la Workout and The Rachel Zoe Project, Million Dollar Decorators follows an interconnected clique of five Los Angeles-based decorators, rapidly cutting back and forth between the subjects as they tackle various projects. The zippy editing and loose format is initially a little confusing, but once you get to know the characters, it’s surprisingly refreshing compared to the stagnant format of so many Bravo shows. The end result is a show that highlights the designers' work, and not just their big personalities. Even the interstitials introducing each character—which feature their name, written in a sleek font, against establishing shots of their stylish abodes—are a welcome, well-designed (natch) change of pace.
The crowded ensemble strikes a happy balance between bitchy and likable. It includes Mary McDonald, an icy brunette who was allegedly the inspiration for Karen on Will and Grace. Like her fictional alter-ego, McDonald is blissfully, defiantly superficial. (When one client announces that she and her husband will be divorcing and selling the home that McDonald decorated, McDonald expresses sadness over losing “her” house, not the demise of the marriage.) There’s also Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who’s designed homes for Cher and Elton John and is inordinately fond of zebra-print rugs and bad sex puns (I'm fairly certain these two things are related). Easily the most appealing subject is Kathryn Ireland, a famed textile designer and divorced mother of three rowdy teenage boys. She’s a lusty, big-hearted English woman; they’re unruly Californian dudes. This contrast makes for good television, as in the scene when one of her sons leaps from the roof of her backyard office into a pool while she’s in the middle of a business call. Her decorating style—full of warm, mismatched fabrics—neatly echoes her vivacious personality and pleasantly chaotic domestic life. Rounding out the cast are Nathan Turner, a sweet-seeming antiques dealer, and Jeffrey Allan Marks, a designer who works alongside his ex-model boyfriend and, somehow, has two assistants named Demetra.
For better or for worse, one thing this series really gets right is the “million dollar” part. (I would like to see the internal memo at Bravo that advises, “When in doubt, just slap ‘million dollar’ on the title.”) Unlike other shows on Bravo, where the cast members’ purported wealth is, at best, dubious (see: every Real Housewife ever, basically) and the “millionaire clients” are more like “occasionally employed people who are willing to go on a date on national television,” the subjects on Million Dollar Decorators seem every bit as loaded as they claim to be. In fact, this might be the most nakedly aspirational of any Bravo show to date. Any old fool can ring up a bunch of credit card debt and take out a sub-prime loan on their Orange County McMansion, but most of us don't have a $5 million home—much less a $5 decorating budget. What's more, the designers featured on the show are—there's no denying—very good at what they do. In this sense, Million Dollar Decorators is a dose of pure, uncut cocaine for design junkies.
The vicarious thrill of the show is that much more potent, but so too is the hangover it inevitably induces. In the premiere episode, Bullard has just three days to put together a Hollywood pied-à-terre for Sharon Osborne who's in town to film America's Got Talent. After yelling at his Spanish-speaking painters about their unsatisfactory progress (as one does) and going on a breakneck zillion-dollar shopping spree, Bullard manages to pull it off. Osborne is thoroughly delighted with the results; so pleased, in fact, that a smile manages to work its way onto her otherwise-frozen face. The transformation is satisfying, and it’s hard not to fantasize about one day owning a $30,000 photograph of The Beatles—or living in any of the homes featured on the show—but the jealousy is tempered by a feeling of emptiness. Call me Pollyanna, but at some point I began to wonder just how appealing it is to live in an apartment stuffed with expensive, perfectly curated objects, none of which have any sentimental value or personal meaning whatsoever. For that amount of money, why not just stay in an exquisitely appointed hotel? At least there you can stock up on free shampoo.