The room had been transformed. What had once been bland, country-cozy, faded shabby chic was reborn as something rich and warm. The walls were patterned with chocolate brown squares and the furniture re-covered in matching fabric. Pristine white wainscoting had been brought in to blend the room to the rest of the house, and a charming matching facade constructed to overlay an underwhelming pink stone fireplace.
And the owners hated it. These people had entered into the deal completely wide open, they said. They wanted the room to have personality, they said. They didn’t like the floral fabric on the furniture, they said. They wanted their ugly pink fireplace left alone. There were tears and stalking off and audible sobs over a hot mic, and with that, another episode of TLC’s Trading Spaces came to a close.
The late ’90s and early ’00s were a hot bed for original reality programming. The British show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was born in 1998, with the U.S. creating its own version a year later; 2000 brought Survivor, and 2002, American Idol. Amid these network stalwarts was another reality series that seemed to run just as hot, just as bright, but flamed out wildly, long before its counterparts—all of which remain on the air to this day, in one form or another. Reality shows are built to run, seemingly, forever. And Trading Spaces should have. But somehow, it did not.
So why did Trading Spaces fail where other reality series thrived? To answer that, first look at where the series succeeded. Based on the U.K. series Changing Rooms, Trading Spaces took two sets of neighbors, gave them $1,000 budgets, a designer, and a carpenter, then turned them loose in a room in their counterpart’s house.
The premise was simple, but the promise was unlimited. Vital to the success of the series was the unpredictable nature of each outing. Every episode featured a different pair of designers, and the contestants participating had no control over which they got or what the designer’s ultimate vision would be. Naturally, each designer had a unique style that they tried to meld with the homeowner’s wishes, but sometimes they just couldn’t manage it. This was a brilliant well of renewable conflict, as neighbors would buck against a designer’s wishes in some effort to preserve what they perceived as their friends’ wishes; designers would huff, angry that no one understood that their artistic integrity was at stake. Host Paige Davis was energetic but empathetic, and would often act as the unofficial/official mediator between artist and patron, urging them to speak up or back down, but always toward some kind of middle ground.
Conflict aside, the show would never have become the force of nature it was without those designers. By the end of an eight-year run, it had featured nearly two dozen different designers, who, along with the carpenters, were picture perfect. Yes, they were very beautiful people—but more than that, the cast was filled with beautiful people appearing to have a really good time doing what they love. They would flirt and hug and tease and laugh, and their good cheer and enthusiasm was infectious. These were people with a passion for design who were determined to share their creative gifts with the less artistically fortunate of the population.
Of all the stars born from the series, perhaps none was as prominent (save for home renovations show traitor, Ty Pennington, eventual host of bland network copycat Extreme Makeover: Home Edition) as chipper host Davis. Davis was a dynamo who never lacked for enthusiasm or a willingness to haphazardly contribute to an ongoing craft project. As the face of the show, that meant she was also on the cover of magazines, repeatedly gracing TV Guide and even appearing on her own episode of TLC’s A Wedding Story. But as similarly as the rise of Trading Spaces popularity can be connected to the replacement of first-season host Alex McLeod (McLeod left the show to pursue other projects and went on to host the first season of Fox’s Joe Millionaire), so can the show’s downfall be linked to Davis’ sudden firing midway through filming of the fifth season. Rumors flew as to the circumstances behind the move (including theories about Davis being too much of a sexy distraction in her public life), but all involved maintained that the change was due to a show makeover, moving to a new format without a host.
Coincidence or not, let me suggest that it wasn’t Davis’ departure that doomed Trading Spaces but, instead, complete network mismanagement. TLC’s response to the sudden success it found with not only Trading Spaces but also fellow series like A Wedding Story and A Baby Story was to flood the network’s schedule with reruns, figuring that if some was good, more was better. At times, the network was airing Trading Spaces 10 times a week. While executives would ultimately blame other networks’ copycat shows for undermining the success of Trading Spaces, no one was more guilty of this than TLC itself, as it introduced several of its own Trading Spaces copycats in shows like While You Were Out and What Not To Wear.
But whether the public at large realized it or not, Trading Spaces lived on, hobbled but not killed. It tried a format with no host and added another carpenter, enabling the show to facilitate space trades between individuals not in the same neighborhood. It also permitted people to choose among three rooms to renovate, and the potential for increased budgets. The series even brought Davis back in 2008, but by then, the magic was gone. By 2009, Trading Spaces was no more.
But Trading Spaces wasn’t alone. By the time it met its end, so had the dreams of home ownership for millions of Americans. When the real estate bubble popped, the U.S. economy found itself in dire straits and millions of homes were foreclosed upon. Perhaps the show’s end was sparked ultimately by home remodeling shows transforming from identifiable reality shows to abject fantasies.
There are any number of reasons Trading Spaces didn’t stand the test of time. There were so many imitators, and as successful as the program was, it never had the numbers of comparable network reality shows of the era. But ultimately, what doomed Trading Spaces was that it was the only reality show to blend that happy, roll-up-your sleeves enthusiasm with the crushing disappointment and passive-aggressive sniping of a rapidly shrinking middle class. Viewers weren’t guaranteed a happy ending any more than the participants were, and the series contained moments—Hildi decides to glue straw to the wall—so awkward that it was all the audience could do not to look away. And yet the moments of enthusiasm were so palpable that most episodes served as a spontaneous lark the audience could be privy to.
Since the end of Trading Spaces, reality TV—especially on cable—has neatly divided into two categories, either focusing on feel-good affirmation or gut-wrenching schadenfreude, but few to none feature both. Trading Spaces did feature both, and it was the better for it. But audiences won’t remember that, because there’s not much to remember. Existing as it did in the early-to mid 2000s, much of the series’ run existed in the historical purgatory before prevalent DVR usage. You may find a rare episode on YouTube, but outside of one featuring the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, options are few and far between. Nearly 400 episodes of home-remodeling’s favorite comfort food have been discontinued and completely pulled from shelves, almost as though it never existed at all.
This brings us back to that disastrous renovation. When Davis says, “The big question is, what about the fireplace?” clearly dreading the answer, the wife is diplomatic but short: “You guys are going to be fixing that in a little bit.” Her husband is more direct, his contempt ill-disguised: “I just see a bunch of firewood.” What happens in the following hours isn’t aired but is not hard to imagine. The crew comes in and dismantles what was crafted with such care, systematically destroying everything that made the room special in favor of giving people what they thought they wanted.
It’s only years later, with the benefit of hindsight and the malaise of regret, that the parallels seem clear and allow us to mourn the loss of a show so special, replaced by a TV landscape filled to the brim with reality television, old and new alike, yet wholly unremarkable.