The anti-Marthas

The Discovery Channel's daytime shelter shows decorate down-market souls in six cheerful shades of Play-Doh.

Published March 9, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Consider the humble box of baking soda. You buy one for 43 cents, stick it in the refrigerator behind the kosher dills and never look at it again for five years, despite the banner screaming, "A houseful of uses! For the love of Jesus, read the back of this box!" It's a nonproduct, a schlemiel of a product, a product so cheap and forgettable and commoditized its manufacturer desperately encourages consumers to pour it down the drain to reduce "sink odors."

After watching Discovery Channel's household-hints show "Home Matters," I will never look at a box of baking soda the same way. During what must have been National Baking Soda Week, I learned that this disrespected compound is in fact a magic powder that, like Al Capp's schmoos from "L'il Abner," is endlessly malleable and exists to serve. You can apply it to household surfaces. You can scour your backyard deck with it. You can add cornstarch and red food coloring and boil it down into a lurid soapy mass that the kids can sculpt into bird's nests -- it's like Play-Doh, but with the added advantage of turning your cookware the color of sweet-and-sour pork.

The shelter-and-crafts movement has long been the baking soda of cultural criticism: pliable fodder for numerous the-way-we-live-now disquisitions and even academic studies on '90s affluence, security and insecurity, class and lack thereof (and just you wait! I've got some doozies!). For which, of course, we can thank the much-loved, -loathed and -parodied Martha Stewart. Now, any editor who forbids letters to the editor in her magazine owns my heart, but clearly to many Martha is the Bad Mother, the satin-wrapped embodiment of 400 years of American puritanism and a lifetime of insecurities. So plenty of entrepreneurs have tried to cut into her Maine blueberry pie by being unlike her -- a crop of African-American Marthas, Gen X Marthas, country Marthas, etc., proclaiming their accessibility.

Martha is to these post-Marthas as the pope is to American cafeteria Catholics. Martha offers a holistic, nonnegotiable program; the post-Marthas offer 15-minute projects. Martha brooks no compromise; the post-Marthas let you pick and choose. Martha issues encyclicals; the post-Marthas give thumbnail guidelines.

Martha, that is, teaches you to make soap; the post-Marthas, baking soda Play-Doh. Thus the four-year-old Home and Garden TV network, which hit 50 million subscribers in January, loads up with Main Street-friendly shows on quilting, collecting and kids; even commercials for play off Martha-grade obsessiveness with a gardener cackling giddily over a man-size carrot, billing itself as the Web site "for people with a life outside gardening." And casting its lot decisively with the baking-soda-bird's-nest crowd is Discovery. Originally a science-oriented network known for its nighttime nature-programming bloodbaths, Discovery gives almost its entire 9-to-5 weekday schedule to a troika of populist sheltrists: Susan Powell of "Home Matters," Christopher Lowell of "Interior Motives" and Lynette Jennings of two eponymous design shows.

On the aesthetic spectrum, Discovery is smack between owning a $3.5 million Hamptons getaway done in 65 shades of white and having a statuette of a goose in a sundress on your front porch. Where Martha is authentic to the core, the core of Powell's "Home Matters" is often, well, Styrofoam: Besides cooking and design, it emphasizes borderline-kitschy crafts, a disturbing number of which involve stabbing Styrofoam balls with pine cones. (Bringing crap in from outdoors is ever-popular with the do-it-yourselfer; at the Union Square Greenmarket, every fall farmers mortify the ghosts of our frugal, turnip-digging ancestors by selling bunches of yellow and red leaves to Manhattanites at $5 a pop.) "Home Matters" is about handiwork not as a lifestyle but as a way to brighten a corner and stave off stir-craziness. There's an endearing, slightly neurotic edge to Powell's hosting; hers is the show for the housewife who needs a bathroom diorama or dried-flower topiary project to get through another day in that damn house without murdering the kids.

Longtime designer Lynette Jennings is likewise far removed from Martha's austere shrines, hosting her shows from sets done in Midwestern Grandma -- twig letter baskets and rosebud-bordered hanging shelves. In one segment, Jennings asks what viewers would do if they could redesign their master bedrooms: "Say you just won the lottery," she says, because Jennings knows her viewers are about as likely to add his-and-hers baths and walk-in closets as they are to buy a Ferrari. And she acknowledges her audience's limits: "It's supposed to look handcrafted!" Jennings says, accenting a shelf with permanent marker. "If you're too much of a perfectionist, it won't look realistic!" There's the post-Martha syllabus in essence: teaching amateurs to be authentic amateurs.

Jennings gives her suburban-primitive audience an authenticity with room for, say, gluing twigs, soup cans and kidney beans to a board as an experiment in "texture." What is it with texture in the shelter world nowadays? Faux finish, thread count, distressed cabinetry; ribbing, nubbing, "smashed" potatoes: We're becoming a (literally) touchy-feely society where everything is off-white and nubbly, a great palpable nation of braille, and one Discovery show after another extols the virtue of ragging and sponging and roughing up. During the '90s we convinced ourselves (major amateur pop psychology coming! wait for it!) that we were about more than surfaces, that we had depth, that we weren't impressed by flash and color (unless tastefully applied on an iMac or a VW Bug). We are a people flattered by our ability to appreciate, as the NY Times food section recently enthused, a nice plate of -- yum! -- tapioca.

It's not hard to see the connection between this and the daytime-TV cult of the "make over" (a term Lowell applies to many of his decorating jobs), and the whole daytime language of self-esteem. Lowell gives us home decoration as therapy, the window treatment as counseling treatment. Where Stewart's catch phrase is the universalist "It's a good thing," Lowell has "You can do it!" and the poignant "Where there is fear, there is no creativity." Lowell and his guests talk a lot about "expressing yourself" through, say, faux finish; above all, he talks about "fear," a favorite word, until the show seems to be a thinly veiled -- though incredibly cheerful -- personal psychodrama. (The very title, "Interior Motives," seems loaded in this light.) On Lowell's show, you're not just working over your living room -- you're working out your life issues: "Don't make any judgments about the decision you've made until you've covered the whole wall. ... Have the courage. Dare to get into the painting and the color!" You want to hug the guy.

It's a message that's especially strong coming from somebody with nontraditional sexual persona: It's shelter for the Other. (Indeed, during the day -- despite its nighttime Hungry Man dinner of bombers and animal snuff films -- Discovery is one of the more gender-subversive things on television, with enough men hanging bunting and no-nonsense butch women wielding power tools to fill a special issue of National Liberty Journal.) Lowell calls himself a "Band-Aid" for those intimidated by Martha -- people with less money, less East Coast starch, less confidence. He sells decoration not as a job of following directions but as, essentially, Outsider Art. He does for curtain hanging what Madonna did for a gay-club dance craze in "Vogue": makes it a statement of confidence and defiance. They say you're a freak! They say you're too poor! Well, beauty's where you find it! Now get up on that dance floor!

What's most impressive is how warmly his far-more-conventional audience has embraced him, another example of the secret alliance between Wal-Mart and Wigstock that pervades daytime television in the Gay Best Friend Era of pop culture -- at least until hubby comes home and the 6 p.m. news restores order. (Delighted with Lowell's success, Discovery is launching "The Christopher Lowell Show" in the fall, which a network rep says will involve longer projects and "less immediate gratification" -- and, alas, no studio audience.) Corny as it may sound, this daytime audience knows from outsiderdom, at least as regards the tapioca-chomping, thread-counting urban style elite. Much has been made of the disconnect between the do-it-yourself craze and the economic boom (big sweeping finish coming! stay with me, folks!), but for this audience, booms are, if not illusory, then not guaranteed. The decade began with a promise of expendability for folks of every shade of collar, and it takes more than a couple of sunny 401(k) statements to forget that. To brighten up that inevitable rainy day, we know, we'd better be ready to reach for the food coloring and the dried kidney beans -- and great big economy-size boxes of baking soda.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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Martha Stewart