A Fine Mess
Are you a dysfunctional loser living in a pigsty? Then call “Clean House,” the reality show that rewards gross deviance with a quick fix.
By Mary Beth Crain
So, how many of you out there have seen “Clean House”? This “reality” show focuses on families for whom the term “dysfunctional” is no longer even remotely adequate. Psycho-obsessive-compulsive-passive-aggressive-narcissistic-sado-
masochistic-LOSERRRRRS! might be a more appropriate description—and even that doesn’t go quite far enough.
On “Clean House,” host Niecy Nash (“Reno 911”), who could be the offspring of Ru Paul and Weezy Jefferson, assumes the role of a mouthy, funny-bitchy fairy godmother who visits people living in messes you can’t imagine and, with a wave of her magic wand, transforms their lives into paragons of beauty and order. No matter that the interiors of the homes Niecy and her crew of intrepid remodelists take on rival those scenes of bombed-out southern Lebanon. The worse the bedlam, the sweeter the victory.
If you log on to the “Clean House” website, you’ll get the coming schedule: “The Fink Family: Episode #51—Niecy Nash and her team of experts come to the aid of a control freak and his disorganized, sloppy wife…Episode #19—Niecy and her team of experts tackle the home of a couple who just moved from Tennessee to California and brought all their clutter with them… Episode #34—Niecy and her team of experts face two generations of packrats whose cluttery tradition has culminated in a house with no room for a newborn baby…The Miller Family, Episode #52—Niecy Nash and her team of experts help a woman who’s drowning in clutter thanks to her two sloppy teenage daughters and her new packrat husband…”
This is truly Chaos 911. Yesterday’s episode featured a family whose name I don’t remember, but whose house I’ll never forget. The husband and wife, a 40-ish couple with big dopey smiles, happily welcomed Niecy, her team of experts, and the rest of America into their kingdom of squalor. You could not walk through the living room, which was piled knee-high with the entire family’s crap. The four boys, ranging in age from around six to 15, were crowded on top of each other playing video games, surrounded by everything from clothes, shoes and toys to skis, scuba gear, you name it. Not to mention the parents’ junk. In the midst of the mega-mess stood two eccentric items—an old jukebox and a Pepsi machine—which, it turned out, were more than simply testaments to kitsch extremis. The jukebox belonged to the husband, who refused to part with it on pain of death. The Pepsi machine belonged to the wife, who refused to part with it on pain of death. The fact that neither of these hulking antiques worked was inconsequential. Each represented its owner’s determination to dominate the scene, and the marriage. Ridiculous? Yup. Pathetic? Yup. Reality? Sigh…yup.
Onward to the “dining” room, where the dining table sagged under a barrage of so much junk that, you guessed it, there was no room to eat. But did this family do the obvious and clean it up? Of course not. They just ate “around” the mess, and the edges of the table were littered with dirty dishes. Behind the dining table was the computer station, heaped to the ceiling with papers and files and God knows what else.
“What would you like this room to be?” Niecy patiently asks the wife, who replies, “Well, I’d like to be able to use this as an eating area, and also a work area.” By this time you’re thinking, “Honey, if you’ve got to combine your office and your dining room, it’s time to get a bigger house.” And guess what the wife does for a living? She sells real estate! That’s right, folks. Can you imagine if she took her clients on a tour of her house beautiful? Well, actually she just did, if they happened to be watching the Style channel.
Can it get worse? Are you kidding? This is reality TV! The genuine nightmare room of the house belongs to the 15-year-old son, Ryan. He sports one of those Statue of Liberty Mohawks with terrifying spikes that look like they belong inside the Iron Maiden of Nuremburg. Ryan is your typical overindulged goth-punk wannabe teen. Naturally his room continues the designer theme of the rest of the house. You have to wade through three-foot-high mounds of his personal rubble just to get to the bed, which is also piled with three more feet of garbage. The walls are plastered with photos of friends and idols, bad goth posters and some of Ryan’s own questionable artistic endeavors that include a painting of a Dali-inspired skull. Ryan likes Dali, an admission that gives stunned decorator Mark Brunetz a ray of hope. Only problem: Ryan also likes his room. And so do his parents. “We don’t want to crimp his style,” explains mom. “We want him to express his individuality. This room says ‘Ryan.’”
This room says, “Spoiled rotten kid and moronic parents!” Just how moronic becomes evident when Niecy, Mark, organizer Linda Koopersmith and Allen Lee Haff, the yard sale maestro, have to convince mom and dad to part with their most precious—and horrific—possessions for the yard sale that’s an integral part of the show. Mom has two monkeys, carved, it appears, out of coconuts. They are hideous as sin, but she grips them to her breast as if they are her own ugly kids. “No,” she keeps saying, on the verge of tears. “I can’t get rid of them. No!” As for Dad, he practically threatens to commit hari kiri on live TV if he is forced to part with his beloved jukebox, which he’s been meaning to fix “someday.” Fifteen years later, someday is still waiting. Then there’s the Pepsi machine. Mom is just attached to it, period. Does it work? “Sort of,” she mumbles. They try it out and instead of spewing out a Pepsi, it spews smoke.
At the heart of the clutter, of course, is the hostility that pervades the relationships in this grotesque unit of misfits masquerading as just another American family. The wife is, to put it bluntly, a pluperfect witch who expects her husband to do all the cleaning, cooking, and disciplining. Why? Because she has a daytime job. Now, bear in mind that her husband works a full night shift as an airline mechanic. Big deal. In her warped view, he should still do the housework, and it’s his fault, not hers, that their habitat is such a mess. When Niecy hears this, she flips her lid. “Girl,” she thunders, “you are WRONG!”
You have to ask why anyone would stay with such a harpie for half a lifetime, but of course, it takes a piece of work to marry a piece of work, and hubbie is indeed a piece of work. Whiny, accusing, the victim of victims, he really wouldn’t have it any other way. His wife’s gross narcissism is his gateway to martyrdom. Ah, what lovely role models for the kids! This family doesn’t need the “Clean House” brigade—it needs Rabbi Shmuley and an emergency session of “Shalom in the Home.” If he can get into the home without a pick, a shovel, and the Hazmat brigade!
Well, anyway, they have the yard sale, they make $1,800, and Mark, Linda and Allen set to work transforming this hell hole into a work of functional art for, supposedly, under $3,000, only that is the purest horseshit. With a gorgeous custom-designed wood computer center/organizer, brand new furniture and fabulous accents, the bill for this makeover has to be mildly astronomical. As the “Clean House” team works their butts off, the family is sent on an all-expense-paid vacay at a luxurious resort. When they come home to their newly transformed, spanking neat ‘n clean home, all they can say, over and over like a chant, is “Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!” Even Ryan, who sulked and sulked about having been forced to hand his room over to invaders, gets teary eyed when he beholds Mark Brunetz’s magic, which has artfully woven the Essence of Ryan into a streamlined Zen/Daliesque splendor.
The “Clean House” team leaves proud and happy. Another pigsty transformed, another family saved. That’s the lie they want to believe, and that they want you to believe. The truth, however, is far less pat. A house is a reflection of the psyches within it. An uncluttered house mirrors an uncluttered mind. A cluttered house tells us that its owner might have a problem with a disorderly life. And a house that looks like a landfill is a warning that its inhabitants are major messes whose problems will not instantly vanish once somebody else comes in to do environmental damage control for them. It’s safe to assume that the family we’ve just encountered will return to its former slovenly existence in a matter of days, weeks at the most. Like drug addicts who’ve undergone a quick fix intervention, their rehabilitation can be no more than temporary.
If Niecy and her team of experts really wanted to save this crew, they would have forced mom, dad, and their four sloppy, ungrateful kids to do hard labor under house arrest. I think they should re-shoot the show, and instead of being rewarded for their deviant behavior, this repulsive family should be made to clean up their own mess, on camera, for weeks or months or however long it takes, while viewers all across America are treated to real reality TV, in all its stultifying tediousness. But the truth, alas, tends to be boring. Who wants to hear that there’s no quick fix for selfishness, sloth, and denial? Who wants to hear that nobody else can clean up our messes for us—that we alone are responsible for our misery and our redemption?
A little addendum—the above episode was by no means a worst-case scenario. When, in a recent interview, Niecy Nash was asked, “What’s the scariest household you’ve seen so far?” she replied, “The Jones family had a really scary house. There were hundreds of these dusty dolls staring at you from every nook and cranny. They had so much stuff you couldn't walk through a room without tripping or stepping on something. Marcia, the mother, carried on about her dolls. She talked to them and worried about hurting their feelings and even cried when we sold them. I'm talking serious tears. It was so bad she even tried to steal some of them back from our yard sale!”
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Senior editor Mary Beth Crain’s last piece for SoMA was Tranquility: The Storm Before the Calm.
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