There are a ton of home-improvement shows on cable television, but none of them possess the amount of charm, humor, and how-to details of HGTV’s Fixer Upper. Hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines are a Waco, Texas-based couple who’ve developed a large following for the selection, rehabbing, and decoration of homes for new buyers. That’s the show’s premise, which not much different from what you can see on Flip or Flop, Property Brothers, and that colossus of the home-improvement genre, the series that comforts millions of lonely insomniacs everywhere, House Hunters.
But what Fixer Upper really has going for it are Chip and Joanna. He’s the Texas boy who likes football and bashing sheet-rock with a sledgehammer; she’s the savvy business-woman/interior designer who can sweet-talk home-buyers into coughing up a few extra thousand dollars to make that dream home a reality.
“We take the worst home in the best neighborhood and we turn it into into our client’s dream home,” Chip chirps in the intro to every episode of FU. The show follows the genre’s standard format: The buyers are shown three houses, they pick one; Chip starts his renovation while Joanna goes to antique stores and snaps up suitable items; then there’s the big reveal: the transformed home presented to the gasping, delighted clients.
What distinguishes Fixer Upper is the personalities. Joanna and Chip embody the idealized fantasy of a great marriage — they live and parent together (they have four young children), they work together, and they seem perennially besotted with each other. Normally the most tedious parts of home shows are the interstitial two-shots where the hosts just stand there and describe what needs to be done next on the house; on FU, these usually-tedious scenes have become the golden moments that fans savor. As Chip and Joanna look into the camera and talk, one usually has an arm slung over the other’s shoulder. Chip will stop Joanna in mid-sentence and reach other to flick something away from her upper lip, saying casually, “You’ve got some asbestos in your mustache there.” She ribs him about being a show-off who likes to juggle nail-guns; he acts mock-appalled at the amount of time she spends rooting around in antique stores. (My favorite moment during one of the fan-favorite outtakes is when Chip folds back a t-shirt sleeve to joke about his biceps and we see a band-aid on his upper arm. “Your heroin-shot is showing,” remarks Joanna drily.)
Online, there is endless speculation about the pair, including frequent questions about Joanna’s ethnicity, with many viewers certain she’s at least part-Native American. She has responded this way: “I love hearing all the guesses. Although I did play Pocahontas in high school, I am not Native American. My father is half-Lebanese, half-German, and my mother is full Korean.” As for Chip, he’s all-goofball: “I just wanna break stuff,” he says frequently, and a high point of every episode is what he invariably, and lustily, calls “Demo Day,” wherein he gets to demolish things, grunting happily while yanking gross bathroom sinks from trembling walls, pulling down posts supporting a dowdy porches that need to go.
The subliminal appeal of FU is its version of good old American values and workmanship — the spectacle of watching people labor with their hands, of creating something lovely for clients who have Waco-area budgets that seem fairly reasonable, if not downright cheap, especially to those viewers who may live in big urban areas. My own taste doesn’t align with Joanna’s: She goes pretty consistently with Southwestern chic that can be repetitive, and when it comes to items that add character to a room, I use books for reading, not as bought-in-bulk shelf decoration. I had no idea what “shiplap” was before watching FU (it’s a kind of rough-sawn wood she favors for its lived-in look) but I do know she uses too much of it. And her regular idea of “distressing and antiquing” a piece of furniture such as a dining-room table — well, I’d prefer to find a real antique than create a faux one.
But such quibbles melt away when you’re in thrall to the Gaines’ fixed-up magic. Fixer Upper recently wrapped up its third season, but reruns are shown regularly throughout HGTV’s weekly schedule, and Joanna recently tweeted that they’re in the midst of filming season four to air later this year. Let’s hope Chip and Joanna never go through a Jon and Kate Gosselin implosion—there will be tears staining distressed dining-room tables throughout America.
Fixer Upper airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV