If I hadn’t just moved apartments recently, I’d likely be surrounded by piles of stuff, fearful of being buried alive under a pile of eyeshadow palettes and books, desperate for someone, anyone, to help. In the process of moving, I got rid of piles of garbage procured from a “free!!” table at work, and bags of clothes long destined for a donation bin that I couldn’t seem to part ways with. Now that the trash is gone, everything that is in my house is something I actually want or need. Freedom at long last.
Decluttering and throwing out your belongings can change your life, according to TV. On Netflix’s The Home Edit, an extension of their Instagram-famous celebrity organizing business, the Drybar-blown-out hosts sort clients’ belongings into clear acrylic bins. On Tidying Up With Marie Kondo, the Japanese organizing expert takes a different approach, asking people to feel gratitude for the items they keep and discard those that do not bring them joy. If you need an actual intervention you could see if you could make it onto A&E’s Hoarders. But none of these solutions would be even possible if it weren’t for Clean House, the prototypical home organization show that walked so that all these other lesser iterations could run.
Clean House ran on the since-shuttered Style Network for eight years. It was initially hosted by actor Niecey Nash and a team of interior design and home organizational experts, who came to people in desperate need of letting go. The people featured on the show were not particularly unique—just normal citizens clinging to life’s detritus, like bags of clothes that no longer fit, snowboards, baby shoes, and furniture. But what they all had in common was that they needed a gentle intervention to release some of that which was holding them back, starting first with their stuff. Once the homeowners were adequately convinced to release some of their baggage, both spiritual and physical, the Clean House team would organize a yard sale. The proceeds of that yard sale went towards whatever improvements the team would do around the house, with the show itself matching up to $1,000 of the profits. At the episode’s end, everyone is happy and the homeowner, who was previously suffering from the side effects of clutter and disorganization, got to bask in the joy of having an organized space that still feels like home.
Cleaning house in general, especially if the house in question is particularly messy in a way that seems pathological, requires something akin to a therapist’s tender touch. Understanding this innately, Niecy was both good and bad cop. As a host, she was funny and willing to be stern with the people seeking her help, treating each negotiating session with her clients as both therapy and lecture. In an episode from the show’s seventh season, a woman named Tracy wants her entire house
While Hoarders is an emotional rollercoaster with a serious bent and The Home Edit features clients who are simply thrilled to organize, the people featured on Clean House sat somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. It’s embarrassing to be forced to contend with the piles of crap that clutter your home, and it’s difficult to muster excitement when the fear of shame runs deep. But the participants in Clean House knew precisely what they’re getting into. Being lightly shamed by a team of organizers is painful, but eventually, the homeowners give in at the end, learning that it is better to trust the process.
Clean House premiered at a time when the burgeoning home makeover reality show genre was getting its legs. Extreme Home Makeover, which launched around the same time, focused on design primarily, with less attention given to the personal and emotional connections the show’s participants might have to their stuff. Trading Spaces also focused on aesthetics and made the home renovation and redecoration process the star. But Clean House was less about the final result and more about the process. Because the budgets were generally smaller, the reveals weren’t as jaw-dropping as those on other home-renovation shows and they focus on function over aesthetics. Sure, the spaces always looked nice, but it’s nothing like the anesthetic gleam of a recently flipped tract house on shows like Flip or Flop or the McMansion-adjacent stylings of Joanna Gaines and her aesthetic antecedents.
The home is the one space that we can control; when control eludes us and the house goes to shit, it’s often difficult to get out of that hole. Niecey Nash’s team did so absent any real shaming or judgment. The relationship people have with their stuff is very private and being forced to explain why you’re holding onto your college notebooks or twenty-five pairs of jeans that don’t fit can be embarrassing. Nash and her team seemed to understand this innately, even though the negotiations they endured were occasionally torturous for the people they were trying to help. The home organizational TV genre endures because while not everyone has the money to renovate their master suite, sitting down and throwing away the crap that’s accumulated in the garage for fifteen years is free. Clean House reminds me a lot of the scrappy, can-do attitude we all need to embody just a little bit more, proving that you can work with what you have to make something that feels new.