Chip and Joanna Gaines entered the living rooms of Americans everywhere through Fixer Upper—the couple’s folksy, chirpy home renovation show that premiered on HGTV in 2014. It was there that the Gaineses introduced the world at large to the wonders of shiplap, French doors, and antique chairs nailed to the wall as decorative flourishes. Five seasons later, the couple, rich with newfound fame, decided to call it quits.
The series finale, which airs tonight, will almost certainly be a tear-soaked affair full of open concept kitchens and heteronormative family values. Savvy devotees quietly panicking about the end of this era are likely scrambling to gain purchase, casting around for HGTV’s next big thing.
HGTV caters to the very specific American fantasy of home ownership—a big, beautiful home, seemingly bought in cash and decorated to show the owner’s specific and exacting taste and values. But what the network really sells is not stainless steel appliances or wainscoting in the formal dining, but family itself. A family, in HGTV’s world, is clearly defined: two parents with a child or three, maybe with a baby on the way.
There are young couples looking to start a family, desperate to break free from their cramped townhouses and spread out. Single parents are occasionally represented, and a single woman or man looking for a house is a rare occurrence—the implication, of course, is that once they find that home, they’ll fill it with the love of a committed relationship that, if all goes according to plan, leads to marriage.
The scourge of the open plan living space is framed not as a fauxhemian affect, but rather a vital and necessary element of the design to ensure the safety of the children at all times: the island in an open kitchen as domestic panopticon. These homes are empty, unfeeling, cold spaces, until every corner is filled with the warm flow of familial love. Who better to sell that fantasy than the Gainses, a family of soon to be seven, living in an idyllic Texas town close to their pastor Jimmy Seibert and devoted open plan kitchens?
The show’s co-host Chip Gaines has the air of a man clinging to the fact that he was voted “Class Clown” in high school and Joanna is his patient—and somehow still loving—wife. He eats a cockroach on camera. She screams. Greeting “Demo Day” with the enthusiasm of a juiced-up kindergartner, he tries to tear down a wall using his body as battering ram. She merely shakes her head. There is something for everyone in their relationship, specific enough to feel real, but hewing close enough to very basic stereotypes—man dumb, woman smart, and somehow is still with dumb man because of love—that it’s easy to project your own family fantasies onto their seemingly perfect life, if you so choose.
The formula works, and with the Gainses off to shill their line of home goods at Target and run their burgeoning magazine empire, HGTV is desperate to replace their primetime-perfect couple. But replacing them is an onerous task, and it’s one that the network is still actively pursuing, tossing out options that are close but just miss the mark. Say what you will about the Gaines’s relationship, as a team they are strangely charismatic, and the show is soothing in its sameness.
Joanna’s design sensibility is by now so predictable that when watching the show, one can see where the French doors will go before the couple even decides on the home, but occasionally, there are surprises—a double-sided fireplace rendered in poured concrete or a mid-century modern dump that, when restored and renovated, is sleek and pretty and absent any giant chandeliers or Edison-bulbed pendant lights. Everything on Fixer Upper is sweet, whether it’s a vanity in the master retreat or an excessively large dining table for a family of three. Watch the show enough and you’ll find yourself falling for their shtick against your own good will. The rest of the offerings pale in comparison. Here are the contenders.
Ben and Erin Napier of Laurel, Mississippi are the obvious frontrunners in this dubious race to the top. Family is still on offer, but what trumps family, in the Napier’s small town, is community. While Waco is Southern in the way that Texas is Southern, Laurel, the home of the Napiers, has a much more interesting history. It’s located in Jones County, which seceded from the Confederacy in a revolution led by Newt Knight; this story was immortalized in a ill-received film 2016 film starring Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.
According to the “History” section on its website, following its secession from the Confederacy, Laurel positioned itself as a progressive enclave—a spot of cerulean in a sea of bright red—boasting “blacks and whites working side-by-side” and “the first public school for African-American children.” It’s this spirit of bucking the Confederacy over 100 years ago that has now been spun into a community-forward marketing approach from the Jones County Chamber of Commerce and glommed on by HGTV as their great white hope.
The Napiers double down on the family-first narrative perpetuated by their forbearers and offers the notion of community instead—family, but taken to its conceivable limit. The opening credits of Home Town feature Ben Napier, a large, bearded man walking the idyllic streets bathed in warm, buttery sunshine, waving hello to neighbors and offering to literally mend fences. His wife, Erin, wears her hair in a style one could reasonably describe as “fun,” and both have the affable, overly-friendly nature of youth group leaders. It’s as if they were groomed for this very task by a higher power—not God, but Instagram, and the savvy eye of an HGTV executive.
Under the watchful eye of Chip and Joanna Gaines themselves, the Napiers are poised to ascend the throne. They are the total package—genuine, saccharine, and charming despite themselves. Like Fixer Upper before them, their homes are gorgeous, but designed with an eye towards preservation rather than obliteration. While one episode I watched featured a truly horrible Chinoiserie wallpaper and a breathtaking original built-in bookshelf, their design choices are not yet marred by cloying design tics; there is a proliferation of bead board that is worrisome, but as of this writing, it’s not an emergency quite yet.
Everything about the Napiers glows with a sunny, lemony sort of love that, I’m sorry to say, feels real and is genuinely nice to watch. Family, filtered through their lens, is not family, but community—a goal that is less well-defined and therefore more accessible to a larger audience. Honing in on community as commodity rather than praxis is a savvy move. A group of diverse friends in a large city is community; so is leaving said large city behind and moving to a town where everyone knows your name. HGTVs heteronormative, faintly-religious family values are not for everyone but community is so expansive that its definition can include just about anything you see fit. Even if the average viewer’s town or city looks nothing like the idyllic small-town fantasia of Laurel, the idea behind it is broad enough to resonate. This is the show’s key to success.
Since family, in HGTV’s world, is king, a brother-and-sister duo like Leanne and Steve Ford sort of fits the bill. Their dynamic is mercifully absent of the strange “will-they-or-won’t-they” vibes that underscore every strained interaction between the Property Brothers, but something here isn’t quite right. Design-wise, Leanne’s predilection for painting every single surface in her interiors white is perhaps meant for a different audience than the rest of HGTV’s offerings—me, a single woman living in the big city, wedded to impracticality, unbothered by the maintenance an all-white home would afford.
Design, not family, is the emphasis here, along with a hearty dose of Leanne and Steve’s sibling carmarderie, which is charming in its own right, but lacks the self-satisfaction of Chip and Joanna’s domestic bliss. In what feels like an outsized vote of confidence, Restored by the Fords airs immediately after Fixer Upper—a play by the programming gods looking to capture the attention of those too lazy to turn off their televisions. It’s not that the show isn’t good—Steve has an appealing stoner vibe and is an excellent foil to his sister’s more befuddling design choices—but it’s not going to scratch the itch of those seeking “family.”
The first installment of this franchise with Christina and Tarek El Moussa was such a success that it spawned a mini-franchise with the same formula and has moved out of the antiseptic light of Orange County and onward to other cities, including Atlanta, Forth Worth, and Nashville. The El Moussas’ relationship ended in a spectacular mess, including an incident with a handgun and verbal assault allegations; as their union was integral to the show, so that ended. too. In its place, a variety of other couples rushed in to fill the void.
The trouble is, the story on Flip or Flop is not about the relationship—it’s about the houses. The fantasy is capitalistic at heart, speaking to another facet of the American dream that isn’t concerned with the family unit. Scooping up a charming two-bedroom cottage in Arlington Heights for a cute $90,000 and flipping it to make $20,000 on your investment in 26 minutes of television is somehow more appealing than the allure of a perfect family.
Mina Starsiak and Karen Laine are a mother daughter duo renovating homes in Indianapolis. Perky, chipper, and sweet, their dynamic works. Family is the basis of this show, but it’s not the quietly religious, heteronormative dreck that the Gainses are selling. Much like every other offering on the cable channel, Mina and Karen’s home renovation business is a family affair, but it’s more realistic for some than the domestic bliss of Chip and Joanna Gaines.
Parsing their family tree is difficult and slightly confusing, but a very helpful explainer from People lays out the connections clearly: Mina’s half-brother on her father’s side, Tad, lives with her mother, Karen, to whom he is not biologically related. Tad works on their job sites and so does Lenny, their general contractor, who is also Tad’s stepfather—he was married to Tad’s mother Cheryl before she married Karen’s father, Casey. Casey and Cheryl eventually got divorced and Lenny married Cheryl again. It’s the kind of family dynamic that breeds an intimacy that feels real and not put on for the cameras, and to that end, it works. Will it fill the gaping, French door shaped hole in America’s heart ? Nope, probably not.
What, if anything, does HGTV need to offer to the cultural landscape? Other offerings on the channel that focus heavily on the home renovation aspect appeal to a narrower base. Shows like Rehab Addict, in which Nicole Curtis lovingly preserves stately homes in Detroit, are best enjoyed by those whose heart pitter-patters at the presence of original picture rail molding and honeyed parquet floors—design dorks who relish in period details and dream of a working dumbwaiter. As it stands, Home Town remains the clear frontrunner, offering a taste of the Southern charm and warm familial fuzzies that Chip and Joanna pioneered, packaged, and sold with such relish.
Fixer Upper established a tone and a formula that is apparently failsafe—when the show ends tonight, viewers mourning that loss will be able to drown their sorrows in Fixer Upper: Behind the Design, a half-hour of packaged B-roll, anchored by Joanna, expectant mother. “I can’t wait to show our fans how every piece of the design comes together before the final reveal,” she said to People. “I want to nail every detail so that, when we walk away, Chip and I know we’ve given a family the one-of-a-kind home of their dreams.”