Sunday night television commentary

News & Politics

I generally schedule my weekly crying session around 8:45pm on Sunday nights, right towards the end of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" on ABC. This week's two-hour special tricked me, though: multiple stories with multiple families meant multiple moments of reaching for the tissues. No television show nor film has produced these moments with such frightening success for me, and I'm struggling to figure out just where it comes from.

The show, for those who haven't seen it, is a reality show that completely renovates the homes of needy families across the country. With surprising grace and care, they tell the stories of average people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances -- a sudden death in the family, loss of job, rare disease, natural disasters -- and are in desperate need of a new home. (Once they built a brand new home for a family that had been living in a homeless shelter, while finding employment for others also living there.)

Sure, there's loads of corporate product placement -- Sears is behind most of the furnishings; other giants of commerce step in at other moments. This week was no different in that department; what was striking was the gamut that was covered, and the underlying progressive social commentary I heard throughout the two-hour holiday special.

A number of families were visited, based on the premise that those who've already had their homes renovated wanted to reach out and help others via the show. Thus, we were taken on a tour that included a group of children who can't go into sunlight; an Iraq veteran who'd lost his legs in the war; an HIV+ man who'd been caring for his partner (also HIV+) and elderly parents, all of whom had died within the last 18 months; displaced victims of Katrina in Mississippi; and the Los Angeles Free Health Clinic. Talk about an emotional rollercoaster.

The messages were fairly clear throughout the show: the health clinic folks talked about the need to have healthcare for all, Katrina victims talked about how we all have to look out for each other (Laura Bush even made an appearance and spoke to that), the HIV+ man talked about how his loneliness was overwhelmingly eased by a simple act of kindness, the veterans were honored for their service and brought together for work projects for each other.

First of all, there's something interesting about the way the stories are told in that, for example, the gay guy is never The Gay Guy; the black family is never The Black Family, which is a such relief sometimes. (I like Grey's Anatomy for the same reason.) But, I'm fully aware that the moments where my tearducts runneth over are carefully edited and programmed; however, I was still puzzled tonight about what it was that made those moments so bulls-eyed. Conclusion? Hope.

Each of the stories, and the way they're framed throughout the show, offer viewers a message of hope. Hope that one can make a difference by helping a neighbor, hope that things can get better, hope that the world might not be the nasty place all those politicians, pundits and other reality shows might have us believe.

These stories aren't told with the faux-pity or car-wreck sensationalism of other television shows I've seen. (OK, the lead guy can get a little irritating, but you can tell he's a good guy.) They tap into our inherent empathy, and the idea that any one of us could find ourselves in those circumstances portrayed. And we all might want to be offered that little glimmer of a chance at a new beginning if we are.

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