Fall TV: Shelter shows — with a reality-TV accent — are popping up everywhere

For those of us who consider stuffing a handful of dahlias into an old peanut-butter jar the height of home decorating, it's a little hard to comprehend the allure of the home-design genre.

After all, what's so exciting about watching someone install drywall or hide a guest bed under a tower of impractical pillows? If I wanted to watch paint dry, I could just tune in to the Mariners, right?


Today's home shows are a far cry from the old "This Old House" and those interminable demonstrations of proper caulking techniques. These days, home shows have catchy theme songs and flashy graphics. They have glib hosts and goofy sidekicks; handsome hunks and crazy competitions; and they have enough love, longing, deception and drama to rival even the finest Shakespeare play. You thought being banished to a storm-tossed island was tough? Try renovating your entire kitchen in three days. Now that's the stuff dreams are made of.

One of the fastest-growing segments on television, shelter shows rule the airwaves on TLC (tlc.discovery.com), home to the genre-defining "Trading Spaces," and HGTV (www.hgtv.com), where you'll find 46 listings covering everything from your closet ("Mission Organization") to your carport ("Curb Appeal," Wednesdays at 10 p.m.). But the madness hardly stops there. The explosive popularity of anything homey has spawned knockoffs on A&E (www.aetv.com), Lifetime (www.lifetimetv.com) and Style (stylenetwork.com) and even the new Do-It-Yourself Network (www.diynetwork.com), a hammer-wielding little sister to HGTV. Not to be outdone, prime time also has thrown its hard hat into the ring with ABC's frenetic, big-budget "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (Sunday nights at 8).

Apparently, home is the new black. And, as usual, you can expect to see it everywhere this fall.

Designer train wrecks

Some people attribute the sudden popularity of the home genre to the real-estate boom and/or the post-9/11 nesting craze, claiming Americans are more interested in comfort these days. And where better to find it but at home, particularly a home with antique accents and an abundance of natural light. But more likely it has more to do with the secret delight we all take in those occasional design disasters. Sure, we may be into cocooning, but most of us love a good train wreck, too.

Luckily, there's a certain category of home-design show that gives us both. The most infamous, of course, is "Trading Spaces," TLC's formulaic hit, which combines a racing clock, a restricted budget, a handful of designers and a hot carpenter or two, all held together by uber-perky host Paige Davis.

Watching ugly kitchens and gloomy dens transform into warm colorful wonders is fine TV fare, but it's the sight of homeowners duking it out with designers or staring slack-jawed at their living-rooms walls (now covered with hay) that we truly crave.

Who could forget the notorious fireplace episode in which Doug, renowned as the meanest of the designers, actually made that poor woman in Puyallup cry? Now that's entertainment.

Welcome back: No surprise, "Trading Spaces" will return for a fifth season this fall, with the first new show slated for Saturday, Oct. 9, at 9 p.m. Apparently, viewers can expect even more "unscripted" moments this year.

Also on the docket are celebrity episodes and a pack of specials, including "Trading Spaces Goes Medieval" (you guessed it, castles), "Trading Spaces: Trading Places" (with cast members switching jobs) and, gulp, "Trading Spaces: The Musical." "Trading Spaces: Family" (original recipe with kids) premieres Sunday, Sept. 5, at 7 p.m.

All the other big design shows are back, as well, including HGTV's "Divine Design" (Tuesdays at 9:30 p.m.), with the amazingly tall Candice Olson, a former volleyball star who can look her handymen in the eye, even when they're standing on stepladders; A&E's "Makeover Mamas" (Sundays at 6:30 p.m.), where a mother and mother-in-law team up (and inevitably tussle) while redecorating their kids' homes; and Style's "Guess Who's Coming to Redecorate?" (Sundays at 10 p.m.), which brings in old roommates, ex-husbands and former flames as the guest decorators. Scary stuff.

Welcome mat: One promising newcomer with great disaster potential is HGTV's "Designer Finals" (look for it Saturdays at 9 p.m.), which throws interior-design students (nose rings, jangled nerves and all) out of the classroom and into the cold, cruel world. As with "Trading Spaces," there's a deadline, a budget and an element of secrecy (once the homeowners agree to the redesign, they're completely barred from entry). Foul-ups, flakiness and the horrified faces of the homeowners provide the thrills.

Tales from the Dark Side

While some people like the carnage of a badly executed Mediterranean mosaic, others just like to snoop. Who isn't fascinated with the contents of someone else's house, particularly if that house contains, say, a closet full of clutter, a garage packed to the rafters with junk or a kitchen ringed with grime? Lucky for us, somebody figured out our dirty little secret and created a special niche of clean-up shows designed to satisfy our inner Nosy Parker.

Welcome back: TLC's "Clean Sweep," premiering Friday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m., not only boasts the best theme song in the business (bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-UGH!), it also introduces us to people who actually have more useless rubbish in their homes than we do.

From the outside, these places look perfectly normal, but inside, chaos reigns supreme. Piles of wrinkled clothes, towers of teetering boxes, stuffed animals, saddle racks, Bow-flexes, bank statements — you name it, they've saved it, and now their accumulated junk has taken over the house, burying everything in its path, including furniture, fireplaces, even favorite pets.

With a little help from the "Clean Sweep" team, though (a designer, a professional organizer and the obligatory hunky carpenter), the rubble is cleared, the newly discovered rooms are redecorated and order is again restored to the kingdom.

Junk-drawer junkies will be pleased to note that HGTV's "Mission Organization" (Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m.), the kinder, gentler cousin of "Clean Sweep," is also back in the lineup for fall. As is Style's "Clean House" (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.), yet another interior intervention show hosted by Niecy Nash of "Reno 911"!

Welcome mat: Two auspicious new entries go beyond the clutter to provide viewers (or is that voyeurs?) with a gritty glimpse at how the other half lives. First up is Lifetime's "How Clean Is Your House?" which premieres Monday, Sept. 6, at 11 p.m. Based on a popular British show by the same name (and starring the same bleach-wielding, household-hint-dispensing hosts), "How Clean Is Your House?" promises us refrigerators with 2-year-old milk, litter boxes that have never been emptied and bedding loaded with bugs. Ewww — can't wait!

While filth can be fun, ugly can be downright adorable — at least that's the premise behind TLC's new "America's Ugliest," a two-hour special premiering Sunday, Oct. 24, at 8 p.m. Starring what just might be America's three snottiest people ("Trading Spaces' " Doug Wilson, "WhatNot to Wear's" Stacy London and comedian Mo Rocca), the first episode has the trio traveling cross-country to root out America's ugliest bathroom. After tearing apart the bathroom in a metaphorical sense, the team tears apart the room in a literal sense and then commences a complete re-do. Future shows promise ugly kitchens, ugly bedrooms and ugly living rooms. (Can "America's Ugliest Wives, Husbands and Children" be far behind?)

Homeowner Heaven, Hell

One of the biggest problems with home-renovation shows is that the experts always make that kitchen-sink installation or bathroom rewire look so darn easy. Which can be a real pain when you try it yourself and end up hammering your hand to a wall or bumbling through what my sister and her husband now refer to in hushed tones as The Dreaded Fix-All Incident.

Welcome back: For those of us with big dreams but bad home juju, there's "In A Fix," TLC's do-it-yourself hell show, returning Wednesday at 8 p.m. The premise of the show is simple: A scrappy team of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and designers descends on a house where a self-proclaimed handyman has forced his loved ones to live through months of gutted kitchens, gaping ceilings and half-painted playrooms.

The offending spouse (wearing an "It's All My Fault" T-shirt) spends the next three days with the team, sledge-hammering, sawing, staining and sweating, while the martyred partner languishes away at a spa. The houses are always salvaged by show's end, but not before everybody gets into a huge fight. Very therapeutic.

Welcome mat: Hammer-happy husbands also will be the focus of a new special on HGTV, "I Love Him Anyway!" (not yet scheduled), which promises the worst do-it-yourself disasters in the country. And while "Generation Renovation" will not feature Grandma and little Charlie grappling over a nail gun , it will give us couples (including many from the Seattle area) who've done it themselves and lived to tell the tale. The new HGTV series, set to kick off Wednesday, Nov. 3, at 8 p.m., will interview homeowners who have transformed their older homes into showplaces, despite clueless contractors, renegade compressors, misplaced molding and tool-stealing tides.

Are there more shelter shows out there? Yes, approximately 57,000 of them, enlightening the spackle-covered masses with tips on everything from budget design to landscape gardening to savvy home-buying to — yes — caulking techniques and crafty tips for creating a pile of impractical pillows for that guest bed. (Does anyone else see a problem with waking up with big button marks on your face?)

Thomas Wolfe may have said you can't go home again. But these days, it's obvious you can't get away from it.

Diane Mapes: dimapes@nwlink.com

Lingo for home improvement

For interactive TV-viewing fun, count how many times you hear these phrases (or variations thereof) in a single show. (Yes, the exclamation points are mandatory!)

Next to color, nothing has a greater impact on a room than lighting!

Raw silk and decorative accents can add glamour to even a mundane futon!

Architectural salvage can be the hippest way to bring history into your home!

Turn a ho-hum kitchen into the sizzling center of your house with an infusion of orange!

Nothing adds texture to a room like candles, shells, starfish, pictures and grasses!

Decoupaging furniture is one of the best ways to express your personality!

Diane Mapes Special to The Seattle Times