Alibi V.14 No.12 • March 24-30, 2005 

Idiot Box

Main Street Makeover

“Town Haul” on TLC

I'm not sure at what point TLC's “Trading Spaces” turned into the “Saturday Night Live” of cable television, but it has suddenly become the launching point for all kinds of spin-off talent. First carpenter Ty Pennington split off to network success on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Then designer Douglas Wilson tried his hand at the series “Moving Up.” Now, fellow “Trading Spaces” alum Genevieve Gorder is trading on her rickrack-and-throwpillow success as host of the new series “Town Haul.”

Unlike other remodeling TV shows, “Town Haul” takes on the gargantuan task of overhauling an entire small town. Each month, Gorder and her crew roll into Backwater, U.S.A., and choose design projects that will bring new life to the chosen locale--from upgrading local restaurants to building parks to slapping a new coat of paint on Main Street. Projects are chosen at a “Town Haul” meeting, and residents are expected to pitch in. Taking a lesson from the sappy sentiment of “Extreme Makeover,” “Town Haul” weaves emotional personal stories amid its teardown-and-repaint action.

Each project is given a project manager. The purpose of the project managers--from little kids to grandmothers--seems to be to slack off, cause tension and amp up the drama of the show. What would a home makeover show be without a lot of screaming conflict? This is one of the less interesting aspects of the show, but does provide the opportunity for plenty of race-against-the-clock, will-they-get-it-done-in-time action.

Despite the requisite manufactured conflict, “Town Haul” proves itself an equal to cross-channel rival “Extreme Makeover” when it comes to the interpersonal drama. Spiffing up the house of a retired military man whose wife passed away, building a new apartment for an impoverished, wheelchair-bound local fellow or simply giving a fresh look to everybody's favorite ice cream stand all provide ample opportunity for laughter and tears. Unlike “Extreme Makeover,” however, “Town Haul” doesn't seek out the biggest sad sacks on planet Earth just for the sake of some cheap tearjerking.

Amid the lumber-hauling, the paint-slapping and the barn-building, “Town Haul” offers up a pretty good portrait of small-town America. There are plenty of crazy characters to ogle, and the tensions inherent in any community are sure to bubble to the surface sooner or later. Somebody always hates somebody else. There's always a subtle racial friction. And, no matter where you are in the good old U.S. of A., everybody hates the teenagers. In both the communities visited by the show so far, teen centers have been built to give small-town kids something to do other than drink beer and sit on the railroad tracks. In both instances, town elders seem mighty reluctant to give “troublemaking” youth a place to congregate.

At this point in TV history, we've seen enough drywall patch and accent colors to last us a lifetime. Remodeling shows have to go that extra mile to capture our interest. “Town Haul” is one of the best of this new lot, throwing in an addictive glimpse at small-town America, and reminding us all why we live in the city.

“Town Haul” airs every Saturday at 9 p.m. on TLC.