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What Made ‘Fixer Upper’ a Hit?

Jennifer Boomer / Verbatim Photo A

Fixer Upper, the popular HGTV house-remodeling show starring Texas couple Chip and Joanna Gaines, will soon close its doors. Chip and Joanna announced that the show will end when its recently begun fifth season concludes in early 2018.

The reasons they gave are exactly what anyone who’s paid attention to the couple over the last five years would have expected. The Gaineses’ children are growing up, and they want to focus on parenting; their other businesses have taken off; and they never wanted to be television stars in the first place. In short, they are walking away from celebrity precisely because of the virtues and priorities that made them celebrities in the first place.

Why has Fixer Upper been so popular? It’s fun to watch the transformation of a run-down house into something spectacular, and the hosts are engaging and charming. But this is true for all kinds of cable reality shows.

Something more happened on Fixer Upper.

Millions tuned into the program, not just to watch a construction project, but to witness the Gaineses’ life, their healthy marriage, and to bask in the warmth of the values they represent. What made Fixer Upper a hit wasn’t just construction and decor. It wasn’t even the Gaineses’ personalities. It was that the show portrayed traditional, life-giving virtues in a culture set on eradicating them.

Loving Marriage

People didn’t tune into Fixer Upper just to see a house remodeled; they tuned in to be reminded that—in spite of all the voices insisting otherwise—maturity, family, and faith are possible. They tuned in for hope.

Viewers tuned in to ‘Fixer Upper’ to be reminded that—in spite of all the voices insisting otherwise—maturity, family, and faith are possible. They tuned in for hope.

Much of what made this hope concrete was the way Chip and Joanna related. They loved one another. What we saw on the screen could, of course, have been faked. TV people are in the illusion business, after all. For all we know, when the cameras were off, the Chip and Joanna were small, miserable, angry people.

That’s possible, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Their affection for one another seemed genuine, their relationship devoid of the undercurrents of resentment and bitterness that mar so many families. They appeared to love one another in a way that granted each other peace and security.

Drawn to the Light

People are drawn to such images. The world is dark and growing darker. We know that people live unhappy lives. We know that, to some degree or another, our own lives are unhappy.  

The show portrays traditional, life-giving virtues in a culture set on eradicating them.

This unhappiness is now so pervasive that we accept it as normal. Our cultural darkness tends to blind us even to itself. We take all manner of unhappiness so much for granted that we fail to note just how dark the darkness is. Without clear experiences of brilliant sunlight, we tend to think the gloom of our personal cave is as good as it gets.

Such was the situation for the millions of Fixer Upper viewers. They sat in front of their glowing televisions escaping the darkness for a while. During each 43-minute episode, audiences found solace in whatever bits of light Chip and Joanna reflected in yet another predictable narrative of a home made new.

That light, of course, didn’t come from Chip and Joanna personally. Rather, it came from the values they lived out onscreen. The beauty of their commitments—to family, to virtue, to faith—in the guise of just one more reality show, spoke to people, encouraged them, helped them press on despite it all.

Promise of Renewal

Not that the show’s format didn’t matter. It did. People loved to watch the Gaineses, because they transformed things. People in the grip of painful pasts and often even more painful presents long to see something, anything, made new.

What the Gaineses represent to many is the promise of renewal. When audiences watch Fixer Upper, they don’t identify primarily with the Gaineses. They don’t imagine themselves as the couple buying the home. They identify with the house.

When audiences watch ‘Fixer Upper,’ they don’t identify primarily with the Gaineses. They don’t imagine themselves as the couple buying the home. They identify with the house.

Fixer Upper speaks to the longing in the human heart to have the dilapidated structures of our lives made new. In our helpless plight we long for the One who can rescue and truly transform us, the One who says, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). We resonate with the dilapidated-made-new narrative of Fixer Upper in part because it reminds us of the gospel. 

And that is why audiences have so loved this show. It taps into their longings for the One who, in a world falling apart, can fix things up.

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