All the celebrity attached to home-improvement show hosts means that little attention is paid to the skilled tradespeople who improve the homes in question. When these workers do appear on camera, it’s usually in montages. Their movements are often sped up for the sake of time, so they scuttle around like chipmunks, hammering, carrying, plastering, painting. Their work, whether intentionally or not, is positioned as secondary to the dynamism of the main stars.
We see this clearly on HGTV’s new show Windy City Rehab, which recently ended its first season. The title suggests that the show is about renovating homes in Chicago, but it’s really about Alison Victoria, the star, who poses with a sledgehammer in promotional shots. Victoria is a professional home flipper, and it’s hard not to admire her style. She evaluates properties with a caustic realism that brings to mind Simon Cowell: “The windows are a mess, the awning is awful, the glass block is disgusting.” As a home flipper, Victoria chiefly aims to turn the largest profit possible from selling her creations, and we watch her battle against time, weather, and occasional bureaucratic red tape to accomplish it.
Victoria has an edge to her, which is likely a requirement for a woman trying to succeed in a field that is still dominated by men. “It’s not for the weak,” she says of her chosen profession in a March episode. Understandably, she strives to control as many aspects of the project as possible. “If you want something done right, you do it yourself,” she remarks, after a set of kitchen cabinets turns out too short due to a measuring error on the part of a contractor. When she sources vintage pieces at a furniture restorer’s workshop, the exchange largely consists of her telling the craftsman what she wants. Workers only fleetingly appear in the usual construction montages. This overlooking of tradespeople is certainly not unique to Victoria’s show—it’s only the latest manifestation of a pattern that has come to define home-renovation TV as a whole.
If skilled workers are largely written out of television shows that rely on their expertise to function, it’s not surprising that fewer young people than ever are pursuing careers in trade. There is a genuine shortage of skilled labor in the United States, caused by, according to The Washington Post, lingering effects of the Great Recession, the retirement of veteran laborers, and “the fact that many high-school graduates are not interested in blue-collar jobs.” This issue is undoubtedly a complex one, but media representations of trade might bear at least some scrutiny. Who wants to be reduced to the backdrop while the true drama takes place in the foreground?
This Old House stands apart from its competition by keeping its workers in the spotlight—young apprentices included. The 16th episode of Season 40, titled “Apprentice Sill School,” features the great Norm Abram instructing two apprentices, Carly and Erick, in how to install a “sill,” or layer of wood, on the foundation of a home. This hidden piece keeps our walls from falling in on us—it supports a building’s frame and floor joists. As viewers watch, they see Carly and Erick learning exactly how a house comes together. Their movements are a little awkward as they use hammers to smooth the edges of the foundation before the sills can be installed. Their work is slow and hesitant. The only noticeable sounds in these scenes are Abram’s voice and the clink of metal on concrete.