It's always nice when the ratings numbers reflect that not every hit program revolves around sexuality, snide cynicism or ever-escalating insults. It's refreshing when "reality TV" isn't merely a demented neighborhood full of unemployed porn stars and tragically post-pubescent child actors mugging desperately for a second whiff of fame. Sometimes, real people play themselves on TV and grow a little.
One surprising -- even shocking -- source of uplifting reality television has been ABC's suggestively named "Wife Swap" and the copycat Fox series "Trading Spouses." (ABC can hardly complain about Fox, since ABC stole the idea, and even the title, from Britain's Channel 4.) While the shows center on women from radically different home environments switching places, there is no sleazy expectation of swinging infidelity. Instead, the two families struggle to integrate a total stranger into their lives for a week, and often what emerges by show's end is a renewed appreciation of the very essence of motherhood.
That's not to say that the conventional "reality" show requirements aren't manipulated into place. Yes, yes, producers make sure all kinds of fussing and fighting take place before the happy endings seem to arrive. The "Wife Swap" premiere on ABC comically swapped Caprice, an almost compulsive neat freak, with Bambi, a happy-go-lucky slob who presides over a rules-free household of three children and 23 pets using the entire house as a bathroom. These women are real, and yet extreme, specimens that viewers find unbelievably attractive to watch. The show milks the real-life situation comedy for every laugh, and yet Caprice learns to loosen up, even allowing her two boys to have a cat. Bambi recognizes that organizing a bedtime for her children might not ruin her lifestyle after all.
The shows unfold like a sociology experiment. A less provocative and more accurate title for ABC would be "See How the Other Half Lives," or maybe just "Fish Out of Water." In the second edition of "Wife Swap," the producers switch pampered rich princess Jodi, who has a nanny for each one of her three kids, plus a housekeeper on top, with rough and rural Lynn, who drives a bus and spends hours each day chopping wood. Sparks fly, fights erupt. There are too many "bleeps." Lynn looks preposterous in $700 shoes. Jodi looks hilarious trying to chop wood. But both women end up with a greater appreciation for their own lives.
Up next: A gun-toting Southern mom switches places with an anti-gun animal-rights activist. Let the tofu fly!
Television may seem like an ideal medium for "couch potatoes," but one hot trend in "reality" TV has been the home-redesign show, in which people frantically pound nails and paint walls to meet an artificially imposed TV deadline to unveil a beautiful new room or house. That's hardly "reality" TV, since home renovations typically drag along through months of procrastination or aggravated home loan finagling.
ABC's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" takes the home-redesign formula and improves it with a very uplifting dose of humanitarianism. Each Sunday night, ABC wows audiences as carpenter Ty Pennington and a crew of designers, contractors and workmen completely renovate the home of a deserving family. Unlike other reality shows that emphasize and exploit the cast's worst qualities, ABC goes hunting for deserving targets of its charity: people and families who have either suffered deaths in the family, or work around disabilities or chronic illnesses, or lead ministries or troubled communities.
In the first season, ABC's home renovators created a livable space out of a home riddled with dangerous mold; renovated and paid the mortgage on the home of nine orphaned siblings being raised by the eldest children; and added space to the cramped home of a couple who already had two children and were expecting triplets.
Not only do the builders create a bigger and more efficient space for these families, but they also design warm rooms that reflect the personalities of the parents and the children they help. In case the show didn't seem super-nice enough, usable items taken out of the renovated homes are donated to other charities, including Habitat for Humanity and women's shelters.
Have no fear that Nice is the only "reality" option. The networks still serve up enough scheming bachelorettes and plotting survivors for the seamier, nastier side of so-called unscripted television. But it's a rare breath of fresh air when the networks can offer a little hope and happiness on their TV menu to balance out the sleaze and greed.