Fixer Upper launches Christian revolution at HGTV
by Megan Basham
Posted on Tuesday, February 2, 2016, at 3:37 pm
Over the past few years, my No. 1 complaint about the current “golden age of television,” in which hundreds upon hundreds of new shows debut every year, is that almost none of them capture the experience of everyday Christian living.
Scripted shows that feature believers tend to fall into two categories: the saccharine style of a Hallmark Channel movie or the hostile approach of shows like Glee, where stereotyping the self-righteous, hypocritical, or naïve Bible-thumper is the entire point of the character. Up until recently, reality TV performed little better. The values and sentiments may have been more familiar, but some extreme characteristic—like having 20 offspring or an entire extended family of men sporting matching ZZ Top beards—often made them feel gimmicky and unrelatable.
Then came Fixer Upper.
Mention Chip and Joanna Gaines to a group of women of any age after a church service and gush does not begin to describe the reaction. They may watch House Hunters or Property Brothers if the airing schedule happens to coincide with a few minutes of downtime, but Fixer Upper inspires a rabid devotion comparable only to Trekkies and Game of Thrones fanboys.
It’s not because there’s anything particularly unique about the show’s premise. Each week, this Waco, Texas, couple helps clients select and renovate an old house. It’s the same setup as countless other home design shows, yet the series is breaking records at HGTV, becoming its highest rated show in years.
The difference, at least in all the conversations I’ve had, is that while doing stunning work, the Gaineses consistently reflect an unassuming, recognizable Christianity.
Though they never proselytize, Chip and Joanna’s faith was evident even before Max Lucado made a recent cameo appearance. Joanna sometimes sprinkles Scripture into her designs, like a dining room with Acts 2:46 painted on the wall. And Chip seems genuinely honored to be working on a house for a missionary family.
But even these obvious clues don’t quite capture the subtle loving-kindness the Gaineses exemplify in their interactions with each other and their children. When the first episode of Fixer Upper debuted in April 2014, after watching for only a few minutes, with no clear evidence, I had a strong presentiment I was seeing fellow members of the body. A little web searching confirmed it.
Other viewers must have had a similar hunch. Start typing the Gaineses’ names into Google, and the first word it suggests adding is “testimony.”
But the Christian part of the Gaineses is only half of their appeal. The other half is how normal they seem. There’s nothing stiff, strange, or self-consciously preachy about them. They joke, tease, and flirt. Chip fusses with his hair and tries to embarrass his wife with borderline inappropriate comments. Joanna sports the trendiest nail polish colors while puttering around the garden with their four kids. In other words, they look and act like people you might actually meet in your church. And now their popularity appears to be launching a trend at HGTV to find other ordinary Christians with extraordinary talent to turn into stars.
News outlets made a lot of hay out of HGTV’s decision to cancel the Benham brothers’ renovation show, Flip It Forward, after liberal activists expressed outrage at the Benhams’ comments supporting the biblical definition of marriage. But few noticed that the incident hardly put the cable network off evangelicals altogether.
Shortly after it was clear that the Gaineses were a hit, the network launched My Big Family Renovation, featuring Pastor Brandon Hatmaker and his wife Jen, a Women of Faith conference speaker and best-selling Bible study author.
More recently, HGTV ended up passing on a pilot called Sweet House Alabama starring Matt and Shaunna West of the popular Perfectly Imperfect home blog and online store. But it’s clear that network executives were happy to give the Wests a chance, and are actively seeking out designers like Shaunna, who, amidst furniture painting tutorials, writes, “If I am actually following Christ daily, the Lord is protecting my steps, my heart from invasion from the enemy. He will give me ALL I need to be more patient, more loving, more compassionate, more like Him.”
One of those designers is Erin Napier. Along with her husband, Ben, she hosts a new show, Home Town, that debuted on Jan. 24. In the online journal that drew the attention of HGTV producers, Erin frequently quotes John Wesley, reflects on “a God who loved us enough to send His child to save us all,” compares the unexpected gift of getting a new television series to God’s grace, and prays for His protection as they embark on this new venture. Both Shaunna and Erin (clearly the writers in their marriages) talk openly about how their husbands strive to follow Christ in their work.
Taken together, these new series are enough to make you wonder, when HGTV conducts demographic research on its audience, just how strong are the results these days for the Christian contingent?
I’ve said for years that if some network could just paint an accurate picture of Christians living lives in a common way, they would have legions of fans tuning in. Fixer Upper proves the point. I’d still like to see something equally authentic on the scripted side. But for now, every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. EST (and during plenty of Saturday rerun marathons) my husband knows where to find me.
Listen to Megan Basham’s commentary about Fixer Upper on The World and Everything in It.
Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Charlotte, N.C. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.