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Ambience Ambush 

by Kathy M. Newman

What's with this new cultural phenomenon of the surprise home makeover? Two of the most popular home design shows on TV are based on the premise that the best way to show someone that you love them is to lie to them, get them out of the house, import a large design crew operating on a modest budget and tight time frame, radically redo an entire room, and then capture the reaction of your loved ones on film as they walk in the door.

The Discovery Channel's foray into the genre is Surprise by Design. Viewers who wish to be on the show write heartwarming letters about why the special person in their life "deserves" a room makeover. Worthy beneficiaries have included a nine-year-old girl who was tired of sharing a room with her younger sister, a mother recovering from cancer and a husband who had sacrificed his home office for more space for the family's first child.

The star-designers of the show are the lanky, shaved-headed Robert Verdi and the perky-yet-grating Rebecca Cole. Verdi, who got his start skipping high school in New Jersey to sell his home-made jewelry in Manhattan, has decorated the homes of Sandra Bernhard, Courtney Love and chef Bobby Flay; he has also worked as the style consultant for Gay Entertainment Television. Cole went to New York to study acting and ended up running a plant nursery. After writing several award-winning books on gardening, she expanded her career to include interior decorating.

Their show is a hit; when Surprise by Design first aired on the Discovery Channel, the ratings for that hour jumped 429 percent over the show that was previously aired in that slot. The real drama, of course, takes place when the show's unwitting victims arrive home. The looks on their faces when they see the changes in the room and the presence of the designers and camera crew, is always part anger, part humiliation and part excitement.

While You Were Out has a decidedly meaner tone. The narcissistic host, Teresa Strasser, simultaneously aggravates the homeowners and the design crew. In addition, on this show the surpriser must arrange for the surprisee to be out of the house for two days on false pretenses. When the surprisee is a husband (which it usually is), these trips have included golf weekends, dude ranches and taking the kids away for the weekend. As part of the ruse, the surprisee is captured on camera by a While You Were Out employee who poses as someone making a golf video or a Web site for the dude ranch.

Meanwhile, back home, the surpriser (usually the wife) is quizzed about things that her husband is doing and saying while he is out. If she gets the questions right, she adds cool furniture and accessories to the room; if she gets it wrong, she wins a booby prize and looks stupid on TV. One wife became so agitated by the questions she refused to answer them. In another traumatic episode, the husband came home early, making it impossible for the design team to finish the job. The wife, who claimed she was doing the makeover for her husband, pleaded over the phone with her husband's friend to stall for time: "There are some things I'm not going to get if you come home early," she sobbed.

These shows certainly indicate a new hunger for designer TV. While You Were Out receives thousands of applications a week. But they also provide an odd post-Valentine's Day reminder that passive-aggressiveness is alive and well in the American marriage. While the shows purport to be about one spouse showing love for the other, they generally depict a wife overseeing a room makeover on "behalf" of her husband, who may or may not care to have strangers come into his house and make a radical change. The husband, while he usually puts on a brave face under the glare of the camera lights, has the look of someone who has caught his wife cheating.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not going to stop watching. I have learned a lot about home decorating, and, perhaps, about marriage, watching these shows. As for decorating in general, I have learned that home projects are best undertaken collectively, without surprise, and with as many skilled people as possible. Remodeling has enough potential for swampy combat, flying mortar and enemy fire -- without adding in the surprise.

Publication date: 02/27/03

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