A few months ago, you could have forgiven Cassandra Aarssen for thinking her TV dreams were over. In March she was about to begin filming the first season of an HGTV series in which she’d use her skills as a professional organizer to help untidy families declutter their homes. Then quarantine started, and it seemed that was that.
Except it wasn’t. The show was reconceived for the era of social distancing, and tonight HGTV will premiere Hot Mess House, in which Aarssen uses video chats to guide families out of their disarray.
“They really are incredible,” she says. “They pulled off the makeover, and they filmed the whole thing, too.”
Hot Mess House is one of several “self-shot” series that HGTV is rolling out this summer, all with a distinct approach to quarantine-friendly entertainment. For instance, in Comics Watch House Hunters, guest stars like John Mulaney, Whitney Cummings, and Dan Levy take the MST3K approach to the network’s flagship series, watching old episodes via video conference and making cracks about the participants’ dubious tastes. In Design at Your Door, which premiered June 11, HGTV designers Zoom with homeowners to give them advice on DIY renovations. The family is then sent a box of materials to complete the project, which adds a touch of TV magic to an experience they essentially facilitate themselves.
According to Loren Ruch, HGTV’s Group SVP of Programming and Development, elements like the goodie box are crucial to making a self-shot series work. “You have to make sure everyone is staying safe and that you’re following the state guidelines, but you also want to provide meaningful services to the homeowners and good entertainment to the viewers,” he says. “It has turned into a really fun challenge.”
Among their innovations, producers improvised a COVID-era “video village.” When shooting on location, that’s the bank of monitors where the production team watches what’s being filmed, but that won’t fly in quarantine. “Normally, we’d be set up in a guest bedroom or something, but I was watching at home,” Ruch says. “The executive producer was watching at home. The director was directing from home.”
Meanwhile, the families themselves were responsible for everything from lighting to sound to B-roll. HGTV set up practice sessions to give them a baseline for how to, say, frame a shot, and the network did send equipment like lighting rigs, GoPros, and iPhones. Still, the participants were given responsibilities that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, and unlike the stars of The Real Housewives of Atlanta or RuPaul’s Drag Race, to name two other reality series that have experimented with self shooting, the everyday folks decluttering their linen closets typically don’t have an entertainment industry background to help them out.
Ruch and his team felt this would be worth the risk, since they saw how HGTV viewers were using their time in quarantine. “As we’ve checked our social media, we’ve seen how many people are working on projects around the house, because they’re at home more than they’ve been in the past,” he says. “People are organizing. They’re cleaning. They’re transforming rooms by moving around the furniture they’ve already got. And we thought, ‘They’re doing this already, so why not showcase our talent in a way that can help [the homeowners] come up with clever solutions?’”
Ruch adds, “We were thinking these would be lighthearted and funny shows that would hopefully take some of the edge off of social distancing.”
But once they were in production, Hot Mess House and Design at Your Door clearly weren’t breezy distractions. Instead, they became surprisingly profound.
Just ask Aarssen: “My biggest fear was, ‘How are these families going to organize without me?’ Usually, I send them away, and I go into their home. I organize for their style, and then I surprise them. I was so nervous to do it this way, but I’m going to be honest: I learned that it’s better if they organize themselves. It’s better that they took it on, because it gave them the confidence to keep going with the rest of their home.”
She says she got emotional at the end of every episode, when instead of revealing her organizational work to a family, the family revealed their work to her. “They had a pride that came through. They were empowered in a way they might not have been if they hadn’t done it themselves.”
Aarssen is a highly successful organizational guru, and her work with the Hot Mess House families has rippled beyond the show itself. “This has changed how I’m going to run my business going forward,” she says.
Similarly, Ruch reports there were tears on every episode of Design At Your Door. “We try to be inspirational to begin with,” he says. “But this turned out to be really powerful. I was talking to one of the families, and this was a solid two days of work for them. They were hanging their own wallpaper. They were assembling furniture. The mom said it was the longest she could ever remember her kids putting down their phones for a family activity.”
The pandemic’s end (whenever it comes) will almost certainly see a return to on-location shooting, but the HGTV team says they’re learning some lasting lessons about good television. “I’m wondering if this is going to change how reality shows are made going forward,” says Aarssen. “Usually when you’re filming, there are so many people watching just outside the room, and it makes people nervous. The fact that [the participants] filmed it themselves just allowed for so much emotion. They were so comfortable because there was no one there watching them.”
Ruch adds, “Even though we’re making these shows using technology, there’s something sweet and old-fashioned about just working together as a family. It touches an emotional core that was much deeper than we expected.”
Hot Mess House premieres with two back-to-back episodes tonight at 8:00 PM ET on HGTV
Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.