Why I hate Jeff Lewis’ Interior Therapy

When Bravo announced Jeff Lewis’ new show, Interior Therapy, I was thrilled: I’m kind of addicted to the hour-long place and people makeover format, and I love Jeff Lewis and his team, particularly Jenni Pulos. Flipping Out is pretty close to a perfect docudrama, and even in weaker seasons, is entertaining.

But this new show is awful, unethical, and I really, really hate it. Really.

The first episode was just kind of blah: If you like Jeff Lewis drama, there was only a little bit of that; if you like Jeff Lewis’ design, you only got a little bit of that, with a reveal that practically takes place during the credits. It was an awkward mix, and trotting Zoila out for a few minutes of comic relief brought it dangerously close to a really bad sit-com. But the show was at least watchable, if flawed (Jeff even acknowledged that), and I had a feeling it’d improve.

It did not, because the show’s producers made terrifyingly bad and unquestionably wrong decisions to cast at least two full-blown hoarders as the subjects for Jeff’s makeovers. These are people with a mental illness, as we know from watching Hoarders, a series that proves you can combine mental illness and reality TV, if you do it carefully. As I detailed in this Playboy story, the A&E series is exceptionally careful in its casting, and it has a therapist work with the hoarder before and during the clean-up, which is done only because there’s an impending crisis. (Sometimes the show is a little lose with its definition of “crisis,” for sure.) And the show works with the person after filming ends, paying for different kinds of after-care and therapy (as I wrote, an alarming number of people refuse that, but at least it’s there).

On Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis, Jeff moves in with people to quickly redesign a space that he selects. Last week’s episode featured a woman with two daughters whose office had rat feces (sound familiar?) in her stuff, which was overwhelming her living space, particularly her bedroom. Jeff said at one point, “I don’t really have patience for this any more. I don’t think anything’s changed. I think that we cleaned out her bathroom and maybe it’ll last a few months, but this is intense kind of work that I’m not qualified for.”

Yet he did it anyway. And there’s the problem. It’s at comfortable at best and psychologically damaging at worst to combine a mentally ill person with Jeff Lewis’ dry, observational humor.

Jeff may have good intentions, but he has attempted to be an actual therapist with people who actually need mental health care. His brand of quote-unquote therapy worked perfectly and flawlessly with Ross the Intern, who didn’t really let his boyfriend make decisions about their shared living space, and Jeff teased him about it and pushed him on it, and that was great. Ross and his partner didn’t have a dysfunctional relationship, and of course Ross is used to being made fun of on TV.

That’s not the case for at least three of the five other episodes, one of which was about someone who had attachment issues to his aunt’s things, and was living in her house and didn’t want to change it in any way. For the two people who came across as hoarders, throwing their stuff away is likely to be harmful. Read Matt Paxton’s book or just watch an episode of Hoarders and listen to Dr. Suzanne Chabaud‘s succinct summaries of this illness’ effect, and you’ll learn that when people go in and clean for someone else, the mess usually just comes back, because they’re not addressing the problem.

Worse, Jeff actively jokes about and mocks what he sees in those spaces, as if he’s just dealing with someone who’s messy. I really do find Jeff’s sense of humor to be hilarious, but basically everything else he said during last week’s episode was not funny. It was frighteningly ignorant. (The end hinted that she was going to seek help, which would be a great outcome, but that doesn’t excuse the show of its irresponsibility.)

What’s evident about Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis is that both Jeff and the producers and the network are ignorant about clutter-related mental disorders. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but from reporting about Hoarders on location and watching it for five seasons, I am quite sure Jeff is not an expert. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s causing harm. On last week’s episode, he yelled at the woman, “Have you ever even admitted this is not a way to live?” and she broke down crying, saying, “I just feel like such a failure.” This is a woman with two kids who are watching this unfold and have to deal with the aftermath.

Entertainment should never inflict damage on people intentionally, and even though it’s likely just ignorance here–oh look, a guy with lots of art and cries when his things are thrown away, let’s cast him!–that’s no excuse. Jeff Lewis and Bravo need to leave therapy to the experts, and go back to Flipping Out.

Interior Therapy with Jeff Lewis: D

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.