The big reality TV surprise for me last summer was Fox’s Home Free, a competition on which couples competed to win a home by first renovating homes for deserving families. The twist came at the end of every episode, when the eliminated couple would be asked by host Mike Holmes if they wanted to meet the deserving family whose house they’d just helped renovate. Holmes surprised them by pulling out a photo of the couple.
Yes, the people who just thought they’d lost discovered they’d won, and the reactions often turned them—and me—into emotional wrecks.
Because the magic hinged on that surprise—the rest of the show was okay but that moment was absolutely the best part—I never thought a season two would be possible, so I was delighted when Fox announced its return.
But the first two episodes have made Home Free seem like a dramatically different show—individuals competing and forming alliances; punitive judging; an elimination challenge—one that lacks season one’s joy.
I wanted to learn more about the changes. Yesterday, I interviewed Home Free’s showrunner, George Verschoor, who’s been involved with reality television since the beginning, producing and directing the first four seasons of The Real World, and going on to produce shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, MTV’s Fear, and Nashville Star.
The second season twist
Season one had a “terrific twist that the audience responded to, but once that’s secret’s out,” Verschoor told me, “we couldn’t very well go out and cast another season, call it Home Free, and then say, Let’s find people we’re going to surprise again, because everyone would be aware of it. How do we keep that twist in the show? The idea was let’s find individuals who want to pay back somebody who’s had an enormous impact on their life, and they’ll be in on the twist with us, and they can surprise that individual.”
Home Free’s producers never thought of it as a once-and-done series. “We thought at the core of the show it could go on for some time,” Verschoor said. “It’s our job to find inventive ways [to do that] in season two, three, four, five, and so on.”
Verschoor said “this season it’s all about the heroes, and the question that came about that drove the show this year was, How far will you go for your hero? This person did it all for you and never gave up on you; how far will you go for them? Are you going to give up in house one, two, three, four, or are you going to go all the way and try to win the very best for them?”
Telling the contestants the losers would win
Season one’s twist wasn’t revealed to the losing couple until after the non-eliminated contestants had been driven away in a bus. In season two’s first episode, though, all of the contestants learned that the losing contestants’ heroes would still get a house.
Why tell them? And was there any thought about not revealing that twist?
“There was literally months of debate about this question,” Verschoor told me. “I think we all agreed, anyone who’s on Home Free knows, and anybody who sees that there are 10 homes is going to predict that: Look, we’re all going to get a home.”
“I think the audience would have figured it out after two or three episodes. What lie is sustaining this? You’d have construct some misdirect—we thought of many—but they were all a bit of an insult. Any lie that we come up with is just not going to be very plausible, so let’s just own it,” he said.
“But, the question is, Which home? And if you want the best for your hero, how long are you going to stay in the game? There is a sense of stakes because the homes get better and there’s $100,000 for whoever makes it to the very end.”
The $100,000 cash prize
Since the contestants know that they’ll win a house for their heroes if they lose, I asked if the prize was added to give them something to compete for, to add additional stakes.
“That wasn’t the motive for it, no,” Verschoor said. “This is a reward for whoever makes it to the end. When you ask these contestants, they all felt like they all wanted to keep going and going and going. They were motivated to stay in the game. So it really wasn’t necessary as a driver.”
Alliances, strategy, and game play
The game has taken a more strategic turn so far this season. Verschoor said. “I think when you ask the contestants, as we did during the course of the show, How far are you willing to go for your hero? you can see that they click into game mode, that some of them played the game very strategically: forming alliances, trying to eliminate others, and took more of a strategic approach. And others said, Look, I’m going to change who I am to play the game; I’m just going to do my very best and let the chips fall where they may. But I’m not going to start conniving.”
Last year, Home Free had lots of camaraderie and connection—after all, the final two couples were shared a deep bond, “the Mormons and the lesbians, together at last.”
Not so much this year. I agree with one contestant, Brian, who said last week, “To team up on me, it’s smart strategy, but at the same time, it’s ugly.”
I asked Verschoor if it was a surprise to the producers how quickly contestants went into game mode.
“It is a heartwarming show about celebrating heroes, and right when you think you’ve lost, you’ve won, so that was the driving force of this,” he said. “Yet at the same time we wanted to make it a bigger competition, and the way they decided to play was, What’s going to help me stay in the game the longest? Some chose alliances; others didn’t. I wasn’t surprised by it; I think it’s a natural inclination. And it’s a game.”
Verschoor added, “This rift between James and Maggie is probably one of the largest—one of the bigger fallouts of the question, How are you going to play the game? Moving forward, it really becomes about the challenges, the work, and the relationships—although the alliance with Maggie and Nick does have an impact in the long run.”
Casting individuals instead of couples
Season one’s cast members were all competing in pairs: there was one pair of siblings, and the rest were couples in various stages of their relationships. Season two has just individuals competing against each other to try to win a dream home for their personal hero.
“We felt because … we had the individual and hero, so there’s already two people—it’s that relationship we’re going to tell the story through,” Verschoor said. “So this season you really get to know the individuals through these heroes, through that story and connection. We felt like that was enough in terms of the amount of characters.”
Adding a co-host, Tim Tebow
The other major casting change was the addition of Tim Tebow. “We wanted to add someone who could be in the show from start to finish in every episode who went to this component of, How will you go for your hero? How far will you go in service of others? How far will you push yourself in service of others?” Verschoor said.
“We met Tim and it was just such a perfect match because he’s someone who lives his life to serve others, as well as he’s one of the most fierce competitors you’ll ever meet, who’s driven just beyond belief.” Tebow is “somebody who also knows, at the end of the day, do what’s best to help and serve others and change lives. He’s about all that.”
“That was his role that we wanted him to play to help Mike Holmes: to motivate these contestants, to push themselves beyond their limits, to help them someone change someone’s life like they’ve changed theirs,” Verschoor said.
Filming in one location
The production changed locations for every episode in season one, moving from house to house. All of season two takes place in an Atlanta suburb—Dallas, Georgia—and on the same street of a new subdivision, Oakleigh Pointe.
Did the production find its new home because it’d be easier to stay in one location?
“Yes, it was really hard to move every single week last year from location to location, though that wasn’t the deciding factor in this,” Verschoor said. “It was really about scale. We wanted to make the show bigger, we wanted to make the challenge of this more epic and feel larger than last season.”
“I did Extreme Makeover: Home Edition for many years, and we all wanted to take on something no one had ever attempted, which was build an entire neighborhood, build 11 houses. That was the bar we set. We didn’t even know if we could pull it off, so we set out to try to find a location where we could do it, and we were fortunate enough to find this development in the outskirts of Atlanta, where we were able to take over the entire development which hadn’t been started yet. So we were able to build the first street and then have enough room for our production footprint, which was enormous, and the space to spread out and have these challenge fields.”
Home Free constructed gates at the end of the street they built, and that “provided a game board for us,” he said. “In the development of this season, we wanted it to have that competitive, bigger game feel, and it enabled us to create this game board, if you will. Home Free Boulevard, with gates at either end, felt like a world you were entering into. It gave you that sense of an arena that you were coming into.”
Adding a challenge field
The location also has a dedicated space for challenge builds. Season one’s challenges often took place outside the renovated home, and were sometimes tied to the renovation (such as removing trash from a house), though were still obviously challenges (i.e. the trash looked like it had been placed there to give them a challenge).
I pointed out that the challenges felt even more disconnected this season, even though they’re pretty strong reality challenges.
“I see your point to some extent,” Verschoor said, “but I think this season, they were being tested on skill, will, and strategy. So a lot of these challenges were skill-based challenges or will-based tests that brought forth their abilities. And we could only somehow do that within the context of these games we could construct.”
The change in judging and Mike Holmes’ red tags
Some challenges do take place in the houses, Work Order tasks that Mike Holmes gives the teams. Verschoor pointed that out that “the red tags bring you the connection to the build. The whole middle of the show is still very connected to the construction of the house and their ownership of the house.”
The “red tags” he’s referring to are issued by Mike Holmes and signal that someone has failed to do a task properly, and anyone with a red tag is up for elimination at the end of the episode. For me, that’s turned Mike into a petty, punitive judge—issuing red tags for accidentally getting paint on a ceiling, for example.
By contrast, season one had Holmes and a pair of design experts judge the projects that the couples were assigned to complete, and Holmes was more supportive throughout.
Verschoor told me, “They’re still being judged on the same things. Skill is still skill. Last year was quality of work. It’s the same thing, so I would argue it’s a lateral step. They’re still being judged on that to determine who goes home.”
“And last year, it was the same: who built a table, who painted a room correctly, who scraped a ceiling, who built the picket fence at the front,” he said. “Last year, the judging occurred at the end of the show; this year it’s as we go. So Mike this season was judging that work and assessing it in the moment versus at the end, looking at the end result.”
How much work the contestants do
What’s clear on-camera is that the contestants don’t do all of the work constructing these brand-new homes (in season two) and doing massive renovations (in season one).
Verschoor said “that didn’t change. Mike Holmes and his team and our team do the lion’s share of the work. I don’t think there’s any misconception of that from last year or this year; it’s virtually the same. There are a lot of workers that are required to construct these houses in four days. That’s really what’s happening; these houses are really going up fast.”
He added, “to some extent argue this year they did probably more work in the house than last year. Last year they did a lot of DIY projects, design projects, and this year more it was more construction projects, flooring, drywall, roofing, and the like, you know, patios and things like that. They probably did more this year.”
The core of Home Free season two’s changes
“Yes, the format has changed has season to some extent. The game is bigger, the game is tougher,” Verschoor told me. “Every single one of these individuals is pushing to their limits to pay back somebody who changed their life, and I think that’s different than last year, which was serving themselves.”
“They’re playing a game to pay somebody else back,” he said. “I think that’s the shift in perspective.”