When NBC’s new “family social experiment” Home Sweet Home was announced last summer, executive producer Ava DuVernay said this in the press release:
“The idea for Home Sweet Home came to me during the strange and important times we’re all experiencing. The premise is that we are farther apart than ever, yet bound by what we have in common—concerns with health, safety, justice and community. These notions manifest in each of us in different ways, but nowhere more striking than in the privacy of our own homes.”
That idea and premise will be familiar to anyone who saw ABC’s Wife Swap, because Home Sweet Home has effectively the same format, but I’m not sure why it exists.
Yes, Wife Swap has a noxious title that suggests women are property, and was mostly focused on producer-orchestrated conflict, thanks to the book of “rules” written by the production. The editing frequently felt manipulative, and the only takeaway for the audience was how awful some of these people were to their families and each other.
Home Sweet Home (NBC, Fridays at 8) aims to be kinder and gentler, but misses any kind of target.
Entire families swap homes—apparently their real houses, not stunt rental houses like on Celebrity Wife Swap—but once there, they find themselves in an episode of Wife Swap: a manual of house rules to follow, a list of activities and interactions the producers have created for them, different cultures and traditions to adapt to. Eventually, the families meet each other for a conversation (not a confrontation, like Wife Swap usually delivered).
Home Sweet Home’s production company is Warner Bros. Unscripted Television and Warner Horizon, which brought us The Bachelor franchise and shows ranging from High School Reunion to The Cougar, and they’ve produced a show that looks nice but ultimately lacks substance.
The opening credits promise that this experience will make the families “embrace other communities,” “learn different ways of life,” “discover the similarities through surprising revelations,” and experience “transformational moments.”
Those are definitely a lot of words. But in the one episode NBC provided to TV critics, there is not much more.
The idea, I suppose, is that the participants learn about people unlike themselves by living their lives for a few days. That’s accomplished by producer-crafted scenes: a piano teacher shows up, a family goes to church, they spend a day in the community.
But the show doesn’t bother to engage with how absurd that idea is for the most significant of their differences.
The first episode focuses on the Vasiliou family, a straight Greek Orthodox couple and their kids, and the Wixx family, a Black queer couple and their kids. Is it possible for a straight white-presenting couple to truly understand what it’s like to live as two queer Black women? Of course not, especially not in a handful of choreographed scenes.
Sure, perhaps they can have some empathy, and learn to not make assumptions, or become more aware of their unconscious biases. Those are important!
But since it’s unlikely a truly bigoted or overtly racist family would choose to participate in such a show (and I sure hope they won’t cast such a family), that means the two families we see in the first episode show up already empathetic and open to noticing their own gaffes.
There are minor stumbles—the dad keeps wondering how kids can grow up without a father, the family tries meditating and ends up laughing—but none of this leads into any “transformational moments” in the first episode.
Instead, there’s a lot of moments like this: “We don’t know a lot of two-mom households, just because where we live it’s more traditional,” Maria Vasiliou says. Her husband, Nick, concludes, “We’re all humans and should all love each other.”
How transformational! I’m being snarky here, but who exactly is this show for? Wife Swap was for fans of trashy drama. After Home Sweet Home’s first few seconds, I doubt any actual racists or bigots are going to keep watching, and I suspect those with implicit racism and biases aren’t going to get enough of a nudge. I’m open to understanding my own implicit racism and biases, but with such simple messages, I didn’t feel challenged in any way.
At most, the first episode highlights what happens when people make inaccurate assumptions, like when the Vasiliou kids’ grandfather visits with the the homeowners and asks if Yndia and Ania Wixx are sisters, which means they have to come out and explain that they’re married.
Perhaps it’s important for those kinds of moments to be seen, to help normalize the different families and to highlight how assumptions create discomfort for queer people, who have to constantly . But the show also ignores the most egregious behavior I saw.
The grandfather later touches one of the Wixx kids’ hair, and then one of the women’s hair, and that moment passes without an acknowledgement, despite the non-consensual touching of Black people’s hair being such a frequent microaggression there’s a video game and a kid’s book about it.
Speaking of kids: By far the most interesting moments in the premiere come from them, because their reactions that feel more honest and less performative for the cameras.
They’re often just charming—”It was like we were friends before we even met” one kid tells a kid from the other family when they meet at the end of the episode—and also take things quite literally. One of Yndia and Ania Wixx’s daughters cries after reading the Vasiliou family rule that no fun is allowed until after chores—because she’s used to having fun doing her chores.
When the Vasiliou learns that the Wixx’s house was the first in the neighborhood occupied by Black people, the subject of redlining briefly comes up, and one of the Vasiliou’s sons asks, genuinely shocked, “No Black families were allowed to live there?”
There’s a lot of emphasis on what the Vasilious are learning, and that makes the premiere feel quite lopsided, and that makes it seem like the Wixx family is here to teach the Vasiliou family. That’s not great, Home Sweet Home!
As Kali Holloway wrote, “America loves teachable moments, those real-life Very Special Episodes of supposed cross-cultural exchange and transracial learning.The problem with those teachable moments is that the same people always end up doing all the teaching. In matters of race (and sex, disability, gender and sexuality, but let’s stick to race right now), the marginalized are tasked with being educators.”
Perhaps future episodes of Home Sweet Home will be different, and I especially hope they’ll avoid having marginalized people be the teachers. But for me, the combination of show’s overblown promises and the relatively flat reality has not generated much enthusiasm for tuning in again.
Home Sweet Home
Home Sweet Home is a well-intentioned but ultimately flat attempt at connecting people. C+
What works for me:
- Representation of different types of families
- The kids, who react and learn more openly
What could be better:
- A willingness on the show’s part to have actual uncomfortable conversations and acknowledge problematic behavior
- Less of a focus on self-congratulatory “transformational moments”