Open House! An exciting new game show from Todson Goodman

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Pam’s home is not much larger than a Tokyo hotel room. So we went to a couple of open houses over the weekend.

One place was kind of sweet and sad. It had an Asian theme: Japanese pottery, bamboo flooring, Balinese textiles, a Buddha sculpture, Tibetan art—an effort, apparently, to cultivate massive amounts of serenity. And it must have failed. I mean, surely, if you had a home this serene, you would never move. But someone was.

So who was the owner? Why was serenity so terribly important? And what went wrong? Was the owner a refugee from a new age religious cult? (Was this his spiritual “half way” house?) Was the owner a entrepreneur who was trying to shift down from the maniacal life style that had made him his fortune? (Was this house a kind of architectural air bags?) Had this guy actually found some place more serene? (I had a hard time imagining this. Anything more serene would have been stupefying.)

This is my idea for a game show. Every Saturday across America between 2:00 and 4:00 there are hundreds of thousands of open houses. One of these open houses should be wired for image and sound, capturing reactions as visitors move through the house. Once they leave the house, they should be discretely removed to an interview area, and asked to describe the home owner. The person with the best answer gets to keep the home.

North Americans have an astonishingly detailed knowledge of the world of consumer goods. We are very good reading the material record and leaping to conclusions. I notice that one of the demands of life in Connecticut is a mastery of the lifestyle implications of the “S,” “E,” “C” distinctions in the Mercedes line. (My conclusion so far: it’s illusive, important, and generally speaking intelligible only to those with many years [perhaps many generations] of residence here.) This would make for interesting, and thoroughly anthropological television. It would reveal a cultural literacy we all possess but don’t much talk about. And of course this literacy varies with age, class, gender, lifestyle, region (and on and on) and all of this would be very interesting to see. Most important? Someone gets to win a house.

No, most important, we would see how thoroughly our material culture makes our culture material. There are no cultural distinctions that do not have material expression (not for long anyhow). We have a more sophisticated knowledge of the social order that we generally acknowledge and it is contained in the fine, fine distinctions of the consumer culture. I can’t tell whether this knowledge of the material code is disaggregated because it has to be (that’s who we are) or whether its disaggregated because we cannot let go the old categorical systems. (I think there is an old Steven Reich joke: “Your socks are different colors. They don’t match.” “Yes, they do. They’re the same weight.”)

There is of course a less anthropological, more literary opportunity here. You remember the scene in Wonder Boys where Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) and Terry Craptree (Robert Downey Jr.) are speculating about the life story of someone at a bar, but then James Leer (Tobey Maquire) comes out of his apparent coma to supply an imaginative rendering so interesting and so plausible that you can hear Tripp, the failed novelist, thinking, “why do I bother.” I am not sure what the right prize here would be, but I am leaning heavily in the direction of a “S” class Mercedes.