The Audacity of Magnolia Network
When Fixer Upper premiered on HGTV in 2014, Chip and Joanna Gaines were just a couple from Waco with a small home-renovation business.EntertainmentTV
Graphic: Jezebel (Photos: Screenshot/Magnolia Network, Shutterstock)
At the start of Fixer Upper: Welcome Home, Chip Gaines is sitting shotgun in his wife’s SUV, and he’s happy. “Alright, baby girl,” he tells Joanna. “We’re back!” She smiles inscrutably as her husband smacks the window of the passenger side for emphasis. “Whaaat!,” he screams. Joanna continues to drive. “We’re BACK,” she replies, issuing her own half-hearted smack to the window, to match his. As the Gaineses drive to meet a new family who needs help renovating their forever home, Chip shows an uncharacteristic bit of humanity— a hint of insecurity at the thought that maybe the audience who loved him so fervently in the past will have changed their mind now. “What if we screw somethin’ up,” he says to Joanna. “We won’t,” she responds with confidence. “You will.” Chip takes a beat and mutters inaudibly. Joanna’s lips fix themselves into a thin line as their car takes a sharp right down an empty Texas street, onward to make a new couple’s fantasy a reality.
When Fixer Upper premiered on HGTV in 2014, Chip and Joanna Gaines were just a couple from Waco with a small home-renovation business, plucked from semi-obscurity by wily producers who knew that there was just something about the couple that could be a hit. When the show ended in 2018, going out in a blaze of shiplap and glory, Chip and Jo were bonafide stars, with a line of home goods at Target, a retail complex in Waco called The Silos, and a loose plan to take a minute to figure out what they really wanted to do. After a prolonged break, Chip and Joanna are back in business, having spent two years expanding their brand into an audacious offering: Magnolia Network, an entire cable channel dedicated to their brand of folksy authenticity and humble roots, with the couple at the helm as both stars and patron saints of home renovation.
Magnolia Network is replacing the DIY Network when it officially premieres in July. The network was supposed to debut in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic put those plans on pause. As of now, there’s a smattering of new programming available on Discovery+, yet another streaming service—a pu pu platter of new content meant to exemplify the channel. To assume that Chip and Joanna Gaines can carry an entire television network showcase for their new marquee show, Fixer Upper: Welcome Home, is a big bet on the couples’ star power.
But someone up top at the DIY Network believed in Chip and Jo’s pull enough to give them the keys to the car. Watching what was available on the streaming platform felt a little bit like witnessing Chip and Joanna Gaines adjust their public personalities in preparation for their evolution from the specific universe of HGTV stars to full-blown, big-time fame. It’s not that HGTV is particularly niche, but the Gaines family are betting big on their likability, maybe in the hopes that Magnolia Network will launch them into a new tier of fame.
Giving the couple carte blanche to curate an entire television network is placing a big bet on their continued appeal. Ina Garten and Martha Stewart are two indomitable figures in the lifestyle TV space, but neither has branched out to form their own network; though Stewart is the overlord of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, her umbrella company for her household products and various media enterprises, she has yet to expand her reach to an entire television network. Chip and Joanna have a hugely successful home goods line, Hearth & Hand, that sells at Target. At its peak in 2017, Fixer Upper was one of the most-watched shows in its time slot, second to only The O’Reilly Factor. In the wake of the Gaines’s departure from the network, HGTV rushed to fill the void with other shows headlined by duos renovating and revitalizing homes in lesser-known parts of the country, proving that the formula pioneered by Chip and Joanna Gaines works.
Authenticity of the sort that does well on HGTV—folksy, family-focused, and middle-class—is hard to maintain, especially as the circumstances change. Chip and Joanna Gaines are now wealthy enough to make Waco into, essentially, a theme park for their current brand. The Silos, an outdoor shopping mall, is the Gaines’s temple to their personal brand, an attempt to bottle their special and specific “live, laugh, love” energy and sell it—and by extension Waco—to a larger audience. According to a 2019 article in the Waco Tribune, the Silos underwent a $10.45 million renovation that included the addition of a whiffle-ball park, more gardens, and a “retail village” replacing its gravel parking lot, the star of which would be an 1894 church moved from its original spot to live inside the Gaines’s ode to Americana forever. It is increasingly difficult to project relatability when your name is attached to a home goods line at Target and an entire television network has given you free rein to do whatever you want.
What has always worked for Chip and Jo is their chemistry. Even if it’s not your particular cup of tea—too cloying or too retrograde—their appeal is evident. It feels callous to say that their shtick (dumb but lovable husband and cheerfully long-suffering wife) is shtick at all, when repeat viewings of their original enterprise, Fixer Upper, suggest that they probably act similarly when they’re not working, too. Their empire was built on an aw-shucks appeal that seemed somehow accessible, if a bit aspirational: Their four children made occasional appearances, to feed baby goats on their farm or, memorably, in earlier seasons of Fixer Upper, bring Mama dinner and a big kiss and a hug when she’s working late staging a client’s new forever home. What works beautifully about these segments is that they are proof positive that Chip and Jo have figured out how to appeal to almost every audience, from the evangelicals in Waco to city-dwellers in cramped apartments interested in indulging in a spot of pastoral, farm-owning fantasy.
Unfortunately, that down-home flavor, which is central to their brand, is missing entirely from Fixer Upper: Welcome Home, the marquee offering on Magnolia Network, which is currently streaming on Discovery+. Chip and Jo have upgraded their surroundings to reflect their power; client consultations no longer occur at a table in their front yard over lemonade and cookies, but in a design office, with professional renderings and computers. There’s a new sense of authority about their work, which is a privilege they’ve earned by dint of their success, but that means we can see the seams more clearly: the Gaineses are wealthy and very successful, no longer a couple of modest, hustling house-flippers jumping from one project to the next.
On Fixer Upper: Welcome Home, the premise is largely the same as it ever was, but with the addition of a mini-reality show about the addition to the Gaines’s little white farmhouse in the Waco countryside. How novel—and how refreshing—to see Chip and Jo as both client and designer, bickering with each other about finishes and cost. But the bulk of the show is still the same: a family or single person buys a dump of a home in Waco and turns it over to Chip and Joanna so they might work their magic, charming the camera in interviews repeating the formula they’ve perfected and hoping that the seams don’t show.
Chip Gaines is an inveterate jokester, a clown with a heart of gold who isn’t above a cheap laugh. He has dialed up his shtick to an 11, understanding innately that on some level, there are people in America who are married to a Chip Gaines of their very own, and need something to identify with. Halfway through the demolition of the bathroom in the season premiere, Chip stumbles upon a pile of wood dust left over from a termite infestation, determines that it also smells of cat pee, and then eats a tiny nibble of the substance from his index finger. Later in that episode, he calls his wife for advice in a moment that is clearly pre-scripted. While the phone rings, Chip engages in a bit of faux vanity, struggling to find the right angle for FaceTime, holding the phone under his chin and muttering to himself that from that vantage, he looks “fatter.” When he tells Joanna that they’ve got a problem at the site, her response is sitcom-dialogue perfect, the beleaguered wife answering the phone, fully expecting to hear irritating news on the other end of the line: “Do I need to get you out of jail?” she asks, with a mock weariness that feels a little too familiar.
Other shows on the network attempt to brand and package the couple as independent units. Magnolia Table, a half-hour cooking show, is Joanna’s time to shine. Ostensibly featuring recipes that Jo actually makes for herself, Magnolia Table is a half-hour experiment that forces a woman who looks like she’d rather be digging around in a barn full of antique doors to cook a meal for her enormous family. Failure on a cooking show is rare, usually edited out in post and smoothed over, always in service to the final product, which is perfection. To its credit, Magnolia Table is smart enough to leave in the whoopsie moments, proving to its audience that while Joanna may project perfection, she makes mistakes, too. During the “Biscuits” episode, a charming 30 minutes of television that features a “butter flight,” Joanna makes and then breaks a Hollandaise sauce. “Too hot, too fast?” a director asks her off-camera, while she stares at the natural stone backsplash in grim disappointment. “I tend to do things really fast, and when you do things fast, it’s called ‘haste makes waste,’ which is what Chip would call it,” she says, her lips set in a thin line. “I did this for you!” she says, proffering a bowl of bright yellow curds. “I did this to show you what not to do.”
Relatability through failure is the oldest trick in the book. I get the sense that it’s difficult for Joanna Gaines to admit failure publicly; watching her let her guard down for a moment was enough to endear me to her private struggle. But, while Joanna’s charm is there, the persona she’s crafted in her career thus far flourishes most vibrantly when she is acting as a foil to her husband.
Chip, meanwhile, has a showcase in which to grapple with their massive fame and its relationship to their lives. The Courage to Run With Chip Gaines and Gabe Grunewald is an hour-long documentary special that attempts to show a serious side of Chip Gaines, while also providing salient commentary on just how big the Gaineses are. One might cope with sudden, astronomical fame through therapy, but Chip has chosen another path, an hour-long documentary special about his path to courage, featuring a four-time cancer survivor named Gabe Grunewald. “Fame is a really weird thing to get acclimated to,” Chip says in a serious voiceover. “No one really tells you the what-ifs or the how comes.” It is wild that Chip Gaines’s existential crisis caused by the rigors of sudden fame is being compared, somehow, sort of, to a professional runner’s four battles with cancer, but perhaps their audience will find this inspirational.
Other offerings from the network are more straightforward extensions of the Gaines’s personal brand. First Time Fixer sees a personal friend of the Gaineses flipping houses in Salt Lake City, with Chip and Jo just a phone call away. Clint Harp, the woodworker whom I think is harboring a crush on Joanna, gets his own program, too. The common thread that binds these shows together is tradition, as seen through the eyes of the Gaines family: a heavy focus on family, on food that comes from the ground rather than the supermarket, and an unspoken desire to return to one’s roots, though it’s never explicitly stated what those roots are.
HGTV and the Food Network offer viewers the pick of the litter by providing options for different lifestyles and aspirations, providing variety meant to represent the breadth of the human experience and what people might want to watch on a lazy Sunday. The presumption is that Magnolia Network is selling one singular lifestyle—Chip and Joanna’s down-home, hobbyist farmer shtick—wrapped up in a flour sack tea towel and some nice ribbon. The gamble here is wondering if anyone is going to take the bait.
Update: This post has been edited to note that the kind woodworker on Fixer Upper is named Clint Harp, not Harper. Jezebel regrets the error!
(Updated 3/2/22 with new details)