The Nostalgic Lure of HGTV's Home Town

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The Nostalgic Lure of HGTV's Home Town

In a 2019 episode of HGTV’s juggernaut show Home Town, husband and wife Ben and Erin Napier stand in the kitchen of a dilapidated Craftsman cottage, urging their clients to see their vision for the Wallace House, a pink cottage with rotting floorboards that has good bones and a lot of hidden potential. The kitchen is a mess, but there is one saving grace: a breakfast nook that could turn into a “cozy book nook.” Erin Napier lays out her vision for the book nook, one surrounded by built-in shelves and an armchair. This personal touch, which would sway any homebuyer enough to put their faith in the Napiers’ capable hands, is enough for the couple to commit. The clients, a young lesbian couple with roots in Laurel, Mississippi, where Home Town is set, buy the Wallace House for a pittance.

At the end of the episode, the house is exactly as the Napiers described and the book nook is everything they promised. The clients thrilled with their new home: a shiny new jewel in Laurel’s crown. Ben and Erin beam, obviously pleased that another dilapidated house has been lovingly restored for a couple who, like the Napiers, are invested in Laurel’s rehabilitation. Erin is from Laurel, and willingly moved back to her hometown after college, drawn to the place that made her. In contrast, Ben is a preacher’s kid with no discernible hometown, who has adopted Laurel as his own. Together they’re transforming the small Mississippi town into a modern-day Mayberry, selling their anesthetized brand of Southern charm to the widest audience possible.

In a true harbinger of the kind of fame that awaits them, the Napiers landed the cover of the April 2020 People Magazine. Erin, a sunny blonde with a pixie cut, gazes into the camera lens with a beatific smile as she leans against her husband Ben, a big, solid hunk of a man resplendent in plaid and a tidy red beard. “Small-town sweethearts to superstars,” coos the copy, promising a storybook romance and small-town values wrapped up in a tidy, family-focused package. When predecessors Chip and Joanna Gaines left HGTV in 2018 after four successful seasons, it created an opening for a similar dynamic. The Napiers quickly stepped in to take their place as America’s first family of home renovation and tradition. Home Town is sunny, effervescence laser-focused on the fantasy of putting down roots in a small town where houses are cheap and a dream home is accessible played to HGTV’s core audience. The Season 4 premiere, in January 2020, was the highest-rated premiere for the series since its debut in 2017.

On Home Town, it’s not just about houses, it’s about history. Each house is presented to the clients with a backstory about its previous owners and the proposed renovations always try to preserve or replicate a specific feel. The history that they provide about the houses is mostly superficial, but folksy enough to feel quaint. This history, which is never verified, is part of the home’s allure. In the world of Home Town, budgets are limited and the Napiers work to keep or rehabilitate as much as they can. They never do the full gut renovation like the Gaineses did, but are focused on realistic renovations for middle-class homebuyers. The result is cozy but still luxurious, a house that is both lovely to look at but also livable: In other words, it feels like home.

HGTV’s producers have positioned the Napiers as the saviors of Laurel. The introduction to the show has changed by season, evolving as the show’s mission becomes clear. By Season 4, the introduction to the show cements their position thusly: “If we keep going the way we’re going, in ten years, everything will be shined up and completely new,” Erin chirps. Viewed once, this reads as a folksy sentiment, but after three episodes in a row, it begins to feel a little menacing.

Laurel is a textbook example of the nostalgia often elicited by small towns. The Napiers want the denizens of Laurel to commit to their vision of community: a largely homogenous, folksy small-town vibe that neatly obscures the realities of the place itself. Home Town operates on one hand as a standard home renovation show resulting in showstopper houses lovingly restored to a bright and shiny version of their past selves. On the other, it is a powerful marketing campaign for the importance of growing roots in American small towns.

Home Town hews to the same format as Fixer Upper and other marquee offerings, but there are a few key differences that set it apart. Unlike Chip and Joanna Gaines, who now helm a lifestyle empire that includes a home goods line at Target and their own network, the Napiers are still niche enough to pull off aw-shucks humility. Both the Napiers and the Gaineses serve as unofficial ambassadors for the towns they’ve chosen to revitalize, but their ambassadorship manifests in different ways. The Napiers have yet to open a giant complex in Laurel that pushes their personal brand, but they do have Laurel Mercantile, a small storefront in Laurel’s downtown, selling antique quilts and handcrafted wood furniture and “gentleman’s workwear” from Scotsman Co., Ben’s woodshop and furniture company. And while a full-bore takeover of Laurel isn’t quite in the cards yet, Erin and Ben hint at what their future might hold.

A strong sense of history, present in every episode, is central to the Napiers’ understanding of community. “This is the Jones house,” Ben says in an episode in the fourth season of a rundown Craftsman cottage. “Danielle and Victor Jones lived here for about 15 years and owned a tractor store in town.” The prospective homeowners nod as if this is pertinent information, and they carry on; the previous homeowners are never mentioned again, but at the end of every episode, the watercolor drawing that Erin presents at the beginning of every episode is renamed after the new owners. “This is the Thornton home,” she says to the beaming couple, who are so gobsmacked at the transformation that their house has undergone that it barely registers.

These homes aren’t just a place to live; they are part of a family, part of the community, upholding that sense of tradition is now the new homeowners’ responsibility. “This is the Berry-Damonte house,” Erin says to Joshua Damonte and Giorgio Berry, one of the two queer couples featured in the show’s four seasons. The couple selected a house in Laurel because it was Berry’s hometown, a fact that the Napiers emphasize throughout the episode. “Creating a space that would bring Giorgio back to his hometown was exciting, not just for him, but all of his family and friends that still remained here!” reads the copy on Laurel Mercantile Co.’s blog. (Each home the Napiers renovate gets its own page on the website, complete with a link to the store, where viewers can buy exactly what they saw on television for their very own.)

The modest budgets on Home Town make the idea of homeownership approachable. The average price of a home in Laurel is $87,300 and the median income is $33,9400, according to the United States Census Bureau—both figures which are considerably lower than the national average—and the people featured on the show are realistic about what they can afford. The houses of Home Town occupy a unique space in HGTV’s programming—aspirational but still affordably priced. Working within a modest budget and producing the kind of work that they do creates a very specific fantasy for their viewership living in cities or states where homeownership is distinctly out of the picture. While the majority of the people featured on the show have been locals of Laurel or at least Mississippi, every season features couples moving from other, larger cities in the South in search of a quieter, more family-friendly lifestyle, as well as out-of-towners looking for a perfect Southern small town for their vacation homes. Community is not limited to just the people in the town; it is dependent on newcomers, too, whose money and passion for what the Napiers are selling are a vital part of the community they’re trying to build.

“Roots,” an ineffable sense of community and belonging, are a constant preoccupation. The Napiers desire to remake Laurel starts not only with revitalizing the houses but with making sure that the people that fill those houses are dedicated to their specific idea of community. But the community that emerges from the episodes is a homogenous one: The home town that the Napiers are imagining is fiction—a community absent poverty or blight, where the members of that community all exist in harmony. There’s no prejudice in their Laurel and everyone is welcome; despite Mississippi’s bloody history of racism, the Napiers effectively paper over that history by linking past and current owners of the homes they’re selling.

If it’s not abundantly clear from the meat of the show itself, the Napiers lay out their vision succinctly in the introduction to each episode. “Our small town in Mississippi is like Mayberry,” Ben says in an early version of the show’s intro. “A pretty girl that doesn’t know she’s pretty,” Erin chimes in. Two seasons later, and their messaging is explicit: “You don’t have to be an expert to save your town, you just have to care enough to do it.” A close read of the Napiers’ personal website lays bare their mission: “We believe that the creativity, authenticity and imagination make big progress bloom in small towns, we believe that to revitalize small-town America, we must first return to American manufacturing that takes care of the people in those communities.”

The home town the Napiers are striving to create is an idealized version of a town that never really existed: a sleepy hamlet in the fictional South, where, like Mayberry, the police are friendly, everyone knows each other’s business, and racism has never really existed. Though they have not stated this outright, the website copy gestures towards a gentle cultural conservatism. But Laurel’s history is, like most American towns big or small, complicated.

Before Laurel became the site of the Napier’s vision, it was one of the many small towns in Southeast Mississippi that blossomed thanks to the timber industry; Laurel was established in 1882 as a milling town. According to Laurel Main Street, by 1920, the town was known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World—an honor that was short-lived, as the Great Depression swept across the nation, and timber mills shut down. The town’s historic district, where the Napiers have oriented their focus, features the large, imposing mansions of the timber barons who made Laurel what it was. A walking tour brochure offered by the city of Laurel provides some helpful context. A house called “The Green Barn,” built by a part-owner of a timber manufacturing company, is notable because legendary opera singer Leontyne Price “got her start” there. “Her aunt worked for the family, who eventually became her patrons and helped to bring her stunning voice to the world,” the site clarifies.

The Napiers’ devotion to restoring history is the thread that holds the entire enterprise together—not quite gentrification, but something close

The Napiers’ devotion to restoring history is the thread that holds the entire enterprise together—not quite gentrification, but something close, perhaps restoration. Their homes are always beautiful, even though the design choices aren’t, and what’s more, the Napiers respect the homes that are already there, restoring period details like original fireplaces and Craftsman-style built-ins. Ben, affable and perpetually sweaty in the Mississippi heat, reclaims wooden paneling and turns it into bespoke furniture for their finished product, telling the homeowners with pride that the console table in their brand new dining room is made from wood from their old screened-in porch. Each house exists as a palimpsest of its former owners.

History makes for a nice marketing pitch, but—like a beautiful but run-down fixer-upper that needs all new electrical and asbestos remediation—dig a little deeper and the details are less charming. Laurel is located in Jones County, which existed as a “free state” during the Civil War, after a poor farmer named Newton Knight led a company of white men to declare loyalty to the Union. According to a 2016 piece in Smithsonian, Jones County enslaved 12 percent of its overall population, which was fewer than any of the other counties in Mississippi at the time. In 1966, the White Knights of the KKK of Mississippi were also headquartered in the business of Sam Bowers, a Laurel resident and Imperial Wizard. Bowers was responsible for ordering the killing of farmer and business owner Vernon Dahmer in 1966. Dahmer allowed his store to serve as a refuge for Black people to pay the $2 tax then required by law for the right to register to vote. Bowers sent his men to Dahmer’s farm and firebombed his house while Dahmer and his family slept inside. When the case initially went to trial in Mississippi in the late ’60s, two all-white juries deadlocked; in 1996, Bowers was sentenced to life in prison in 1998, some 30 years after the crime.

The Klan’s presence in Laurel is inarguably part of its history, but it never makes it into the show. For all the talk of roots, Home Town focuses its view on the future and not the past. For a casual viewer of Home Town, Laurel seems like a nice place to visit, and an idyllic place to live. Part of the revitalization process is casting Laurel in the same warm, progressive light as a town like Athens, Georgia, or even Oxford, some 230 miles to the north., a website that might be sponcon for two of Laurel’s flagship retailers, Lott Furniture and The Shop, encapsulates the sort of “community” Erin and Ben are trying to sell. “For those who identify as small-town folks, the allure of oak-lined streets, quiet afternoons on the porch and lives lived among kindred spirits who know your name as well as your lineage, is both undeniable and ingrained at birth,” the site reads. This take on small-town living reads a little bit like a modified surveillance state, but speaks more to the South’s more nefarious obsession with roots, family, and kin.

But a town with a dark past rooted in white supremacy doesn’t make for family-friendly television in 2021. Home Town is an effective stab at rebranding Laurel by taking its history and stuffing it in the back of the closet, creating a notion of home town that is palatable enough for a nationwide audience who would likely rather not think about cross burnings and men in white hoods. It helps that the Napiers are different—more relatable and somehow more authentic—than their predecessors. Creating and then sustaining a lifestyle brand, which is the end goal of personality-driven HGTV shows like Home Town and its predecessors requires sparkle, wit, and relatability. The Napiers are charming and quirky. Four seasons in, their presence is still sunny and sincere, perhaps because none of it is really an act. “The content is: Be yourself,” Erin told Variety in February 2020. They never ask us to say something more succinct, which they probably should, because we can get long-winded. But what you get is what you get.”

The lack of drama on the show is refreshing, and makes any actual drama that happens feel high-stakes. Setting aside any structural issues with the home or a particularly pesky termite problem, the biggest source of drama on a home-renovation show is client satisfaction. Rejection is rare and even the pickiest homeowner unsure of a particular design choice will change their mind once they see it in context. The Napiers handle rejection well. An episode in Season 4 shows a couple who outright refuses to walk into a potential home, even after Erin’s spiel and watercolor. “This has never happened before,” Erin laughs, clutching her leather portfolio to her chest. But the show moves on with some smooth editing and soon, the Napiers are back on track, trotting the couple out to a 1950s ranch house that costs $110,000.

Drama-free home renovation is what makes Home Town so compelling a fantasy—in the Napiers’ mind, the biggest conflict in their idealized home town is a playful argument over what color to paint the trim. By focusing on the aesthetic details of a house rather than the real, and often-times brutal history of the town itself, the Napiers are effectively eliminating the history of conflict that made Laurel and other cities like it. This formula is imminently marketable, and that’s what HGTV is banking on.

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