Trading Spaces Returns As a Kinder, Gentler (Still Fun) Version of Its Former Self


If you didn’t know it had been 10 years since Trading Spaces last aired on TLC, Paige Davis—the show’s second and most well-known host, who was fired, only to be hired back a few seasons later, before the show was cancelled entirely—will let you know immediately upon watching its first episode back.

Davis kicks off the premiere, which will air Saturday night in its old time slot, by sporting a shirt that has “THIS AIN’T MY FIRST RODEO” emblazoned upon it, paving the way for an episode that’s positively drenched in references to the home design program’s past, as if its only viewers are ones who tuned in to its old iteration(s), or ones who are somehow intimately familiar with it through osmosis. For the new Trading Spaces has not attempted the drastic makeover its home owners do; the show instead feels like reconnecting with an ex who has pumped their skin with ever-so-subtle Botoxing, making them look like merely a rested version of themselves.

Yes, Trading Spaces has returned, and unless things devolve rapidly from the episode made available for reviewing, TLC would like their audience to feel as if everyone involved—including the viewers themselves—hasn’t aged a day. There’s a recap of zany moments from the original series, and a mention that it’s been “more than a decade since we were last hard at work—and play.” Then we’re taken into the lives of Melissa and Michele, two sets of sisters who, in an ideal Trading Spaces set up, live right next door to each other. They’ll be helped by all familiar faces: designers you know and love (or hate, or tolerate, as is the way), Doug Wilson and Hildi Santo Tomás, plus hottie carpenters Ty Pennington and Carter Oosterhouse. With the help of their carpenter, the designers, as you likely know, get $2,000 (ten years ago it was usually $1,000) to make magic—or something like it—happen.

…While the original waffled back and forth between fun-loving and dramatic, this iteration seems scared to stray too far from the former emotion.

Melissa and her husband Keith want to make over their blah guest room, while Michele and her husband Ryan want their equally boring master bedroom tackled. It is at this point that the suspected goal of bringing this show back is revealed—while the original waffled back and forth between fun-loving and dramatic, this iteration seems scared to stray too far from the former emotion. There is not much room here to dwell on the possibility that the outcome of this design swap could be less than desirable; the designers, once brutal in their attacks on their given rooms, seem to have tempered their approaches. And the consistency with which they’re approaching things suggests that this is an edict sent down from above.

“The name of the game on Trading Spaces, no matter what you have heard, no matter what other designers might choose to do, is that you guys have a say in what you guys want your neighbors—your sister—to have,” Doug pointedly tells Melissa, letting her also know that he doesn’t want to do anything that won’t have her and Keith’s “approval.” (For context, this is a man responsible for perhaps the most infamous moment in Trading Spaces history: the fireplace cover-up, in which a couple very specifically said they didn’t want anything done to their brick fireplace, and Doug responded to that by covering it up with white wood, resulting in massive tears.) Later, while using her patented “Paige Cam,” Davis worriedly asks Melissa, “Are you feeling bullied? I don’t want you to feel bullied. I don’t want you to feel like we’re making you do it in a cruel way.”

This was the program you could watch if you wanted very little drama and relatively low stakes. It’s still that way, only moreso.

That the feelings of the homeowners are being considered more than they were in the past seems to buttress the reason for the return of Trading Spaces, a show that helped start the home design TV show craze but was eventually outshined. (A teaser promoting the season boasts that “the mother of all design shows” has returned.) While being interviewed about their goals for their bedroom, both Michele and Ryan seem to suggest that it’s not the worst thing if they don’t get something they like, and that it’s all fixable. “And if not, it’ll be finished,” Michele says after explaining what her goals are, as Ryan adds, “I know some people.” (The idea that cost can get you a new look you will love but is also a reason you might not be able to redo a room you’re given always flirts below the conversation here.) While Trading Spaces left at a time in which shows were amping, amping, amping up the drama—and they ineffectively tried to respond in kind—the powers that be that have brought it back seem to recognize that in a crowded reality television market, there is room for all kinds, and a lot of people might want to watch some people being nice to each other. This was the program you could watch if you wanted very little drama and relatively low stakes. It’s still that way, only moreso; the stress about things going badly is the same, but the parties who could be punished are listened to more.

To be sure, the tension over whether the homeowners will like their room is as there as ever, and some designers seem more committed to doing exactly what they want to do than others (ahem, Hildi). But along with that are all the original’s little quirks, as if it is still the mid aughts (and as if the same production company was behind it). “The big paint reveal” remains; the title cards are startlingly similar. Paige is still as perky as ever, her silly jokes sprinkled throughout her narration. Trading Spaces is truly back on its bullshit—Doug is covering things in hideous brown tones, Hildi is going overboard with an idea everyone is very skeptical of, based off one wildly expensive item she picked up in Paris or something. If anything, it feels like a college reunion: a slightly awkward but also very friendly meeting of people who might not have a ton in common anymore, but maybe they never did, and that’s fine—let’s hang!

It’s difficult to talk about Trading Spaces without the television context it lives within, specifically the endless reboots, both scripted—Will & Grace, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, Dynasty—and non—Queer Eye—that have come out over the past few years. Some have picked up where their original left off, rolling around in that pit of nostalgia until you’re left with the oddest feeling you’ve been here before, but in another life. Others start mostly entirely anew. In the case of this show, that comparison could feel unfair to the new cast they’re going to roll out once they’ve hooked their old audience with the first episode. But it’s also entirely valid, given how much it is predicated on remembering the good old days; the ads, for instance, show only people who were on the original. In the commercials, the new designers are joked about as not being household names.

the new Trading Spaces…seems perfectly suited to come back as a slightly tweaked version of its past selves, most of the sadness removed, all of the fun remaining.

The home design show landscape has also settled into a comfortable rhythm since Trading Spaces was last on the air. Characters are known and loved, and people getting upset because of the outcome of their living spaces is not en vogue. Some of the highest-rated shows on HGTV include Fixer Upper, Property Brothers, and Flip or Flop—programs in which the drama comes from the ribbing between the ones making the houses look great, and from having to adapt to things not working out as they’ve planned, not in the homeowners being disappointed. The focus is on anyone being able to have their dream scenario, not on getting one’s hopes up, only to have them crushed. In this way, the new Trading Spaces—which airs the same night as reality design couple Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent’s Nate & Jeremiah By Design, a feel-good show at its best—seems perfectly suited to come back as a slightly tweaked version of its past selves, most of the sadness removed, all of the fun remaining.

In wondering how fair it was to compare this new version of Trading Spaces to the old, I decided to refresh my memory with some past episodes. Conveniently enough, to take advantage of the renewed interest in the show, TLC—which has not, to my knowledge, made consistent seasons of the series available to screen in the past—has put together a playlist of “favorite” episodes on its site. A viewing of a few that also feature Hildi and Doug (for accurate comparison’s sake) confirmed that things weren’t always so bright in Trading Spaces land as they seem to be today. Take an episode from Season 4 that, like the reboot’s premiere, takes place in Los Angeles. Two couples swap houses. One gets a room of entirely black; the other, after expressing a love for color, gets a room of entirely white. After the reveal, the couple with the white room hold each other crying as Davis says an optimistic goodbye to the audience. When she is done with her spiel, one of them stomps out of his now white room crying. “Get this mic off me,” he says, and the episode ends.

You can never go home again, they say. With Trading Spaces back, it seems that you can go home again, and it’ll feel even better than it did last time.

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