Extremes keep us watching reality TV

Published January 19, 2007

Soon to be prime time TV: After a crash, a fire and a fatality at their house, a Tampa family gets the keys to their gorgeous new digs.

But from some local reaction, you would think Tom and Cynthia Tate pulled off a scam of Enron proportions right there on Davis Islands.

Why would we resent someone's good fortune, even the kind that's made for TV?

Here's a clue. The Tates live in a place a real estate agent couldn't make up: sprawling homes, water views, green spaces, sidewalk cafes. Locals like to call it the Island. Until I helped deliver Meals On Wheels in South Tampa, I had no idea how mixed these high-end neighborhoods can be. On the Island, houses like family compounds share streets with college rentals and Regular Joe homes.

Sure, you and I could take a drive and pick out dozens of dilapidated homes in Tampa or St. Pete desperate for even a fresh coat of paint. Near the fields we could find crumbling trailers housing two or three farmworker families each.

When ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition finished the Tates' house last week, some bloggers and radio show callers apparently thought the family made out a little too well.

Forget the ZIP code - what happened at their home last summer was tragic. Mrs. Tate, a hairstylist, was alone in the house they moved into 13 years ago (price, according to records: $115,000). Her husband was at work at his family's pizza restaurant. Their kids were thankfully not home. A small plane slammed into the house and exploded, killing the pilot, Steve Huisman.

Mrs. Tate got out. Their two dogs and their cat did not. Their home was destroyed.

In some ways you could count them lucky. I heard Mrs. Tate say so days later as she sifted through the burned ruins wearing borrowed clothes and wiping blackness from pictures of her children. I saw her take flowers somebody brought her and lay them where the pilot died. No cameras were around to capture her doing this.

Extreme Makeover, a softer sort of reality TV show, saw potential for a heart wringer on Davis Islands. (Bonus points: because of a snag in their homeowners insurance, the Tates weren't covered.)

Plenty of well-wishers cheered their good fortune. Others asked why them.

Reality TV is not Habitat for Humanity. It is not FEMA. (After all, look how fast and efficient ABC was.) Your tax dollars did not build them this house.

This is TV, a savagely competitive business that will bite, scratch and pull hair for control of your remote. In this version, the producers just happen to do something nice to get your attention.

Nice? It's a fantasy fix. Would anyone watch otherwise?

Would America tune in to a show about building homes for needy people with undramatic, workaday lives? To Supernanny if the kids were just having a little trouble with their homework? Wife Swap if nobody cried?

Nope. We want kids worse than our own, relationships rockier, and once in a while, an ending so absurdly sweet it makes your teeth hurt.

So on Davis Islands, a family that had some really bad luck got some really good luck, and ABC got a tearjerker. Maybe it's okay to cheer a little, whether the applause light is on or not.