After reading about the lawsuit filed against ABC and the folks who produce Extreme Makeover: Home Edition — five parentless siblings claim that a couple took them in, used them to get on the show and a new nine-bedroom house, then treated the brood horribly in an effort to kick them out — I thought I’d check out Sunday’s show on still other needy cases and play armchair detective. Would I be able to notice any cracks in the good will-for-show? Would the manipulation be artfully hidden? The episode was an especially hard-luck drama, in which the show’s Prefab Five built a duplex for two homeless families, and also corralled a few full-time jobs for people in the process. Oh, and they created a park for the community. And redesigned a community center. And took 25 homeless-shelter denizens on a Sears shopping spree.“These people don’t want a handout, they want a hand up,” one of the perky team girls robotically chirped at one point, showing marked cluelessness about her show’s freebie mandate. I didn’t doubt for a second the despairing situations of the two families, but the manipulation was rampant, unhidden and none too artful. Nearly every emotional beat — choosing the families, telling them what they’re getting, then finally showing them — felt rigged and forced, and the endless self-congratulatory testimonials from the design gang were almost sickening. In fact, so little was revealed of the recipients’ personalities, beyond tearful gratitude, that it’s easy to see — when a show’s emotional arc is mapped out in advance like a blueprint — how a structurally unsound family could take advantage of the positivity parade, slip through and reap a bonanza. It’s like most grand gestures done with an audience watching. Who’s it really for?
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