28 May
Comments Off on Building momentum: reno shows go toe-to-toe

Building momentum: reno shows go toe-to-toe

The teams in House Rules. The teams in The Block Sky High. Photo: Channel Nine

House Rules vs The Block Sky High. Australian TV may not have seen such a highly-anticipated clash of titans since Yasmin’s Getting Married went head-to-head with old episodes of Frasier. As these two shows butt heads like two angry renovating elk, who will emerge victorious from the battle of the power drill? Will Scott Cam’s blokiness triumph over Johanna Grigg’s not-quite-as-blokiness? Only time will tell, but a quick comparison of the first impressions the two shows have made is instructive.

The first point of comparison is the concept. Both shows have tried to bring something fresh and original to their format. The Block Sky High did this by being exactly like the other series of The Block, except in a tall building. House Rules pushes the boundaries even further by putting “Rules” in the show’s title to remind people of how much they enjoyed My Kitchen Rules – they lay this on pretty thick when it’s revealed that the show’s headquarters seems to be the same set as MKR. House Rules’ format also involves the teams renovating each other’s houses rather than their own, a concept reminiscent of the late lamented Changing Rooms, without the benefit of Suzie Wilks in shorts. So when it comes to originality, HR’s method of blending ideas from a couple of other shows seems to take the points over The Block’s method of blending one idea from itself and then making it taller.

It’s also notable that while The Block will be relying for dramatic tension on the numerous nervous breakdowns that its contestants will suffer under the pressure of having to renovate apartments on tight schedules, House Rules goes full throttle by forcing people to allow strangers to renovate their homes, creating the delicious potential for these contestants to literally ruin each others’ lives. The first episode also revealed a major trump card: the ritual of the contestants walking around each others’ houses and laughing at how awful they are. It’s lots of fun to see the owners drive blissfully away, allowing the other five teams to come in and mock the horribleness of their home. When it comes to schadenfreude, House Rules has you covered five ways at once.

However, The Block really does excel at those crying-to-camera moments. It’s uncertain that people working on someone else’s pride and joy can generate the sheer, raw despair that strikes Blockers in the middle of the night when the paint is flaking and your husband has fallen asleep under the toilet.

When it comes to basic annoyingness of contestants, it’s a tough one to call. Both have their fair share of people who seem determined to laugh at nothing far too often, but House Rules seems to win on the sob story/emotional piano riff score. It also features a woman who claims that being a drama teacher means she “understands creativity” and who is married to a man called “Plinio”, so The Block will really need to step up to be more irritating than that. Both shows also feature the endlessly aggravating “state versus state” concept, which reality shows for some reason are bent on trying to make into a thing, defying the mountains of evidence which suggest that there is nobody on earth who feels patriotic pride at someone from the same state building an attractive bathroom.

When it comes to variety, The Block has the advantage of being able to keep mixing things up by cutting between different teams knocking down different walls with different sledgehammers, whereas each episode of House Rules will feature just the one house, although the emotional frisson that comes from knowing they could be wrecking someone’s dreams with every wall they knock down might make up for it. House Rules also scores over The Block with the fact that in each house there are ten people who can all fight with each other, whereas The Block relies on one-on-one fights between sleep-deprived couples.

Of course in many areas the two shows have more similarities than differences. They both, for example, show incredible faith in the entertainment value of watching people going shopping. Both shows are utterly committed to tearing loving families apart. Both shows are, essentially, of interest mainly to car-crash rubberneckers – what we want is bad decisions, and lots of them. And both shows have far too much footage of people on mobile phones talking to tradesmen.

Halfway through the first ep, House Rules pulled a joker out of the hat, bringing in a guest interior designer and a guest builder to provide professional advice to the amateurs. The interior designer does a sterling job, stepping into the house and immediately opening up massive fault lines in Carly and Leighton’s marriage. If she’s a really expert interior designer those two will be divorced by series’ end. The introduction of professional advisers is another echo of Changing Rooms, but though it increases the chances of something halfway decent being made out of the houses, it also increases the impression that these people are sort of cheating. Shouldn’t they have to do it all themselves? I think it’s a bit generous to even let them use tools.

The final ingredient is the host, and licensed knockabout larrikin Scott Cam brings a very different style to that of well-known world’s tallest woman Johanna Griggs. Cam is a hands-on host, always ready to pop up unexpectedly to interfere or make awkward family moments more awkward. Griggs is less focused on interacting with the contestants, and more focused on avoiding them: once they begin their jobs, she’s nowhere to be seen; she clearly would prefer not to associate with this class of people. I doubt anybody blames her.

Overall, The Block Sky High is aiming for the over-enthusiastic-people-about-to-have-their-illusions-crushed vibe, while House Rules is going more for the desperate-people-yelling-at-each-other feel. While House Rules is not as committed to introducing us to obnoxious Australians as its kitchen namesake, it is certainly heavily into trauma and conflict: one has to assume the discovery of inadequate foundations in the opening episode was a metaphor for the teams’ relationships. The Block seems more likely to bond couples more closely together through the torture it subjects them to.

In the end, I would award a narrow points victory to House Rules, due to its slightly fresher concept and greater capacity for more varied drama and all-in brawls: the breadth of its canvas is a little greater. However, whether viewers will latch onto it in preference to The Block’s more familiar and comfortable approach is a whole different matter.

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