As a TV genre, the home-decorating/repair/cooking show seems pretty much played out. Redoing your bathroom hasn’t seemed like a fun way to kill a weekend ever since Bob Vila got too big for his overalls and left PBS’ This Old House. Julia Child, a unique and wonderful television personality quite aside from her skills as a cook, barely gets flour on her hands in her latest PBS travelogue series, Cooking With Master Chefs. The current crop of programming in this area is largely populated by tiresomely twinkly personalities (someone should tell that Yan Can Cook guy that Julia was a great TV chef because she wasn’t trying to be funny) and grimly hardworking yuppies (Dean Johnson and Robin Hartl of Hometime really should think about loosening up—maybe by answering a few ads in swingers’ magazines?).
The only new entry in this category with entertainment value is Martha Stewart Living (syndicated, weekends only; check local listings), in which the high priestess of hoity-toity home life extends her multimedia reach beyond best-selling books, her Martha Stewart Living magazine (yeah, it’s a Time Warner publication, like Entertainment Weekly—wanna make something of it?), and her twice-monthly mystifications of Bryant Gumbel on the Today show (Bryant looks at a cheese grater as if it were a birth-control device from Venus). The syndicated Martha Stewart Living, however, may well be Stewart’s best showcase yet, because it’s pure essence de Martha. We are transfixed as she builds backyard compost heaps, fishes for stripers on Long Island Sound, and softens chocolate over candles for an outdoor dinner party, all the while taking care to pronounce the h in the word herb, as all good lockjawed, Anglophilic WASPs do.
Certainly one big reason a new edition each weekend of Martha Stewart Living is better than watching football or Ren & Stimpy is that you just don’t see many people like Stewart on TV anymore. For years now, everyone on television has done his or her best to disguise any indication of upper-class privilege; TV usually treats Mr. and Ms. Average Viewer as if they’re lower-middle-class louts who don’t want anyone to remind them of their sorry lot in life. But the appeal of Martha Stewart—in the baroquely fussy how-to-throw- a-wedding books that first brought her to fame in the ’80s, and now on TV—is that she positively reeks of class-conscious gentility and permits us to join her in her unceasingly fab-ulous life.
Thus Martha talks about taking old food scraps ”down to the compost heap” you’ve just seen her build, and that one little word down implies a whole world—a big house on a rolling hill from which we do indeed go down, trundling our unchewed salad greens to an impeccably layered, steaming pile of compost. (”Don’t be alarmed if you see steam coming from your compost,” says Martha. ”It’s just cooking.”) And Mar-tha chats about finding new uses for a chair she recently rediscovered in ”my little schoolhouse cottage in Massachusetts.” (Oh, I’ve been meaning to clean out my schoolhouse cottage for months, don’tcha know.) And Martha, taking a well-deserved break, hauls us aboard a friend’s boat, where we sit next to her as she yanks on a deep-sea fishing pole with a reel the size of her head. ”I knew I’d catch something,” she yells triumphantly as she pulls in no fewer than four fish on one line. ”I always catch something!” You just want to reach over and tousle that fluffy little pageboy cut of hers and say, ”Hey, you’re Martha Stewart—it’s your right to always catch something!”
Anyone who complains that the recipes and gardening and decorating tips filling Martha Stewart Living are too difficult for the average person to attempt is missing the point. Of course her projects are absurdly complicated and beyond the time and budget of most viewers. No way am I going to go out and plant a knot garden—”an herb garden shaped like a decorative knot,” our host informs us. Heck, no: I want to see Martha, down on all fours in a sweaty T-shirt, pants with rolled-up, where’s-the-flood cuffs, white socks, and clogs, laboring at a knot garden on my behalf. The fun is in making Martha do our vicarious bidding: Plant some basil over in that corner, will you?
Watching Martha Stewart Living for constructive ideas is like watching Beavis and Butt-head for advice on good manners. As first-class escapism, Living is immensely enjoyable. It has its flaws—most notably the primitively edited-in Martha voice-overs that are stuffed into segments to give us additional information—but that’s trifling stuff. We should just be grateful that Stewart gives us permission to live, if only for a half hour each week, in a world in which everyone is always in need of a good idea for a ”weekend pres-ent.” Why not ”plant a strawberry jar not with strawberries but with herbs”?
Brilliant, Martha! Now: What the hell is a strawberry jar? B+