'Tidying Up' Is the Latest Example of Reality TV's Push for Positivity

Does this reality TV show spark joy?

If the answer is no, then it's not Netflix's latest feel-good fever, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo. The eight-episode series is set on reinventing the reality makeover genre. Equipped with a disarming pint-size host and the kind of self-optimization content everyone's Googling these days, Tidying Up has quickly become something of an internet sensation since its Jan. 1 launch.

Kondo is a world-renowned tidying consultant and best-selling author who has evolved into an organizational guru thanks to her patented KonMari method, which features prominently on her breakout Netflix series. Each episode sees the cheerful host greet a family desperate for her decluttering wisdom. Kondo's method is simple. Instead of purging a home of unnecessary items, forcing people to negotiate the value of their goods, she requires her disciples to ask one basic question: does this item spark joy? If not, that item — a frying pan, a tattered book, a collection of nutcrackers, a sweater — is thanked for its service and put in the to-go bin.

For the happily disorganized, the popularity of Kondo's approach, which resembles an combination of Eastern mysticism — she reverently thanks each home before she gets to work gutting its contents — and a more mindful method of spring-cleaning, is a bit of a head-scratcher. Why is a simple home makeover series worthy of dozens of think pieces and even more memes on Twitter?

The answer: it's complicated.

Kondo's series is just one in a wave of new shows that seem to be transforming the reality TV landscape. Where once Bravo sit-downs, angry housewives and Big Brother voyeur-marathons were all the rage, the new crop of reality — think Netflix's Queer Eye reboot, The Great British Baking Show and yes, Tidying Up — is focused less on crafting entertainment from humanity's shortcomings and more on introspection.

Armed with a smile and otherworldly patience, Kondo isn't asking viewers to marvel at the messiness of her clients' living situations. In fact, it's through her subjects — a California couple with two rowdy toddlers, a retired pair living in disarray — that she assigns homework for viewers who may also be interested in shaping up their space, and their lives. Similarly, Queer Eye, a show about five gay men aiding people in their quest to become better versions of themselves, trades on the same aspirational appeal. It's a niche Netflix seems intent on cornering — shows promising positive affirmation and condensed how-to guides to achieve it.

But Kondo's feel-good mantra doesn't just veer from the "trashy" side of reality TV; it also takes strides to distance itself from fellow makeover series. Instead of gawking at the clutter or simply gifting contestants with newly remodeled homes, Kondo asks her clients to adopt a more hands-on approach: to consider each item, what its purpose is, why it does or does not have value. In that way she gives agency and control back to people who feel as if they have lost both in the mess.

That fantasy of control, that branded idealism of self-improvement, isn't perfect. Kondo's naysayers accurately point out the privilege of people ascribing to her methods. Some can't afford to have every item in their home spark joy; others question the wisdom of throwing out valuables like books and old photos just because they don't bring immediate satisfaction. An even bigger question hides behind these hour-long glossed-over self-help sessions. Is it possible for a heavily edited, meticulously framed Netflix series to address every facet of life that contributes to a person's unhappiness? Clutter, self-care, the proper way to make guacamole — these all make for interesting topics, but often the reasons behind a person's misery are more systemic and not solved by just one well-meaning celebrity, no matter how earnest and organized they may be.

Still, the rise in popularity of shows like Tidying Up and Queer Eye point to an interesting shift, not just in reality TV but in the culture at large. Maybe, instead of catfights and staged proposals and talent competitions, the future of feel-good TV is just that: TV that makes you feel good, or, more accurately, empowered.

(Netflix, like other streamers, does not release viewership information.)