Netflix Phenomenon 'Tidying Up With Marie Kondo' Was Nearly a Scripted TV Series

Exec producer Gail Berman talks with The Hollywood Reporter about the origins behind the unscripted show that is sparking joy with viewers.
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Since launching Jan. 1 on Netflix, Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has reached viewers far and wide and inspired many to re-examine how they view their possessions as well as how they use their personal space. During the span of six weeks, Kondo visited eight families who had committed to an organizational revolution, encouraging them to identify the items that continue to "spark joy" and those that may be transitioned out to begin life with another owner. 

The positive feedback from participants and viewers alike — the show is available in 190 countries — surprised veteran producer Gail Berman, whose company, The Jackal Group, is behind the breakout hit. (And yes, most would best know Berman as the former Fox entertainment president who helped spearhead Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And while Buffy is getting the reboot treatment, Berman declined comment about its status, opting instead to focus on Tidying Up.)

Berman spoke with The Hollywood Reporter to discuss why Tidying Up has reached a broad audience, the emotional thrust of the show and the most surprising responses she has witnessed since its debut. 

How did this project come together?

We acquired the rights to Kondo's book about three years ago when we met Marie and started to work with her. Initially, we were interested in doing the show in a scripted format and we were also approached to do it as a film, but we finally identified the most appropriate way for this journey to end. There were ups and downs, but we always thought that there was something very special in Marie and her message.

Speaking of her message, the show offers the view, common in Asian cultures, that one can have a meaningful relationship with their belongings. Have you explored this connection yourself or experimented with the KonMari method of folding clothes?

Yes, I put it off as long as I could, but the guilt factor ultimately set in for me and I felt like I had to be a part of it. I started thinking about how people found items in their own closets that they’d never worn, and then I found those things in my closet! I couldn’t believe it. The thing that I think is best represented by the show is the message of anti-consumerism, and also the notion that things don’t have to dramatically change in your home by modifying things, but instead looking within and being able to create an environment that’s a joyful place. What we showed were normal folks; they have the same issues and problems that everyone has that are highly relatable. That’s the beauty of the show.

In choosing the families, what characteristics did you look for? How many families applied?

We had a significant casting pool and a lot of interest. What we were trying to show were life-defining moments among different phases of life, for example, people who had recently moved houses, the issues of losing a loved one or having a new baby. It was a six-week process with the participants and it was really them committing to do it. I think that’s part of the authenticity coming through for the viewer — people were living Marie’s method. None of the drama is earth-shattering, and yet it is very potent. People understand that things get in the way of feelings and this kind of purge brings up a lot of issues. The amazing part was that the process resulted in a significant transformation in the participants’ lives.

What were the more surprising changes that you witnessed in the participating couples?

Looking at the character of Margie, her husband had passed away nine months earlier and his boots were still at the front door when we arrived at her house. She had a big journey in trying to move on with her life and face the loss of her husband and the episode shows how Marie understood Margie in the most unique way. The emotion of these people is very real — as real as one could do in a television show. Marie’s intent is all completely genuine; it is who she is and it is her method.

Viewers have compared Tidying Up With Marie Kondo to Queer Eye and the Fab Five. Do you think that’s a fair comparison? Why do these shows spark joy in an environment that’s so divided?

The difference in this process versus the others is that it's very profound. Marie does not do the transformation for you; you must do and commit to the transformation. Marie’s not coming over with a team of people and cleaning your house, it doesn’t work like that. In Queer Eye, the guys go out and they buy the clothing and help with the transformation in a significant way. Marie is causing a transformation in a much more spiritual way.

Are there plans for a second season of the show? Will it live on in other ways?

We haven’t heard anything yet from Netflix, but we’re very overwhelmed with the response. You know when the high school people on Facebook have come to find you and tell you about one of your shows, that it definitely hit a nerve out there.

What is the most memorable response you’ve seen to the show?

I knew the show was a hit when I got a response from my rabbi. He and several other rabbis were discussing Marie’s take on books and how you could select only 30 books. I thought to myself, you really know when you’ve reached critical mass when your rabbi is sending you memes about tidying up. People continue to tell me that they took it as a call to action and literally said to themselves, "I must do this," and started to do it. People sent me photos of their sock drawers! Personally, I remember the first time I met Marie, I could not believe how tiny she was and how delicate and how I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was a TV star, right there. 

Tidying Up was the Jackal Group’s first major unscripted show. How much of this signals a new creative direction?

Unscripted content has always been part of the agenda at the Jackal Group, but never the top priority — this property changed that. Hend Baghdady, who oversaw this project and is an executive producer on it, has really taken up the banner of unscripted at the company. Joe Earley [who recently left the Jackal Group for Disney] was also intimately involved in this. It’s the first of what we hope to be many more.  

In regard to the culture of television, as a former network president, what do you think about the future of broadcast television given that content and consumption is rapidly changing?

I always have a very bright outlook about broadcast. I think that it’s a wonderful tool to galvanize people around live events. I am an evangelist for broadcast and always have been. Not everybody has money to spend on different streaming services and broadcast is a great respite for many millions of people in our country. I don’t write its obituary. I’ve produced many hundreds of episodes for broadcast and I’m in the middle of pilot season right now, waiting to hear which broadcast pilots I’m going to have picked up, so I’m excited about that. Broadcast is certainly a tool in this great landscape of content and it has a future.