My favorite house-hunting and travel show is not on television. It’s on TikTok, from a creator going by the handle @sinisterpondbabe who has a series called “Cheap House Babe,” finding inexpensive, usually dilapidated houses in small towns across the country and taking the viewer along for a virtual tour.
The best installment of the series so far features a waterfront house in rural Maryland, apparently a former bank built in the early 20th century. “I can smell the whimsy … y’all might have to squint to see it,” the voice-over says, as the camera pans over the ultimate tragic fixer-upper. When we see a gaping hole in the floor we’re told we can throw a rug over it: “Maybe the ocean’s a little closer than we thought. Maybe that’s, you know, a little indoor pool or something.” I won’t spoil the end of the three-minute clip, but it descends into bizarre and darkly funny “sinistry,” to use a preferred term of the creator.
This series is funny, surprising, shaggy and, above all, extremely weird. I’m more excited to see a new installment of “Cheap House Babe” pop up in my feed than I am about almost anything any network has made in months. I’ve shown these TikToks to lots of friends, some of whom think the content is brilliant and some of whom think I have lost my mind and politely smile and nod. A lot of viewers agree with me, though: @sinisterpondbabe has more than 219,000 followers.
I was thinking about “Cheap House Babe” when I saw an article by my newsroom colleague John Koblin about how the only demographic still flocking to broadcast network television is the over-60 crowd. The age of the median viewer of popular shows like “The Masked Singer” and “Grey’s Anatomy” is firmly in boomer territory, Koblin reports. Cable viewership is down as well, with viewers migrating to streaming platforms, which also may have peaked.
My household cut the cord years ago, and has relied on streaming platforms to watch shows and movies, but lately my husband and I have been unimpressed with the offerings. Quality programming is hard to find, and every platform has an empty uniformity in its user experience.
For example: HBO’s streaming catalog used to have a recognizable, somewhat highbrow brand appeal until its parent company’s merger with Discovery eventually turned HBO Max into Max earlier this year. Max is a frat brother who binge-watches “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and chases it with episodes of “Naked and Afraid.” Emmy bait like HBO’s “Succession” doesn’t really live comfortably alongside Guy Fieri. (Not a knock on the Mayor of Flavortown — I’m a fan, but his show isn’t exactly breaking new televisual ground.)
Every streaming platform feels like this now, a mishmash of shows displayed on digital cards with bad display art that fails to grab our interest. Like my younger counterparts in Gen Z, I find myself turning more to YouTube, where I watch stand-up comedy, and TikTok to fill the screen-time void.
With the end of the writers’ strike, I want to make a plea to the people who are back to work making TV and movies, and especially to the corporations that green-light their projects: I’m begging you to make shows weird again.
I know you’re capable of it, even in 2023, because I saw “Bottoms” in theaters a few weeks ago. While I’m not sure the plot totally made sense, I loved the bright and anarchic look and feel of this fresh high school comedy, which involved lesbian romances and an all-girl fight club. It reminded me of discovering off-kilter coming-of-age movies like “Party Girl,” “Muriel’s Wedding” and “But I’m a Cheerleader” in my teens (a restaurant in “Bottoms” called “But I’m a Diner” may have been a sly reference to the latter). The movie also recalled the subversive yet silly sketch comedy of “Kids in the Hall” and “The State,” unpolished gems of the TV I grew up with.
What was notable about “Bottoms,” too, was that my husband and I were the oldest people in a packed theater. While movie theaters continue to suffer from a post-2020 slump, I hope that the studios’ proposed fix isn’t just a bottomless mug of soulless comic book movies.
If declining viewership is inevitable, television and film studios should at least go down doing something original. Otherwise I’m going back to TikTok, waiting for the next cheap house to get gently roasted.