'Grand Designs' and escapism in the age of Trump

How and when should we get away from it all?


This house, which was featured in one of the episodes of "Grand Designs," overlooks the Firth of Clyde — an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Each episode of “Grand Designs” sets up the same way. Designer Kevin McCloud meets a couple — sometimes a single person but usually a couple — and observes with a watchful eye as they design and build their dream house. The hour-long episode tracks the trials and tribulations of the building process over a period of years. The show is an institution in Great Britain, having been on air since 1999. A few seasons are now available on Netflix in the U.S.

Familiar patterns develop. Installing the double-glazed windows often causes problems. The building process always strains the couple’s relationship. Everyone goes over their projected budget. Everyone has silly British accents.

Houses that please McCloud’s skeptical eye inevitably incorporate their environment in the design. That might mean the house is dug into a hillside or the living room windows open into a view of the sea or the entryway is constructed from local stone. A sharp roof rises out of a windswept plain. A sweeping driveway slices through the forest. Sharp-edged glass boxes balance delicately on a Welsh cliffside. 

The final segment of each episode tours the completed houses. They have curved ceilings, natural light and bright wood floors. They’re filled with beautiful art. “It’s a sculpture of quite wonderful complexity and fluidity,” McCloud says of one home in Devon. In London, he remarks in his calm British baritone that the episode’s completed house looks “like a toasted caramel wafer, ready to eat.” 

I’ve been drawn to “Grand Designs” now — I think — because it’s totally apolitical. There are no red trucker hats in the world of “Grand Designs.” There is no National Rifle Association. There is no Brett Kavanaugh. The last few years have witnessed amazing pop culture geared to confront the current political moment, from Childish Gambino’s “This is America” to HBO’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and more. These works are vital and admirable — and provide absolutely no distraction from the unrelenting torrent of bad news that streams out of my CNN app all day long.

Escapism is tricky. As many have pointed out, only people insulated by privilege can afford to turn off politics. Everyone knows an insufferable rich kid who claims he’s “just not that political.” After last Aug. 11 and 12, Tina Fey was fairly criticized for her “Saturday Night Live” appearance in which she advised viewers to ignore the Nazis, go home and eat cake. When each Twitter refresh brings a new wave of disaster, it can feel like any break constitutes an abdication of duty.

It’s not possible to survive without breaks, though. Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour,” spoke brilliantly about the role pop culture can play in this atmosphere. Her extended metaphor is worth appreciating in full:

“Did you see ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon?” Holmes began. “He’s got a big thing he’s trying to solve, which is that he’s stuck on Mars and he has to get back to Earth. And they spent a lot of time in the movie on the fact that he has to figure out how to grow potatoes on Mars. The potatoes on Mars do not actually get him back to Earth. He’s not actually solving the problem. But if he doesn’t have potatoes, he’s not going to live long enough to solve the problem and get back to Earth.

“So, to me, my hope is, the songs that you love, the books that you love, the TV that you love, the conversations that you have about people that are kind of nourishing to you, help you — those are your potatoes … and you have to have that stuff in order to make it long enough to get back to Earth.”

Holmes hits the nail on the head. Completely shutting out the world is both impossible and irresponsible. A little escapism every now and then is alright, though. As “Grand Designs” shows, soothing shelter can be found in even the harshest landscapes.

related stories