Entropy, that unpleasant byproduct of consumerism, has been a subject of reality TV almost since that genre’s genesis. From “Clean House” to “Hoarders: Buried Alive,” we’ve seen how pathological our relationship to stuff can be, and how powerless so many of us are to dig out from under it all. The home purge show is now as rigorously structured as the hero’s journey or a Petrarchan sonnet. In it, we see the act of decluttering as a quest, and the tidied home as a proxy for our reborn selves.
It’s a form wonderfully suited to the animistic methods of Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying guru who taught the world to kiss its socks goodbye with a novel organizing principle: If your belongings don’t spark joy, thank them for their service and show them the door.
Her first book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” published in the U.S. in 2014, made her a superstar — maybe the world’s first decluttering celebrity — and a publishing behemoth; it is still a bestseller, with over 8.5 million copies sold in more than 40 languages. Her third and latest book, “Joy at Work: The Career-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” written with Scott Sonenshein, a professor of management at Rice University School of Business, will be published this coming spring. It was bought at a competitive auction for seven figures by Little, Brown, said her U.S. agent, Neil Gudovitz. (The executives at that publishing house seem to have been inspired enough by her tenets to name an imprint for them, though it was created before this last acquisition: Little, Brown Spark will print “Joy at Work,” and other health and lifestyle titles.)
No word on what Netflix paid for “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” in which Kondo visits the clutter-addled homes of a cross-section of Southern Californians over eight episodes that have been streaming since New Year’s Day.
Like a tiny, effervescent Mary Poppins, she arrives with her translator, brimming with goodwill and an incantation of the method, which requires adherents to dig out all their belongings, starting with clothes, and put them in a giant pile. That scene — enacted over and over again, to diminishing returns for the viewer, particularly if you watch the series in one go — is the pivot point for each household, as they confront the enormity of their acquisitiveness.
But Kondo dispenses benedictions and prescriptions, not judgment. Can you treat your belongings with respect? Can you be mindful of each other’s weird objects and habits?
There are no real heroes or villains. Just an awareness of a consumer culture run amok, of lives well-lived in houses with mostly ample storage and the dawning, troublesome realization that a generation of Americans may have never learned how to properly take care of themselves.
What is everybody holding onto? Lots of distressed blue jeans and hangers at the Friends’ house, where a married couple with two toddlers is made tense by Rachel Friend’s inability to keep order, despite the assistance of a laundress. For the Mersiers, a family of four who’ve moved from a house to a two-bedroom apartment, the issue is even more gendered: Katrina, a hairstylist, has internalized the responsibility for the family’s mess so deeply that the rest of them can’t find their own socks without calling her, and she is in tears at what she perceives to be her own inadequacies as a homemaker.
You twitch at these injustices until Kondo shows each household that her brand of tidying is a gender-free, whole-family endeavor that requires even small children to participate.
“When folding it’s important to convey love to your clothes from the palms of your hands,” she tells Rachel and Kevin as she teaches her signature folding technique (roll items into neat rectangles and stack them on their edges).
Do her own small daughters tidy? Absolutely, and we get to see them do so: two plump toddlers deftly rolling and stacking in some pristine, enchanted space, where the camera visits Kondo in narrative cutaways, though she admits that her daughters go rogue sometimes, and undo her own work.
“I do scold them,” she says gently, though it’s hard to imagine the soft-spoken, beatific Kondo ever raising her voice.
At the Akiyamas, empty nesters married for more than four decades, there are rooms full of Christmas decorations, heavy on the nutcrackers, along with his baseball cards and her clothes, spilling out of closets, many of them with the tags still attached. After so many years together, they no longer chat much after dinner, Wendy tells us. At Frank and Matt’s, it’s Frank’s Power Rangers fan fiction, among other paper goods. Angela and Alishia, newlyweds in a new home, have a startling number of shoes. Margie, who lost her husband to cancer, must confront his clothing, a potent presence in the his-and-hers closet.
For Margie, the KonMari method, as it is known, is perhaps the most fraught; what among a beloved spouse’s objects would not spark joy? But Margie steels herself, carefully gathers up her husband’s things and begins to sort through them, until the camera finally, decorously, cuts away, leaving her to own authentic grief and breaking the relentless conventions of reality TV.