Say what you will about Chip and Joanna Gaines, but you always know what you’re getting with the design-build duo. There are going to be farm sinks and shiplap. Chip’s going to crack jokes and Jo’s going to roll her eyes. Whether they’re renovating an old house, revitalizing the city of Waco, or selling pajamas for a dog at Target, there’ll be a lot of talk about community, family, and feeling at home. With this consistency, the Gaineses have built an empire. Aside from Fixer Upper, the television show that made them famous and one of HGTV’s highest-rated franchises ever, Chip and Jo have their Hearth & Home line at Target and multiple best-selling books between them. This January, the couple revealed their biggest remodel to date: HGTV’s sister channel, DIY Network, has been transformed into Magnolia Network. Will it be a successful flip, or the Gaines’s first flop?
Magnolia Network, named after the couple’s first shop in Waco, comes complete with a brand-new season of Fixer Upper, over a dozen original shows, and the tagline “TV that feels like home.” It’s been a long road; the network was first announced in fall 2019, and its anticipated October 2020 launch was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Last summer, Magnolia Network shows like Inn the Works, Home Work, and Home on the Road with Johnnyswim became available to stream on Discovery+ (HGTV is owned by Discovery). And when Discovery announced that Magnolia Network would come to cable in January 2022, all seemed primed for a smooth start.
But, as with all construction projects, there were hiccups. The network had to pull one of its prime-time shows, Home Work. The program, which follows Utah couple Candis and Andy Meredith as they run a design-and-build business and renovate a 115-year-old schoolhouse for their own family, came under fire when multiple clients came forward with allegations of shoddy craftsmanship and cost overruns. (On many HGTV shows, including Fixer Upper, clients pay for their own renovations.) Amid several Today interviews and emotional Instagram videos, the show was removed from Magnolia’s cable lineup and streaming platform. The network quickly conducted a review, and though they found no “ill or malicious intent” on the part of the Merediths, and came up with a solution that satisfied all parties (reinstating the program, compensating the aggrieved clients, and presumably getting everyone involved to sign an ironclad NDA), the whole event has certainly left an unsightly stain on the Gaines’s shiplap.
But will it be enough to permanently tarnish their brand? Doubtful. The Gaineses have weathered controversy before. In 2016, they were called out for belonging to a Waco church with a pastor who publicly denounced gay marriage and promoted conversion therapy. They’ve also been criticized for never working with same-sex couples on any episodes of the five seasons of Fixer Upper, nor the new season Fixer Upper: Welcome Home. But the Magnolia Network deal marched on, and the controversy doesn’t seem to have derailed the couple’s success. They pivoted, especially Chip, who wrote a 2017 blog post about caring for people no matter their sexual orientation, race, gender, nationality, political affiliation, or faith. In June 2020, as protests against police brutality raged across the country, the whole Gaines family appeared on Emmanuel Acho’s digital series, Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man, to talk about race. But the Gaineses haven’t fully escaped the taint of past associations and their apparent conservatism. In a Hollywood Reporter feature last summer, they were still addressing accusations of racism and anti-LGBTQ politics. “That’s the stuff that really eats my lunch—because it’s so far from who we really are,” Joanna told the magazine. The article made a point to mention that several of the new Magnolia Network shows star people of color, and that “on launch day, there’ll be at least one show with openly queer talent at its center.” (Mind for Design stars Brian Patrick Flynn, a popular television personality and designer.)
The drama surrounding Home Work and its hosts threatens to add a sheen of unprofessionalism to the Magnolia brand that Chip and Joanna Gaines may still be answering for in magazine features years from now. But will that matter? The Gaineses have changed a lot since Fixer Upper first premiered in 2013, and their success and mushrooming wealth seem like a threat to the folksy authenticity that helped make them stars in the first place. In Fixer Upper: Welcome Home, the third main character is no longer the town of Waco, but the behemoth that is the Magnolia brand. Episodes don’t center on middle-class locals and their starter homes, they focus on $10.4 million renovations at the Silos, or remodels for some of the seven hundred employees who work for Magnolia. It shouldn’t work, and many think it doesn’t.
But to me, Chip and Joanna remain charming as heck. I enjoy watching them flex their muscles as industry giants almost more than I did when they were younger and less self-assured. They still know how to flirt with the audience and one another. There are moments in one episode of the new season—when Chip and Jo attempt to buy and flip a house specifically for themselves—that had me belly laughing. To watch Chip and Jo is to be constantly reminded why they are megastars in the first place, and that star quality is very much on display in the other Magnolia programs.
I started binge-watching Magnolia Network for work, but within a few hours it was for pleasure. Plenty of the programs are boring: I’m just never going to be interested in a restaurant show where everybody is nice, as in The Lost Kitchen. The only person I want to watch paint is Bob Ross, so Art in Bloom with Helen Dealtry is not for me.
But other shows like Inn the Works, about Lindsey Kurowski, a thirtysomething who buys worn-down inns and redesigns them with her siblings, and Super Dad, about YouTube star Taylor Calmus, who helps dads design forts and climbing walls for their kids, are centered around genuinely funny hosts. I don’t always care for the design: the projects Calmus builds on Super Dad are so ugly, I feel sorry for the moms who have to pretend they don’t hate them. But that didn’t stop me from watching several episodes in a row, or even getting a little verklempt at the kiddos’ abundant joy. I could watch Mind for Design for hours, both because Brian Patrick Flynn is so captivating, and because it’s an excuse to remember that in 2017 he married his husband on an ice floe in Antarctica.
Even the non-design shows have entertaining subjects. Family Dinner, with Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, is a bright and fun visit to the kitchens of families all over the country. Amanda Sudano and Abner Ramirez, the married couple behind the band Johnnyswim (whose single “Home” is the theme song for Fixer Upper), have two different shows on the Magnolia Network: Home on the Road with Johnnyswim, about raising their two kids while on a cross-country tour, and The Johnnyswim Show, their post-COVID pivot about raising a family during a pandemic. I can’t stand their overly earnest folk-rock music, but can’t deny that they are charming, and their chemistry—whether onstage or on camera—gives Chip and Jo a run for their money.
Home Work, which was quietly put back on the Magnolia Network app over the weekend, is not like the others. The Merediths exude the same aw-shucks, “we’re in love with our work and each other” vibes as the other Magnolia couples, minus the sense of humor, which makes the show feel too saccharine. Knowing what we do about their unsatisfied customers, it’s hard to trust them or their choices. I found myself looking for examples of their alleged reckless behavior in the episodes. A viewer doesn’t have to be on board with a TV star’s design style to be on board with the star’s TV show. (The Merediths’ work is painfully gaudy.) But if you find neither the design nor the designer endearing, what is there to keep you watching?
Still, Home Work is not a deal breaker. Magnolia Network has a slate of other shows that do work, with a safety net of programs like Maine Cabin Masters and Barnwood Builders that were popular on DIY Network before the transition. It’s a smooth extension of the Magnolia brand: television that certainly feels like someone’s home (if not mine or yours, then the Gaineses’).
At this stage in their career, I don’t know that Chip and Joanna can flop. I’m not an all-around Gaines fan; I don’t ever stop in the Hearth & Hand sections in Target, not least because the brand name evokes the image of sticking one’s arm into a fireplace. If even I enjoyed the new programming, imagine how many die-hard members of the Magnolia army—the millions who tuned in to Fixer Upper and follow the Gaineses on their numerous social media accounts—will pay $4.99 for a Discovery+ subscription. And frankly, if any pair from an HGTV franchise is going to grow their empire exponentially, ensuring that we’ll be paying even more attention to them in the coming years and decades, well, at least it isn’t the Property Brothers.