The Glorious Weirdness of Marie Kondo’s Netflix show

Three years ago we had a go at the KonMari process of decluttering. Our friend Frit made a YouTube series following Marie Kondo’s method, so we joined in. Japanese superstar Kondo blends tips for tidying up your living space and storing possessions with a bit of quasi-spiritual ritual and self-help waffle. It was fun and we did get rid of a few bits. But our attempts were as half-arsed as they were — in truth — unneeded. Twice since I’ve searched up and down for a book, then remembered it went to the charity shop.

Now Kondo shows up on Netflix with a makeover show, Tidying Up, in which she helps real people (you know them, those daytime makeover type ‘real people’, yeah, them) to declutter their towering piles of useless shit that only Americans and wannabe Americans can accrue. There’s a binbag of chatter about this TV series and I’ve read several articles on it now — yet nobody I’ve seen seems to be mentioning just how pure weird it is; juxtaposing elements that should be nowhere near each-other on our telly screens.

Only that weirdness justifies your time. What makes Tidying Up worth savouring is nothing to do with what the programme-makers think they’ve delivered. In many ways, it’s the most bog standard, phoned in, cheap end of American daytime makeover television. Tidying Up follows each ‘life improving’, ‘crying at the end’ trope to the letter, on a micro-budget that doesn’t allow for a single multiple location, all series. Not only do we never leave California, we never leave our punters’ homes. Queer Eye or Dog Whisperer or even Cash In The Attic are luxuriant multi-layered glossies by comparison. And the recruitment of people to take part is well wobbly. There are a couple of endearing stories but there are also a lot of boring, messy fuckwits, hamming it up for their 15 minutes.

Of course the structure of these shows is always — entirely — about the emotional journey. It’s the whole point. Yet in Tidying Up this gets fascinatingly tripped up and waylaid: and once you notice it, Kondo’s cutesy detachment from everything going on around her is what makes Tidying Up watchable and radically uncomfortable at the same time.

Lady doesn’t give a shit.

The Queer Eye fellas live every emotional moment with their weekly clients, drenching expensive shirts in working class blub if needs be. Kondo has no intention of joining in like this. Unlike the usual ‘expert’ presenters, there is no way on earth Kondo is going on that ride with the people whose lives she helps tidy up. For a start she’s brought a translator along and speaks very little English throughout. There are subtitles (subtitles! on a makeover show!); whole sections translated and whole scenes where Kondo only speaks through this other person’s voice.

Week after week, Kondo imparts wisdom, carefully on-brand, says a polite ‘well done’ and gets the hell out, vanishing before the end of the episode, leaving behind the camera crew and family to close out with scenes of performative tearful redemption. A business-like half hug and be grateful for it.

The punters who take part are well versed in what they’re meant to be — how they’re meant to react. They cry and fight and come to deep-hearted realisations about themselves in a perfect curve towards resolution: knowingly and precisely following that familiar arc, now sickeningly normalised in our diminished collective consciousness. And then Marie Kondo resolutely fails to play along.

A perfect example is this woman who starts saying suggestively to Kondo that decluttering is rekindling her love life. For any normal show of the genre, this is gold dust: the presenter would be on it like catnip, joining in saucily, reeling in details (while remaining carefully mainstream normative). But Kondo is plain bemused. Through the translator she says “Oh, that’s so American!” and moves on, fast, disinterested. It’s awesome to behold.

In another episode that ended in tears of renewal for a couple who almost cracked apart, sorting out their apartment, Kondo says derisively to her translator as she gets in the car: “I almost cried.”

In that ‘almost’ is everything you need to know about Tidying Up. We don’t get a single shot of Kondo away from punters, not once during the whole run. They’ve wholly abandoned the usual obligatory “driving to where the punters are and talking about how excited you are to work with them” sequence. Just ditched it, so she won’t have to express any interest. Such gorgeous, overwhelming disconnect between Kondo’s detached, spiritual, already supremely ‘settled in fame’ persona and the bogshed structure of a low rent daytime show is amazing. I hate Tidying Up as I love Kondo and I love Tidying Up as I despise her.

The genre’s yearning conflict is absolutely at odds with the quiet, reflective nature of Kondo’s KonMari trademarked ‘philosophy’: you focus on what is yours. You ask if it ‘sparks joy’ (nice catchphrase) and say ‘thank you’ to items you’re discarding. This is an inward-looking, individual kind of decluttering — and you’re not remotely meant to impose your opinion on others’ decisions about what items stay or go. But the telly format ‘sorting out all our shit’ relies on conflict as its base coat, so the show ends up being about two things at once that sit in opposition: a pseudo-spiritual Japanese branded tidying methodology and a bunch of Californians shouting at each other about who owns too many shoes.

We binged. Episode after episode. Second screening the whole time though, because it’s hella boring until you clock the secret mcguffin (if that’s the correct word for it). And I started to wonder: perhaps Kondo could break reality television altogether, simply by not caring about it, even as it begs for her love.

Marie Kondo is in her mid 30s and has been a worldwide publishing phenomenon for a decade. She’s just moved her family to L.A. — hopefully not for this, though. This TV show could sit entirely within the marketing budget of whatever her next actual project is. It probably took six lazy weeks to make. But then, Netflix is one hell of a calling card. I was going to write ‘she doesn’t need this crap’ but when you look at it like that — and watch everyone falling over themselves to opine about her, including me, well, it probably helps.