Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Kiwi Living drops exclusivity for attainability

The name Kiwi Living last year felt like some exclusive club. Now, quite unexpectedly, they seem to want everyone to feel at home.
Miriama Kamo and Michael Van de Elzen in TV One's Kiwi Living.
Miriama Kamo and Michael Van de Elzen in TV One's Kiwi Living.

Last year's debut of Kiwi Living felt like a kind of television dystopia: the kind of witlessly aspirational brand-soaked programming Leigh Hart had been parodying on The Late Night Big Breakfast, only terrifyingly real. Host Miriama Kamo - one of the most talented journalists in the country in a kind of purgatory - was joined by various chefs, fashion identities, and young thrusters to show us all the things we were doing wrong. In my review I characterised the show as "lifestyle shaming" - flash Aucklanders wandering into the spare room or closet of regular New Zealanders and groaning in disgust.

It was an abomination.

Kiwi Living returned a week ago, on a different night, to an indifferent nation.

And, shockingly, it's a far better show. The bones are the same: a bit of food, a bit of gardening, a bit of reno. Only, the tone has entirely changed.

The centrepiece was chef Michael Van de Elzen cooking a meal at the Auckland City Mission for 200 people, aiming to make a healthy meal for less than $2 per head.

Think about what this does, functionally. It shows the scale of the homeless and vulnerable in Auckland in primetime on TV One (I'm not at all sure that often happens on Seven Sharp ...). It very practically details healthy food made cheaply. And, more than any of that, it positions Kiwi Living as a place which views New Zealanders as a more diverse collection of people than they ever did in the first season.

None of this came easy. Van de Elzen spoke candidly about the difficulties of feeding that many on such a tiny budget, even allowing for the benefits of scale and resource. He developed a kind of sweetly awkward rapport with Richard Ruripa, the City Mission chef who was himself once homeless.

They come from different worlds, but each seemed moved by the experience of engaging with the other. I struggle to think of televisual moments outside news and documentaries during which there is meaningful interaction between people from such different life situations. To have it happening on television at all is cool; to have it happening on Kiwi Living is bizarre and gratifying.

Smaller homes are part of how we solve it - yet because they are rare birds nowadays the public tends to forget that they can be built, and built beautiful.

It wasn't just a token gesture. Everything had become more relatable. The gardening took place in an overgrown shambles of a backyard much like my own. By the end of the show, the backyard was still a shambles, but now it had a vege garden in it. Gardening guru Tony Murrell had help, from some strong young dudes, but they didn't make it too fancy: by the show's end there were stones strewn everywhere, the grass remained muddy and unmown, the shed still sad and leaning.

Bluntly, it looked attainable - a level of transformation you might be able to achieve, rather than one which made you want to cry.

And on we went: Sir Mad Butcher had an eye test (they're fine mate - probably all those sausages and pork chops!) and a lounge is turned into the kind of over-stuffed nightmare you see everywhere in real life. The house they picked to wander through was 50sq m, built for around $200,000.

Kiwi Living starring Miriama Kamo and Michael Van de Elzen.
Kiwi Living starring Miriama Kamo and Michael Van de Elzen.

Like everything else on the show, it felt almost like a political statement. Along with rampant house price inflation, we've had rampant house size inflation too - from 120sq m in the 50s to over 200sq m today. That costly bloat, targeting only the top end of the market, is a small part of why we have the crisis we're living with today.

Smaller homes are part of how we solve it - yet because they are rare birds nowadays the public tends to forget that they can be built, and built beautiful. So we fear apartments and terraced housing, viewing them as an assault on our sacred quarter-acre way of life, even though that conception of housing and lifestyle is in fact a historical blip which lasted for maybe 30 years.

We need to understand the alternatives are real and spectacular. And anyone who watched the episode will come away thinking: I would love to live in that tiny hillside house. As for the home, so for the show: rather than feeling inadequate and despairing, anyone watching will have felt like this was a vision of New Zealand life which bore some relationship to their own.

The name Kiwi Living last year felt like some exclusive club to which only a few were allowed entry. Now, quite unexpectedly, they seem to want everyone to feel at home.

- NZ Herald

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Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

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