If it wasn’t clear before, the pandemic has erased all doubts: We are living in the opposite of a utopia. Yet even as the world outside raged, many of us spent the past 18 months of lockdown trying to create some semblance of peace in the only space we could control: our homes.
This is a tension all too familiar to Avery Trufelman, the host of Nice Try!, a podcast about humanity’s efforts to create an idealized place away from the chaos of the world—and utterly failing. The first season looked at utopian communities—think Jamestown, Levittown, the Biosphere 2—that flamed out in spectacular fashion.
The second season, which launches tomorrow, does an about-face and looks inward: at the home, but also at the self. Dubbed “Interior,” the seven-episode season will explore everything from vacuums and Crock-Pots to barbells and mattresses. Over the decades, these products have been marketed with the promise of improving our lives: cleaner house, quicker food, hotter body, better sleep. They’ve essentially been sold as a form of self-improvement on the path to creating our own personalized havens. But in doing so, they’ve reinforced the very American idea of perfecting one’s private space and performing all the household labor individually.
This focus on creating a private utopia went into overdrive during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as home renovations surged and furniture sales exploded. “During the pandemic, everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I just wish I could own a home. I wish I had a home to retreat to. I wish I had my own private space,” Trufelman says. “But that’s such a distinctly American concept of a form of utopia.”
Trufelman is very interested in the idea of private versus public space, and the way we, as Americans, pursue the former at the expense of the latter. The idea of “separate spheres” takes front billing in this season’s first episode, which focuses, fittingly, on the doorbell—that piece of technology that bridges the exterior and the interior.
“It’s very much about who gets to choose who they let in, who gets to choose who feels comfortable having a loud dinging sound reverberating throughout the house, who feels comfortable letting a stranger in,” Trufelman says. “With every episode we kind of have what it’s overtly about and what it’s really about. And so the doorbell [episode] is about how the doorbell became the home security system, but really it’s about who feels comfortable and secure in their home.”
This idea of creating a space that feels comfortable contrasts with how much these personal items can restrict us at the same time. Here, Trufelman cites the vacuum, saying that originally it was practically a public amenity—it would “rumble down your street and you would open the door for the hose to come in.” But that soon morphed into an item—often two!—that each household had for themselves. Ditto for industrial laundries and communal kitchens.
Still, Trufelman is hesitant to frame this series as a full indictment of capitalism. “The idea of a vacuum that you pay to use weekly instead of having to buy your own, that’s just a different structure of capitalism,” she says. “Sure, a lot of this is tied up with capitalism, but I think a lot of this is just the American conception of private space . . . [and] the way we’ve configured our cities.”
In the doorbell episode (which was the only one I had access to before the show’s launch), there are contradictions that Trufelman doesn’t shy away from. The experts she interviews stress the potential privacy issues with Ring doorbells, which also function as a sort of security camera, recording people who come to the door and even capturing unknowing passersby. The doorbells, and the corresponding app, have been accused of targeting minorities and fomenting racial tensions.
Despite acknowledging these issues, two experts Trufelman interviewed reveal that they both, in fact, still own these devices. Chaz Arnett, a professor of law at the University of Maryland, likes being able to answer the door when he’s traveling. Shontavia Johnson, a patent lawyer, actually has three Ring doorbells. “We’re not trying to be the police,” she says. “We just want to make sure that our house, and the things in it, are safe.”
This tension will be a through line in the season: These are products that have made our lives better in many ways, even while their marketing machines have contributed to wildly problematic ideas about our work, our bodies, and our homes. They’re also deeply tied to questions of race and class—issues Trufelman says are woven into nearly every episode.
The vacuum episode delves into domestic labor with activist Ai-jen Poo; the Crock-Pot episode explores immigration and cooking with food writer Chandra Ram; and the mattress episode looks at the historic inequality of sleep. As Trufelman says, utopias have always been about deciding who to let in and who to keep out.
Trufelman herself moved across the country during the pandemic, settling into her own apartment in New York just as she started working on this season. “It was so strange and surreal to be thinking about the kitchen while I was trying to find spoons and furniture and slowly feathering my nest and truly trying to build my own little utopia,” she says.
I had a similar experience, moving into an apartment that I needed to furnish from scratch in the midst of one of the worst COVID-19 surges last winter. I shopped for a couch, framed old posters, and found the perfect comforter, even as evictions loomed and multigenerational households were hammered by the disease. I was struck by how a home could be both a haven and a source of trauma.
As Trufelman stresses, utopias, by their very definition, don’t exist. But that doesn’t mean we’re not continually trying to build our own, whether it’s an alternate universe in the Arizona desert or in our 650-square-foot apartment.
“Are those things at odds?” Trufelman asks historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan in this season’s first episode. “The idea of a utopia and the idea of a private home? Can the private home be a sort of utopia?”
“Well that’s the $64,000 question,” Cowan replies, laughing. “Everyone I know sets out to create a private home that will be a utopia. And fails.”
It doesn’t mean we won’t keep trying.