If you spend any kind of time on social media, you’ve probably noticed a certain kind of photo post cluttering up your timeline over the past month. You know the ones: a drawer of T-shirts folded into perfect little rectangles, standing at attention like screen-printed soldiers; an artfully arranged linen closet, serene in its austerity; a car trunk stuffed to the gills with bagged cast-offs, ready to be spirited away to the nearest Goodwill. Those, and enough “Does it spark joy?” memes to last several lifetimes. Since the turn of the new year, it seems like everyone and their mother (especially their mother) has been tuning into Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, a home improvement show that knew exactly what it was doing when it dropped its first batch of episodes on New Year’s Day.
Japanese tidying expert Marie Kondo has been a household name in the U.S. since 2014, when her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up made its stateside debut. Her KonMari method — a discipline for organizing your belongings, and, by extension, your life — caught on fast enough that by the next year, she was named to TIME’s 100 Most Influential People list. (“I recommend it for anyone who struggles with the material excess of living in a privileged society,” Jamie Lee Curtis wrote in her blurb.) Kondo’s approach became ubiquitous in pop culture, to the point where Emily Gilmore’s failed attempt to KonMari her mansion became a major plot point in the 2016 Gilmore Girls revival (also, incidentally, on Netflix).
But all that background noise grew to a roar with the release of the TV version of Tidying Up, which lifts Kondo’s methods off the page and puts her, quite literally, into the homes of American families with way too much stuff in their closets (and garages, and wreck rooms, and kitchens… and…). And across the nation, viewers are following suit by KonMari-ing their own living spaces — so much so that thrift stores are finding themselves overwhelmed with donated items. At this current chaotic, maximalist moment in American culture, when the powers that be are focused on “more” and “how fast?”, what is it that’s drawn viewers so readily into the arms of Kondo’s gentle, precise aesthetic?
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Maybe it’s that, at a time when all the news is about what’s going irreversibly wrong — what’s spinning out of control, which ally our president is alienating, what chunk of ice cap is falling into the sea — Tidying Up offers us something that is rare as rubies: problems that have solutions.
In each of the show’s eight episodes, Kondo and her translator, Marie Iida, drop in on a house or apartment that is, in one way or another, beguiled by objects. The family of the hour explains their relationship to their stuff and what they hope to achieve, and give Kondo and Iida a tour of rooms in various states of material upheaval. No matter the scale of the disarray — from a drawer full of power cords to a den full of Christmas nutcrackers — Kondo greets it with a buoyant, contagious delight. “I love mess,” she declares in Tidying Up’s intro, and it seems like she genuinely does.
After Kondo “greets” the home in question (a typically solemn moment where she kneels on the floor, silent, with head bowed), she talks the family step by step through the tidying process, a holistic practice that involves dividing items by category and conscientiously disposing of things that don’t “spark joy.” The now-ubiquitous phrase is a creative interpretation of the Japanese word tokimeku, which roughly translates to “heart aflutter.” If the idea of thanking your old hoodie before you consign it to the donation pile rubs you the wrong way, consider that the KonMari method is rooted in Shintoism, which holds that spiritual energy is present in everything around us. (As a teen, Kondo worked as a shrine maiden at a Shinto shrine.)
It’s Kondo’s gentle insistence on the inextricability of material objects from our emotional connections to them that is key to the series’ appeal. Unlike many home makeover shows, which take a dispassionate approach to disposing of the old and busted in favor of the new hotness, Tidying Up is based around the idea that feelings and anxieties are at the root of our decision-making about the things we choose to trash or treasure. The homes that Kondo visits are packed to the rafters with more than anyone could possibly need, but there’s generally a clear line between what’s getting squirreled away and what the people who are doing the squirreling cherish and/or fear. In the fourth episode, for example, a recently widowed woman is less interested in going through her own things than those of her late husband. In another, a husband chides his wife for her clothes hoarding, but is reluctant to deal with his own small mountain of baseball cards.
Consequently, the tidying process becomes a kind of couples’ or group therapy session for the people that belong to the stuff, leading to revelations large and small. Unsurprisingly, the women in the couples (most of the duos represented in the season are heterosexual) tend to assign themselves the lion’s share of the responsibility for whatever initial state of untidiness the house is in. “I feel like I’m to blame, cause I’m the mom,” one woman bluntly states in the third episode. “The mom is supposed to make home home.” Whether it’s the show’s intention or not, Tidying Up tends to balance out some of the unfairly gendered responsibility for cleaning.
The results at the end of each tidying session lack the wow reveal moment of, say, Queer Eye or Trading Spaces. Kondo doesn’t transform people’s homes for them; she gives them the very modest tools they need to do the transforming themselves — and DIY is never gonna look as fancy as Bobby Berk’s budget would furnish. What we’re watching when we watch Tidying Up isn’t the deus ex machina we’ve come to expect from American home-improvement shows, but rather everyday humans using their own modest powers to take responsibility for their own shit.
None of this, incidentally, makes for particularly compelling television. But that’s beside the point. The show has a kind of cumulative effect on the brain, like snow falling on a fallow field. First you’re confused, then charmed, then a little bored, and next thing you know, you’ve organized all the cabinets in your kitchen and your sock drawer looks fucking incredible.
Tidying Up offers an irresistible promise: that at this late date in our history, lives can be changed; that the damage can be reversed; that we have it within ourselves to wrest joy from the inanimate. And that while clinging to something can be comforting, letting go of it can be, too.