Dec. 8 2008 12:00 AM

The “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” Holt episode premiered Sunday night at a special ceremony at the Breslin Center and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.


The opening scene was quite majestic: Ty Pennington skipping around the roof of Sparrow Hospital, pretending to load a sick person into one of those helicopter ambulances (which would be flying away from the hospital?), the whole time his perfectly messed hair staying gelled to his head.

And behind him was a glorious mid-Michigan sunset and the dome of the Capitol. Seeing your hometown splashed across national television is enough to make the hairs on the back of any local resident’s neck stand up.

The producers of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” after all, are masters of fervor, turning charity into pornography measured in plasma screen television sets. Pennington’s rooftop scene was to introduce us to the tragedy that recently struck the Nickless family of Holt: The family’s patriarch, an intensive care unit nurse at Ingham Regional Medical Center, lost his life earlier this year to Hepatitis C, leaving his wife and three young sons to live in an dilapidated 148-year-old farmhouse in the suburban wilds of Holt.

Hundreds witnessed the premiere of Extreme Holt Makeover Edition Sunday night at the Breslin Center, an event designed to marinate the feelings of everyone who volunteered at, or watched, the building of the house. Everyone had crowded into the eastern mezzanine of the arena; some were wearing “EM: HE” souvenir T-shirts, and a surprising number were wearing hunting camouflage.

Portly Hondo Carpenter, local ABC affiliate WLAJ sports reporter, was our host. He told hackneyed Michigan State University/University of Michigan rivalry jokes, blathered about the excellence of our mid-Michigan community and was at points rather bawdy — like when he noted that a Holt Rams cheerleader should take off her jacket because the MSU cheerleaders “wear less than that.”

“The people are what make the difference,” Carpenter said at the opening of the ceremony. He later said, “Community is what separates us, it’s what makes us who we are.”

The event started at 7 p.m. and lasted until the show’s 8 p.m. premiere. That one hour, however, felt a lot longer.

We were held hostage by the Holt Rams cheerleading team, which performed several routines and, literally, was missing a few pom-poms. We were treated to the music of Three Men and A Tenor, a barbershop quartet that was actually really good.

There were a lot of T-shirts handed out: Carpenter hustled audience members on stage to draw raffle tickets for T-shirts from the MSU bookstore, and Mayberry Homes, the local McMansion masters that built the Nickless’ extreme home, gave out “Extreme Makeover” T-shirts.

But that stuff was just fluffing. The stars of the show — Arlene, Andrew, Noah and Aaron — whom everyone was craning their necks searching the Breslin Center for, were not brought out until minutes before 8 p.m. It was “The Reveal” of the evening. The Reveal, which in reality-show parlance is a noun, not a verb, is the great unveiling of the piece — the fat girl after liposuction and new makeup, the teenager after his “Goth” clothes and music are taken away and replaced with sweaters and the Jonas Brothers; The Reveal is right, it is American, it is what we all aspire to.

The Reveal of the Nickless family Sunday night was true to “Extreme Makeover,” as they were driven into the center of the Breslin Center on a huge Dean Trailways bus, led to a stage and then quizzed by Carpenter, who got down on his knees like a Pentecostal preacher and pulled little Andrew Nickless close to him:

“What’s your favorite part of your new house,” Carpenter asked the boy.

And then to Arlene:

“Arlene,” he quivered, “What’s this community mean to you?”


“What does Mid Michigan mean to you?”

And then it was over and the family climbed into the arena, another T-shirt was raffled off and all the hundreds of us sat back and watched for one hour as a crazed Ty Pennington pointed out the obviousness of human tragedy.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the hospital at which Tim Nickless was an intensive care unit nurse.