Once upon a time, TV houses were cluttered. They weren’t necessarily messy, but there was stuff in the homes of our TV friends. Jerry left cereal boxes out on the counter on Seinfeld. Monica let dishes dry on the rack next to her sink on Friends. Newspapers festooned the living room floor of the Connor house on Roseanne.
Lately, though, all those messes seem to have vanished from my TV screen. Ted Lasso always seems to have his throw pillows arranged just so. The Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan of Modern Family never seem to wash their dishes, but they don’t seem to ever have dirty dishes, either: they’re always simply in a state of gleaming readiness. I truly can’t remember the last time I saw a stray power cord onscreen.
The complaint felt, to me, intuitively true as soon as I saw it. I had a gut sense that I had emerged from an era of warmly messy TV sets and into a time when all TV sets at all times look as though a real estate agent has just breezed through to get the home staged to sell at an open house.
But I could also so easily think of exceptions to the idea of the trend. The Euphoria kids, after all, live in the midst of mess! Surely Girls was recent enough to count, and it was pretty grungy. And when I called up production designers to see if they thought there was something to this idea, they were disappointingly uncertain.
“I had not heard of this till you set all this up!” said Nelson Coates, president of the Art Directors Guild. “I think it just kind of depends on the type of show.” He allowed that certainly The Morning Show, on which he works as a production designer, has a remarkably uncluttered set, but that was a character choice: “These people have meticulously controlled lives.”
At the same time, every production designer I spoke to also had highly robust theories for why they thought set mess might have vanished, even if they weren’t entirely sure it had. It had something to do with budgets, or with social media, or with organizing shows, they told me.
I was left with two questions to investigate: Has the mess level on sets actually changed over time? If it has, why has it?
I was going to have to delve into the data to figure it out.
Set mess by the numbers
Sadly, I could not get Vox to fund a full PhD on this issue, so I limited myself to looking at 30 TV shows, 10 each from the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. To avoid cherry-picking examples, I pulled them all from IMDb’s list of the most popular TV shows of all time.
I picked the most popular shows from each decade that abided by certain rules. They had to be American (so no Sherlock), live-action (no Avatar), set in the present day (no Young Sheldon), and include at least one domestic space among the principal sets (bye-bye, ER). Shows that span multiple decades are included in the decade where they were most part of the zeitgeist (Seinfeld premiered in 1989 and Friends ended in 2004, but I put them both in the 1990s). This judgment call admittedly gets a little fuzzy when it comes to shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (premiered in 2005 and still going), but at the end of the day, this whole project depends on judgment calls.
I evaluated each set according to its standard levels of messiness. Lots of shows have episodes in which a space gets briefly messy for story reasons and is then cleaned again, but those don’t count for the purposes of this project. Instead, we are looking at each set in its baseline state. To evaluate the messiness of that baseline state, I designed a seven-point rubric:
As I moved through the decades, I found that overall, sets tend to hover around the 3-4 range: fairly tidy, but a little bit of clutter here and there.
Each decade has its outliers in either direction. In the 1990s, Geoffrey keeps the Banks mansion of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air staged to sell at all times. In the 2000s, the Always Sunny guys have apartments littered with crumbs and mildewed towels.
Over the past decade, though, something changes. Where previous decades favored 3 and 4 levels of mess, in the 2010s, we start to see an overabundance of 2s.
Those Modern Family houses have done away with household maintenance. The Underwoods of House of Cards have no time for power cords. The Suits lawyers live in pristine palaces.
In most cases, there’s a character reason for the lack of mess. It makes just as much sense for the Underwoods’ house to be spotless on House of Cards as it does for the Banks mansion to be spotless on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air: They’re wealthy; they have people to handle mess for them. Matt Murdock on Daredevil is blind and surely doesn’t want to have clutter lying around where he’ll trip over it. Lucifer on Lucifer is the devil and has an aesthetic to maintain.
All the same, it does seem as though a lot more characters of the 2010s have decided to keep their homes spotless than did the characters of the 1990s. It looks like the set mess did go away.
So what happened?
Where did the mess go?
Few of the production designers I talked to for this story were positive that sets were less messy than they used to be. All of them, though, had a lot of ideas why they might be less messy if they were.
Sara K White, a production designer working on Swarm, theorizes that the digitization of everything has cut down on the amount of media that production designers can use on their sets.
“The volume of physical items that we have in our home is slightly reduced, given the fact that most media is encountered in a digital space,” White says. “So we don’t have big stereos with stacks and stacks of records or CDs or tapes, or stacks of magazines or newspapers around in a home. That’s not a day-to-day part of most people’s lives at this point. ”
White says that one of her favorite parts of the job is finding little details in the space that can say a lot about someone’s character: “Maybe they’re the kind of character that leaves out either a half-read book or half-eaten sandwich, or maybe there’s a tissue that someone sneezed into that’s on the bedside table,” she says.
Finding those details has gotten more difficult as life moves into the cloud. “I think it’s challenging, and it’s something that I talk with other production designers about,” she says: “creating a space that really has the stuff of life and a tangibility of life, given the fact that we would be really anachronistic if we just put stacks of media around a home, typically.”
Jeff Mann, a production designer who worked on Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Tropic Thunder, thinks that our cultural defaults on domestic messiness have switched. “Having something be more austere was a choice in the ’90s that you made to tell a story about a certain person,” Mann says. “I feel like it’s maybe shifted, that having a space feel cluttered or lived-in is a way that you are able to say something about a character these days.”
In the 1990s, the exceptionally pristine Banks mansion spoke to the family’s extreme wealth all the more compared to Jerry Seinfeld’s workaday apartment. Today, the crumb-strewn apartments of Always Sunny speak to the characters’ dirtbaggery all the more next to the showroom-like Modern Family homes.
Mann also thinks the aspirational display of social media might be a force behind the disappearance of mess. “People are in acceptance [of the new normal] because of being bombarded with imagery that something can look like a showroom or adjacent to a showroom and still be lived in, because they’re being told that that’s where somebody lives, and that it’s aspirational, right?” he says.
Audiences aren’t the only ones whose ideas about what homes should look like are shaped by social media. Directors are looking at interior design on social media, too. White says she’s found that, post-Pinterest, directors are a lot more interested in figuring out what the interior of a set should look like than they used to be.
“It’s really attainable now to go on a site like Pinterest and do a Google Image search and get a bunch of responses back and potentially feel well-rounded — and potentially be well-rounded — in what a visual environment is,” she says. “And that can push what the ultimate look and feel of a space and a film or TV project is.”
“There’s the reality TV world where people are buying something and then they’re staging it, and folks are seeing that represented,” says Coates. “That then cross-pollinates into the culture via designers trying to reflect what people are actually doing.”
There’s also the fact that dressing a set with extra mess costs time and money.
“With the volume of shows that are being produced, there’s less prep time,” Coates adds. “As such, there may not be the ability to do that last layer of life on top of things.”
“These shows are scheduled within an inch of their lives,” says Mann. “A lot of them are location-driven, and a lot of them don’t have the time or resources to add the layers that an art decorator or designer would want to add. Nobody thinks that that scene is important enough to justify paying for a prep day.”
The aesthetic impact of the disappearing set mess is exacerbated by a corresponding shift in interior design trends. Shows made in the 1990s had more visual clutter in addition to actual clutter. Their sets were frequently decorated in mismatched shades of dark wood, with lots of loud, clashing patterns in the wallpapers and upholstery. They looked, in fact, less like the height of 1990s fashion and more like the 1970s.
White says production designers clung to the 1970s as long as they possibly could.
“When I started, even 12 or 13 years ago,” says White, “there was this leaning toward pulling things from the ’70s and ’80s that still had a lot of that texture, especially in the independent film space. If you go back and you watch early 2000s films, you’re like, ‘What is this, the ’70s?’ It’s because that lived-in texture was so appealing. And it was realistic. There were certain pockets of the world that still really had that. There still are, but as that became less and less realistic, there was an overall mourning.”
Coates notes that just as designs in the real world influence what set decorating looks like, set designs influence what real-world decorating looks like. “People look at you. They look at Modern Family and look at the shows that have happened as a result of that. Those looks start influencing how people also are living their lives, which then influences how people are representing contemporary life.”
Eventually, it will all trickle on down to the next generation.
“I was watching Mean Streets [from 1973] when I was starting to come up,” says White. “Like, I’m not sure that’s the film that everyone is necessarily watching, if they’re just starting out in production design these days. Touchstones shift as the eras shift. In 10 or 20 years, what we’re creating now will become a touchstone. It’ll be interesting to see.”
Production designers of the future, I beg of you: As you begin to recreate the homes of the 2010s for your dark satirical looks back at the Trump administration and the end of pre-pandemic America and so on, think of me and remember. We did still have bottles of dish soap next to our sinks.