Why The Martha Stewart Show Had to Go

How can viewers aspire to a lifestyle that seems absurd in this economy?

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Kevin Winter / NBCUniversal / Getty Images

Martha Stewart appears on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" in November 2011.

This week brought the news that the Hallmark Channel is pulling the plug on The Martha Stewart Show, bringing an end to its seven-year run. (Stewart’s previous show, Martha Stewart Living, was canceled when the lifestyle doyenne was sent to the big house for insider trading.) I rarely watched Martha, an hour-long live show in which Stewart, gamely trying to connect with a living audience, never really seemed in her element.

But that raises the question of what her element really is. Stewart is one of the very few people in the world whose name stands for a whole way of life; a way of life which, it could be argued, overlapped with the American upper-middle class for a good stretch of the ’90s and early aughts. It’s entirely possible that Stewart failed because the Hallmark Channel has a tiny audience and that Stewart needs to go back into syndication, where more people can see her making guacamole with Eva Mendes or demonstrating holiday centerpieces. And I suppose the format might be to blame: Stewart is not a people person; she’s an authority figure. There is also the simple question of age: Stewart is 70 years old, and maybe younger audiences can’t relate to her. But I suspect the explanation of her waning popularity has something to do with changes in America as a whole.

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Over the past 10 years, there have really been only two names that truly resonated as representing a way for an American homemaker to live. One was Martha Stewart, and the other was Rachael Ray. It’s not relevant which one, if either, you like better; I’m on Team Rachael, personally and professionally, but that doesn’t even matter. The point is that the two seemed, for a very long, like alternative role models in America. In retrospect, don’t we have to ask ourselves how this was even possible? Stewart represented a lifestyle that was rarefied, refined and opulent even by the standards of people who own big houses and have plenty of time to create their own papier-mâché Easter eggs. How in the world did she ever loom as large in our culture as a rival who was understood to be an everywoman, helping harried moms to cook decent food in 30 minutes or less?

The answer was, of course, that Stewart was not so much an actual mentor as an aspirational one; that is, someone who represented the kind of lifestyle that many wanted but few had. I would submit that Stewart’s decline is directly connected with the fact that such a lifestyle seems grotesquely implausible, even as a fantasy, in today’s economy. It’s fun, as a guy, to pretend to yourself that you might have a shot with a girl-next-door type like Michelle Williams; plug in Beyoncé or Brooklyn Decker, and the exercise just becomes depressing. The Martha Stewart lifestyle, no matter how she tries to dress it down, is just another car you’ll never drive, suit you’ll never wear and job you’ll never have.

Which is a shame, I think, in at least one way. Stewart’s cooking, although admittedly Old World, feudal and laborious, was among the best that anybody has ever done on television. I aspire personally to cook like Ray — fast and intuitively with stuff I actually have in the house; but I wish I could do the grand old recipes, the poached halibut and foie gras terrine, as well as Stewart does. In fact, I couldn’t see myself doing it at all. Her baking seemed especially terrifying to me. I live in an apartment; my table is filled with unpaid bills, take-out menus and cigarette papers. Where am I going to start putting mixing bowls?

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And yet, it always seemed good to me that someone was cooking like that. And, going further, it always seemed good to me that someone was living like that, because could anyone have any doubt that Stewart really lives the Martha Stewart lifestyle? I have many mutual friends, and nobody has ever breathed a hint that she is less than totally perfect in the way she runs her own household. But as America gets poorer, and even the cramped kitchens and half-full refrigerators begin to look like less of a guarantee, maybe the Martha Stewart lifestyle seems less like an aspiration and more like a cruel mockery. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Now if you will excuse me, I have some Manwich sauce to heat up.