TV or Not TV

Bob Vila

This New Old House

I thought it would be funny to start a blog called “Sh*t This Old House says” and include quotes of the hosts and carpenters using phrases from the world of construction that sound dirty but really aren’t (i.e.-“Just keep pounding until it comes loose,” “we need a little more caulk right there,” or the all-time classic “bitchathane”). Sometimes my mind just reverts to a juvenile state and I can giggle my way through an entire episode.

This Old House” put a few seasons up as full episodes on a YouTube channel, and they are now finally offering the most recent season online a day or two after they are distributed to PBS stations (airdates vary depending on the station). As a longtime viewer of the series, much has changed over the years. Long gone is Bob Vila, and Steve Thomas vanished from whence he came a few years ago. His replacement, Kevin O’Connor was found when he asked for advice from “Ask This Old House,” the companion series to the original which features more basic home improvement tips. Maybe I’m biased because his name is Kevin, or maybe I’m biased because I never really warmed to Steve (Bob was “the man”), but Kevin functions well as host. As a non-expert, he is able to ask the sorts of questions the rest of us amateurs might ask.

The chief complaint I hear from other longtime viewers is the series focuses too much on massive mansions instead of smaller projects people can relate to. For solely home improvement advice, I’d recommend “Ask This Old House,” but that does not mean I agree with the claim. I concede the selection of homes tends to be grander in scale than the early years of the show, but if you replace a window in a million-dollar home, the process is the same on a $20,000 shack. “This Old House” has been more about using new materials to renovate an existing house, and that core concept — demonstrating the techniques and products — hasn’t changed.

The primary team of craftsmen has remained largely unchanged since the series began, though Norm Abram stopped wearing plaid (I’m old enough to remember the days before Norm had a beard, but that is neither here nor there). Tom Silva still serves as point man on the Boston (or surrounding area) based projects, and there are other regulars as well, but the pacing of the series has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent seasons.

Episodes always used to open with the host arriving on site in a (sponsored) pickup truck. He would then walk leisurely through the house and show the progress and the process of each step of the renovation. While the series often broke away from the site to tour a manufacturing facility, a historic home, or a home center, it used to take place more-or-less in real time. Now the pace is sped up and we might see two or three days unfold in a 25 minute episode. There is now a lot of interstitial music, quick edits, voice-overs, and time-lapse video.

Truth be told, I preferred the slower, more realistic pace. This was a series I used to watch on lazy Saturday afternoons (Norm worked hard so I wouldn’t have to). I liked being able to experience how long it took mortar to set up and how long it took to professionally paint window trim. The steps are still shown, but the time it takes to complete them has been condensed, and I feel something is lost by removing that. However, the show is still head-and-shoulders above any of the home shows on commercial stations. Nobody cries, nobody rushes through a job, and I actually learn things in an entertaining way.

I don’t think “This Old House” gets enough credit for how it has contributed to our cultural landscape. It was among the first of the “how-to” shows with a production budget, and it helped spark a nationwide interest in preserving historic homes instead of just leveling them and starting over.

Believe it or not, I converted several older episodes from my VHS collection (yes I used to record episodes as they were broadcast) to digital files, and I sometimes go back and review them. A lot of people might not catch at first glance that each home has a story — a history and character. The families who elect to work to restore or enhance the history and character are a rare and commendable breed, and the stories are timeless and compelling.

One final point I want to mention about “This Old House” is this is a reality series that is more real than most. If you check out the series they shot in New Orleans (after Hurricane Katrina), you can see what happens as the general contractor hired to oversee the site flaked out and was fired. They do not stage things like termite damage or dangerous wiring — such things are a natural part of any renovation process. People who do not think this is a series for you might want to reconsider. Plumbers and electricians are expensive; I have learned to do minor repairs on my own because of “This Old House.” In an era where every penny counts, that counts for a lot.