“Throw away your television.”
That’s what everyone’s telling me. And by everyone, I mean Jenn. And Chuck Klosterman.1 And the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Wilco. Luckily, the only one of those I have to account to is Jenn, and I was able to work out a détente with her that did involve pitching the TV to friends — but replacing it with an out-of-sight, out-of-mind projector that turns the bar into a home theater with a 9-foot screen when we want it.2
Jenn is just as lucky as I am, turns out, because every now and then a piece of television comes around that actually restores our hope. I don’t mean “Game of Thrones,” or “Fargo,” which are both fantastic examples of the platinum age of longform television we’re enjoying. Those shows offer hope for the future of the medium, but no actual hope for humankind.
No, I’m talking about “This Old House.”
Hang with me, I understand your hesitation. If you’re like I was a few months ago, you understand “TOH” as sort of home-renovation porn. It’s fun stuff and maybe mildly educational, but they show off materials you can’t find in your mid-sized town. They run to craftspersons to sculpt just the right fleur de lis in the plaster casings they’re restoring. There’s no million-dollar “fixer-upper” in Boston — the one that’s such a damn burden for its WASPy homeowners — that couldn’t benefit from a 100-foot bump-out to really open up the kitchen and add that crucial children’s activity area.
When Norm and Tom and Roger and Richard are getting their hands dirty, I’m locked on to every frame. The rest of the time I wanna slap someone silly for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars because the playroom is adjacent to the formal dining room or to add a second laundry room for the kids.
But all that changed for me with the second half of its 38th season, when the team up and went to Detroit to help with two projects that are both combating vacant houses, decaying neighborhoods and a blight that extends beyond the outmoded bathroom, through the front door and to houses up and down the street. In one of the projects, they simply track the city’s progress as it quickly flips a 1930s house from abandoned — and piled with refuse — to sell-able. The other, they’re helping with knowledge and a little elbow grease, but the heavy lifting is all being done by the homeowners’ family and a crew of friends and other volunteers.
Turns out, when there’s an element of social justice in the “House,” the show becomes electric.
“No! It’s too short!” Jenn will cry, after each 24-minute ep.
At times it’s a littler rougher around the edges than a typical season, due mostly to on-camera talent, be they the homeowners or local contractors, who are a little less camera-savvy than the usual suspects in Boston. I think it’s charming. And maybe I’m projecting, but I get the feeling host Kevin O’Connor likes the change, too. To wit: In the Arlington, Massachusetts, house that immediately preceded the Detroit ones, O’Connor seemed dismayed that homeowners insisted on uneven, albeit historic, S&H brick pavers in their back patio, while also insisting on a complicated 45-degree herringbone pattern (versus a running bond or a 90-degree herringbone, either of which would’ve allowed simple compensation for gaps). “Oh, good heavens,” O’Connor says to landscaper Roger Cook. “Anything else? Did they tell you you couldn’t work with a saw, can’t use shovels, or gotta work at night?”
In the first Detroit episode, he can be seen nodding again and again over choices to refurbish the house without blowing up its floor plan. It’s a plan that might be emblematic of the greater city’s struggle to find its good bones and then stand on them. “Many words can be used to describe Detroit,” he says, “but ‘quitter’ isn’t one of them.”
The season’s wrapping up soon, but if it sounds like “The Detroit House” season might get your motor running, you can stream all of its previously-aired episodes on the“This Old House” website. Or just jump straight into the first chapter, “Rebuilding Motor City.”
I’m curious to see if there’s a lasting effect on the show once they return to New England next season. At least for now, Jenn’s not hiding my remote control.
1 Klosterman told us, in 2013, about the 1978 book “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” by Jerry Mander3. And, dammit if Jenn didn’t immediately go and track one down on Half.com. This is why Klosterman is a jerk.
2 I did this a little better than a year ago. Esquire recently touted the value of just such a change, and I’ve taken much pride in waving that magazine article in front of Jenn’s astigmatic eyeballs.
3 His real name, supposedly.