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Is ''This Old House'' ruined?

Is ”This Old House” ruined? — Jeff Jarvis blames the addition of new host Steve Thomas for dumbing down his semi-favorite show

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They’ve ruined my favorite show on TV. Well, it wasn’t exactly my favorite show. But it was the one I watched more faithfully than any other, the one that taught me more than most, the one that gave me all the true-to-life drama that thirtysomething never could. They’ve ruined This Old House.

Oh, I’ve tried to get used to the show’s new host, Steve Thomas; I gave him almost a whole season. But I’m sorry — this guy forever looks as if he should be wearing a backpack to an herbal tea party, not a tool belt to a hardware store. He’s so PBS. He’s no Bob Vila.

Thomas is irritating mainly because he never stops asking the obvious question, to the effect: So, Harry, I see you’re putting nails into that shingle up here on the roof — is that so it won’t fall off?

But the show is even dumber than Thomas’ questions. This season, they decided to renovate a barn and turn it into a house. But any termite could see that this barn was standing on its last molecule. One misstep from an overweight cameraman and it would have crumbled faster than the Berlin Wall. So before the barn fell down, they had to tear it down and begin building an entirely new structure. Putting up a new house on This Old House is like presenting Beauty and the Beast without the beauty (and we know what happened to that show).

As the project progressed, we got to watch a bunch of people who all should have been wearing backpacks paying money to learn how to raise this barn because it’s, well, it’s organic or something. We got to visit a home of the future made of plastic. We got to see how a shaky stone foundation is fortified with concrete. And we got to watch Steve sailing on ice to kill a little airtime. We got to see all sorts of useless things. Absolutely useless.

And that’s what’s wrong with the new This Old House: The show used to be practical. Maybe digging a foundation for an addition to the house isn’t exactly a do-it-yourself diversion, but in case you had to have someone come in to do that for you, the series at least told you what to expect. Now you get to learn how to tear down a barn, just in case you ever need to do that.

So I have a new favorite show: PBS’ Hometime, where hosts JoAnne Liebeler and Dean Johnson not only tell you how to drywall and tile, they do it themselves and show you how. JoAnne and Dean used to be just too perfect; they never made a mistake. But they’ve loosened up. On one episode, they showed us their outtakes in which they kept dropping huge sheets of building material and muffing lines; in another, they admitted to screwing up a measurement and ordering the wrong trusses for their new porch roof. They’re human. They’re believable and practical. They’re what how-to television hosts should be.

Which brings us back to the mistake that ruined This Old House: It has the wrong host. Bob Vila should be there. He’s not there now because he was earning extra money endorsing a building-supply chain and that upset some local sponsors of the show who happened to be competitors of Bob’s store. So Vila left the show and the show is suffering. PBS just can’t seem to handle filthy commerce. When the granddaddys of televised movie reviewers, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, wanted more money — and who among us doesn’t? — they left public television and started another movie review show on commercial stations. Ever since then, the movie show on PBS has suffered — and Ebert & Siskel aren’t as entertaining as they used to be, either. PBS has a knack for coming up with great ideas for shows and then watching, left behind, while others get rich and successful with those ideas. PBS can’t handle success.

And I can’t handle This Old House anymore. I wish they’d just bring back Bob Vila.

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