PBS—a publicly funded, non-profit channel that has inadvertently been under Trump’s radar—has also turned its attention toward politics. This is not happening in obvious news places like PBS Newshour or Frontline but instead in a more curious, subversive way: on home how-to show This Old House.
This is an unlikely prospect since the show only intends to relay information on rebuilding and updating literal old houses with a side of architectural history. This Old House has been a staple since the late seventies and was what helped break home guru Bob Vila. It is essentially “Home Depot: The TV Show.”
Each season is somewhat the same: rich couple buys old house, rich couple hires people to fix house, rich people step in to comment and make decor and design decisions, rich people live happily ever after in not-so-old house. Subjects featured are predominately white and living in the Northeast too. For the years I’ve been a fan of the show (And I am a relatively new fan, to be honest.), there is little variety as it relates to the content. It left you wondering how the channel could be so forward thinking yet so behind. Surely not everyone buying an old house that needs fixing is old and white and well off, right?
Right. That’s why this latest season is unique: it initially started with a remaking of an Arlington Arts & Crafts house that was as typical of the show as can be but did an about face for the season’s second half, focusing in on a family in Detroit who are rebuilding a house themselves. And, no, they are not white and, no, they are not well off. It is a subtle political stance to finally feature a family of color and, as the website B.L.A.C. puts it, the family and neighborhood the house is in is a offers a watershed moment for the city.
The show wasn’t content to just put black people on the air either: it is using the show to explore the different aspects of economic bust and boom in the Detroit area and to highlight how the city is rebuilding itself in myriad ways. Moreover, the crew is zooming out of Detroit to visit another part of the state where home issues have become a national issue: Flint.
In the recent “Fixing Fascia” episode, the show shows how to fix gutters and rewire a kitchen and get heating into a house. This is all fluff because the episode takes the Flint field trip at the halfway point and doesn’t fuck around with explaining and contextualizing how the city goofed this up. Richard Trethewey—the show’s plumbing and heating expert—leads the segment with the history of the Flint water crisis being tied to a misunderstanding of pipes and what happens when supplies are switched. (Spoiler alert: you get lead in drinking water.) Trethewey does an excellent job speaking with local journalists and home experts to figure out how to remedy Flint.
While we get a how-to as it relates to replacing bad pipes, the segment is less about how to de-Flint your home but to highlight just how much work it would take to fix every single fucking house in the city. It’s perhaps the best summation of the Flint water crisis done on television since it happens in a place where it is both most and least expected.
These are certainly strange times and a moment where any way to articulate problems and celebrate the marginalized are important. Thankfully, even shows like This Old House are getting involved in the discussion in their own ways. Rebellion doesn’t have to be huge marches in the streets to shut down a city and cause national conversation: they can be pointed commentaries wedged in the middle of a design show. It’s a lesson on how to dissent with grace.
You can watch the episode of This Old House below. The Flint segment comes up around the 11 minute mark.