When This Old House launched, it didn’t seem like the progenitor of a new style of TV. That first, 13-episode season from 1979 initially seemed to be a Boston-space curiosity, accessible only to local residents via WGBH. But it struck a chord with viewers, virtually 250,000 of whom tuned in every week to observe the titular house—a Victorian in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood—endure its gradual metamorphosis.
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The surge of interest allowed This Old House to vault into the first PBS lineup a year later, the place it has remained ever since. What might’ve been framed as a melodramatic battle of the wills is as a substitute offered as a teachable second between the tradesman and the …