When Tim Allen stepped through the doorway at the start of the 11 October premiere of Last Man Standing and announced, “I’m back!”, he wasn’t just returning to his fake television family after a business trip. He was also reintroducing himself to American viewers. And with that reintroduction, ABC means to take back Tuesday nights, currently dominated by Glee and NCIS. The question is, does America want Tim Allen back?
Despite the success of the Toy Story series and the fantastic sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest, Allen never quite found his foothold in Hollywood after Home Improvement was cancelled in 1999. A Top 10 show for all but one of its eight seasons, Home Improvement‘s series finale was one of the most-watched in sitcom history. Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor stood alongside Bob Saget, Patrick Duffy, and Reginald VelJohnson, all examples of ABC’s dads in an era when networks were focusing on working mothers, divorce, single parents, and other unconventional family units.
Where Roseanne was the domestic goddess, Tim Taylor was the domestic goof, a TV father who often didn’t know best. A naïve nincompoop of a dad culled from Allen’s stand-up comedy routine, he made mistakes and the “Tool Man” had to fix them. Building, breaking down, and rebuilding became the pattern for Tim’s do-it-yourself projects as much as his marriage and relationships with his children (Let’s not forget that Home Improvement was responsible for introducing millions of girls to Jonathan Taylor Thomas.) Tim’s wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) was the wise and usually rational counterbalance to his misguided bumbling, a forward-thinking and assertive mom who managed the home and kids while he tinkered under his hotrod.
If the Tim Taylor type no longer holds sway in US sitcoms, Tim Allen has not exactly been able to let it go. Allen has staked much of his film career on playing father figures, beginning with 1994’s The Santa Clause, which was followed by a string of Christmas films and other hammy family comedies. At this point, after hitting a professional nadir with The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, Allen looks to be out of options. Though he found moderate success with the road comedy Wild Hogs (along with fellow has-beens John Travolta and Martin Lawrence), his return to primetime seems more like a desperate act to rejuvenate his dimmed star than an eagerly anticipated re-entry (say, the sort of anticipation that might accompany Michael J. Fox headlining a sitcom.)
Still, with creative energies from 30 Rock writer/producer Jack Burditt and costars Nancy Travis and Hector Elizondo, Last Man Standing‘s first two episodes—which aired back to back on Tuesday night—produced some decent laughs.
While it returns Allen to a Mr. Fix-it style of parenting and some broad he-man comedy, the show offers fewer grunts and more shrieking female voices. As Mike, Allen again plays a testosterone-happy man of the house, here trading in his auto parts for crossbows. As the head of marketing for an LL Bean-like company, Mike has been asked to update the website and lure in the “modern man” via the Internet, resulting in his hosting a “vlog” (video blog), which he dedicates to lamenting the demise of “real men” and making generalizations about gender roles and family dynamics.
Prior to the website project, Mike apparently relished his opportunities to experience the great outdoors while on photo shoots for the printed catalog, as he was able to get in touch with his caveman roots while escaping from his female-dominated household. To Mike, a wife and three daughters aren’t “his loving family,” they’re “the other side” (and as the series title suggests, he’s outnumbered). If Tim Taylor had issues raising three rambunctious adolescent boys, Mike is tasked with finding a common ground between himself and his three girls, whom he treats as more baffling creatures than little green men.
But like Brad, Randy, and Mark before them, these girls are less like people than age-based personality types. There’s Kristin (Alexandra Krosney), a single mother still living with her parents. Middle child Mandy (Molly Ephraim) is the drama queen who pouts when her father admits he’s never heard of Glee. And Eve (Kaitlyn Dever), the youngest, is a tomboy whose close connection to her father is threatened by her blossoming young adulthood, marked by her desire to impress a boy with her soccer skills.
Unlike Tim Taylor, who used his shtick to fix his home both emotionally and mechanically, Mike was, in these first episodes, groping blindly, out of touch with his girls just as much as the teen boys who get mani/pedis with their girlfriends or go tanning. To Mike, real men don’t tan, they know how to change tires and use crossbows. Mike’s sense of alienation was compounded in the early episodes by the absences of his working wife Vanessa (Travis). With limited screen time, she was more a smirking parental shadow rather than a real presence, allowing Allen’s character all the more time to stumble his way toward happy conflict resolution with his daughters without help from mom.
As much as Last Man Standing rehashed familiar man’s man tropes, Tim Allen’s performance was unforgivably static. However, these lead-off episodes revealed a darker tone than the ‘90s programming Tim Allen might recall for us, while also setting up another source of humor in Today’s Teens. If this is not a new idea, as confused parents are an ABC staple, it is one that has worked before.