Tim Taylor (Tim Allen) sits in his garage, atop the rusted steel frame of what will eventually become a rebuilt classic Hot Rod. Tim, man’s man, master of this male domain, shifts invisible gears and grunts an imitation of how his prized car’s engine will one day sound. In the middle of this fantastic moment, in walks wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) with a knowing smile. “You were pretending to drive,” she chuckles, before snuggling up beside him.
This early moment in Home Improvement‘s first season encapsulates the premise: a husband and wife can share space, despite their differences. Tim is the car-worshipping, gadget-loving host of his own home improvement show, Tool Time, while Jill is the homemaker, taking care of her man along with their three boys, pre-teens Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan) and Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and seven-year-old Mark (Taran Noah Smith). This gendered contrast informs much of the show’s humor; and if this humor results from stock sitcom circumstances—the forgotten birthday, the ill-fated camping trip, the attempt at a romantic dinner while the game’s on—Tim and Jill are far from stock characters. Sharp writing and credible performances make their relationship as entertaining to watch as Tim’s repeated pratfalling.
The Complete First Season
US DVD: 23 Nov 2004
Beginning its eight-year run in 1992, Home Improvement was a kind of reverse Roseanne (also created by Matt Williams), centering on the man’s position in the home rather than the woman’s. Tim’s idea of his place in his home is as breadwinner and fix-it man, and unlike some more modern sitcom husbands—Everybody Loves Raymond‘s Ray Barone (Ray Romano), for example—he relishes this position. Not only does he go out of his way to make life easy as can be for Jill and the kids, he’s receptive to just about any of his family’s desires. The love shared by Tim and Jill and the awareness and understanding of both characters (especially Jill towards Tim) is exhilarating to see in light of a show like Raymond and especially considering that show’s popularity.
Tim’s determination to add “more power” to every household appliance or gardening tool speaks to his skewed sense of what it means to be a man (the souped up vacuum is a “man’s vacuum”), but, he also means to help out. By contrast, Ray is always lying his way out of watching the kids or attending his wife Deb’s (Patricia Heaton) book club. Though Tim also considers Jill’s interests For Women Only, the difference between the two couples is Jill’s relentless understanding of her husband’s obsessions.
If Deb rarely goes a scene without referring to her husband’s inadequacy as a father or a husband, Jill remains resilient and supportive. Tim’s destruction of the dishwasher in Home Improvement‘s pilot, for example, perfectly demonstrates her patience. “I’ll get the broom,” she sighs, after her kitchen counter explodes. It’s up to Tim to learn his lesson in his own way—Jill doesn’t snipe, but only waits for his apology, which he makes without conniving on her part. When Tim’s enthusiasm crosses into insensitivity—joking on an episode of Tool Time, for example, about her nighttime drooling—she makes clear her disapproval. When he brings a radio to dinner to hear the Pistons game, though, she laughs off his selfishness, joking about his “sports addiction.” No matter how infuriating Tim’s perpetual childishness might be, Jill assumes he means well.
And Tim demonstrates his sincerity time and again. In “Look Who’s Not Talking”, Jill is terrified at the thought of making a speech at a library fundraiser. Without a second thought, Tim enlists Mark to don some earrings and pretend to be part of the fundraising crowd to help Jill practice. In “Jill’s Birthday,” he surprises her with a video diary featuring important moments in her life, and in “Bubble, Bubble, Toil, and Trouble,” he assumes her wifely role while she takes a day off to relax in the spa it took him a month to install in her bathroom. Granted, such displays of affection invariably come after some giant Tim-disaster (forgetting her birthday, ruining her bathroom), but the important thing, for Jill anyway, is that he gets it—eventually.
Co-creator/producer David McFadzean notes during the DVD commentary for the pilot (one of three episode commentaries by McFadzean and co-creator/producer Carmen Finestra): “We tried to make the arguments between Tim and Jill as real as possible within the sitcom world. We wanted people to identify with them, [to say,] ‘Yeah, I’ve had that argument with my wife before.’” Back in ‘92, such low-risk arguments between sitcom couples were common. Roseanne and husband Dan (John Goodman) had their differences, but both were deeply involved in each other’s lives and the lives of their kids. Home Improvement carries on this theme of family togetherness. Today, when the most popular sitcom on television devotes an entire episode to the husband’s inability to say “I love you” to his wife, shows like Home Improvement (and indeed Roseanne—where’s that DVD?) reminds viewers of the good old days in family sitcom land, when sarcasm and cynicism weren’t primary comedy ingredients.
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