His Wife and Kids
Tim: Other tool guys ask why. This tool man asks, “Why not?”
Jill: This tool man’s wife asks, “Why me?”
—“A House Divided”
Never has the Tool Man’s philosophy been so succinctly declared. Tim (Tim Allen) is tinkering with the garbage disposal unit to create a turbo-charged crap guzzler. His exchange with Jill (Patricia Richardson) reminds us that Home Improvement—its fourth season fresh on DVD (with only a blooper reel as an extra)—refused to rest on its laurels. Following his tinkering, this time the disposal doesn’t blow up.
Home Improvement here shifts away from its focus on Tim’s conventional masculinity to the family’s “development.” As much as Tim’s sons—Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Mark (Taran Noah Smith)—matured over the previous seasons, here they become a thematic center as well. The boys’ plotlines used to revolve around Brad and Randy picking on Mark (he stuck close to his mom, learning how to cook and clean, unlike his tool-obsessed father, while his brothers tossed the ball around with dad and helped him build his prized hot-rod).
This year, the boys begin to break away from each other. Mark remains diffident and drippy and Brad is still a sports/girls/tools-mad bully, but Randy proves adept at schoolwork and interested in the arts (for which he showed some affinity in earlier years). Tim and Jill’s discovery of the kids’ markedly different personalities mean they must learn how to address each as an individual, and not just “the boys.” Even if their situations are familiar, the show doesn’t gloss over their teenage complexities or treat them as plot points for their parents.
In “A Marked Man,” Mark, the seemingly well-adjusted youngest son, is caught stealing a knife from a hardware store, Tim’s reaction is explosive, even shocking: “You stole from two of my best friends. They’re like family to you and this is how you treat them?” His screaming at Mark re-establishes his proclivity for unthought-out overreaction (evident in previous disagreements with Jill), but in a way that’s not so funny. When he eventually realizes he drilled Mark too hard, he attempts to apologize. Mark accepts, but shrugs away uncomfortably as Tim places a comforting hard on his shoulder. Tim’s nervous hand-rubbing and Mark’s refusal to make eye contact demonstrate a complex, even ambiguous resolution.
Tim faces similar difficulties when Randy expresses jealousy over Tim’s close relationship with Brad. In “Quibbling Siblings”, Tim selects Brad as his sidekick on his cable show, Tool Time. Brad loves the attention, considering himself quite the TV star, but Tim’s praise of his more macho son’s capabilities fuel Randy’s resentment of them both. “You should be happy for your brother,” Tim says. Randy’s retort: “You’re right, Dad, maybe I should just throw him a parade. His head’s so big, he could be a float.” Again, Tim’s doesn’t swoop in Cliff Huxtable-style to set right his son’s frustrations. That takes some doing. Where naïve Mark drew sympathy, Randy’s annoyance makes him seem just like his dad.
Tim eventually works out that this trait links him and Randy just as tool-love does him and Brad. But, aware of Randy’s delicate self-esteem and intellectualism, which he often uses to make sport of his dad, Tim is forced to reconsider his approach. It’s a continuing pattern—Mark responds to Tim’s sweet and forgiving side, while Randy responds to sarcasm and Brad to direct discipline: Tim must adjust as each problem arises for each boy.
This ability is granted a convincing backstory. In “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s Just Irresponsible”, Tim rages at his brother, Marty (William O’Leary), for thinking about leaving his wife and child. Tim reveals to neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman) that he acted as parent to young Marty throughout much their childhood. Perhaps, he thinks, he didn’t “raise” We begin to understand Tim’s temper and, at the same time, his occasional willingness to let his boys run wild. They need discipline, but they won’t, he knows, be kids forever. In understanding the parents, we can better understand the kids and vice versa.
Resolution of these problems occurs within each show’s running time. It’s classic sitcom stuff on the one hand, but also reveals genuine interest in Roseanne‘s example, rather than Cosby‘s. Parenting can be difficult, and family is by definition an ever-changing experience.