What do you get when you take comedian Tim Allen, add a “manly” work environment with a work place friendship with a guy with facial hair, three kids (including one who makes with the wise cracks), and a real actress to play his wife? That’s right, you get Home Improvement, Allen’s 1991-99 series with Richard Karn, Zachary Ty Bryant, Jonathon Taylor Thomas, Taran Noah Smith, and Patricia Richardson.
Now take that show and turn the three boys into three girls, make the work place friend with facial hair into his boss (and friend) with facial hair, and replace Patricia Richardson with Nancy Travis, and what do you get? Tim Allen’s new show Last Man Standing.
In Last Man Standing, Allen plays Mike Baxter, the Marketing Director of a chain of sporting goods stores owned by Ed Alzate (Hector Elizondo), who also happens to be one of his best friends. In the past this has meant travelling to various places around the globe to shoot ads for their catalogues. However the catalogue is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the Internet Age, and Ed needs Mike to focus more on the website. The website includes videos for demonstrations of the merchandise, but Mike turns these into personal rants with only passing reference to the merchandise, but that doesn’t matter since his rants generate hits for the website, and as one of his younger employees tells Ed, “Hits are good.”. Though Ed is willing to let Mike go back on the road for the catalogue, he decides that maybe he should spend more time with his wife and daughters.
At home, Mike has to deal with his wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) a normally level-headed woman who sometimes goes a bit overboard, and his three daughters. Kristin (Alexandra Krosney) is his oldest, a 20 year-old single mom (she has a life-long memory of her prom in the form of her two year-old son Boyd) who works as a waitress and is trying to go back to college. Middle daughter is Mandy (Molly Ephraim), a self-centered 17 year-old “girly girl” who loves to shop (as long as she’s spending her parents’ money), hang out with her boyfriend Travis and update her website, Mandyland. Finally there’s Eve (Kaitlyn Dever). She’s her father’s favourite largely because she a tomboy interested in all of the things he’s interested in, including sports and guns.
The most recent episode of Last Man Standing is a fairly typical one. There are two plotlines, a “Home” plotline and a “Work” plotline with the “Home” plotline being the dominant one of the two. This time around the story focuses on Mike always being the “good cop” of the parents in their relationship with their daughters – the one who says “yes” to whatever they want – while Vanessa feels that she’s forced onto the role of the “bad cop” – the one who always has to say “no”. This might have been fine when Mike was on the road so much but now that he’s back home it’s causing problems. One of the problems is that Mandy wants to enter the Denver audition for a reality show, America’s Next Hot Teen Model. There’s probably only going to be 10,000 girls there so she figures she’s got a pretty good shot. Her mom forbids it but Mike figures why not, since she’s too short anyways. Eventually Vanessa browbeats him into saying no as well. But that’s not enough to stop Mandy from doing what she wants to do. She enlists Kristin and Eve into helping her shoot some photos for a portfolio, but her full blown diva attitude alienates them and they walk out, without a photo being taken. Even that doesn’t stop Mandy. She can take her own photos with a remote control, and proceeds to do some shots that she thinks will work. Then she decides to do something a bit more provocative, and takes off her top. Of course it’s fine (as far as she’s concerned) because she’s got here hands over her breasts and you can’t see anything except the bottom of them sometimes.
Of course her parents find out – Kristin finds the pictures on the camera – and they both go ballistic. Pictures like these will get out and they have the potential to harm her future prospects if an employer or someone else finds them. They take the SD Card from the camera, but Mandy is one step ahead of them; she’s emailed the photos to her boyfriend Travis’s phone! So Mike has to go to Travis’s house. He’s practicing his trombone so his mother answers the door. When Mike mentions that the photos involve Mandy not wearing her top – even though nothing was showing – Travis’s mother calls the photos pornography, and says she should have known better than to allow Mandy in her house because she comes from such an “immoral” family. Proof of their immorality is that Kristin had a baby out of wedlock. Mike gets very angry at her over that, and rather than simply taking the pictures off the camera before Travis had the chance to see them, he drops the phone into a vase full of water. Which, as we find out, is not nearly as extreme as what Vanessa would have done if the woman had called Krisitin and Mandy immoral to her face; Vanessa says she would have “cut her.”
The Workplace plot of the show always takes second place to the Home storyline. In this episode, Ed is feeling left out because Mike is making marketing decisions (he is the marketing director) like moving the parkas out front in the stores and moving the fishing vests back – well it is nearly winter and fishing season is over. He feels like he’s losing some control of his business so he decides to do some marketing of his own. To promote the store’s selection of snowmobiles, he hires some local models – his “snowmo-bunnies” – to dress in fur bikinis and talk to customers. Initially Mike is fine with this – at least he is when he sees the sales figures that the models are ringing up – but he eventually ends the promotion before Ed wants it to end (when all of the snowmobiles are sold). It seems that in his argument with Mandy over her entering the America’s Next Hot Teen Model auditions she brought up the calendars featuring scantily clad models that he can’t get enough of. He said that “They aren’t my daughter,” to which she responded, “They’re somebody’s daughters.” It doesn’t hit home until he discovers that one of Ed’s “snowmo-bunnies” is a girl who went to school with Kristin. Needless to say, Ed isn’t happy about yet another decision being taken away from him, and all of his feelings come out. He’s afraid that Mike is trying to force him out of his own company, and that he’s at the age his father was when he retired. Retirement killed Ed’s father. Actually it was the husband of the woman that Ed’s father was having an affair with who killed him, but he wouldn’t have had time for that if he hadn’t retired. Mike reassures Ed that he’s not trying to force him out of the company and the whole crew at the store has a birthday party for him. That restores Ed to his normal, cranky, self as he complains about breaking the “no birthday party rule”, then about the cake and about their present (they had his chair reupholstered).
Last Man Standing is a pretty bad show that is getting pretty good ratings and a full season order because Tim Allen is in it. The three daughters are a pretty standard set of TV tropes; the smart tomboyish one, the self-centered shopping obsessed one, and the one trying to get her life on track. They’re a cookie cutter assortment of problems that could be fitted into just about any family sitcom. They really don’t have any discernable character traits beyond those that define the stereotype. Nancy Travis is fine as Mike’s wife Vanessa, but Vanessa is no Jill Taylor because Travis isn’t given the same sort of material that Patricia Heaton was given to work with, even at the start. As for Hector Elizondo, well casting him in this role seems like such a waste of a first rate character actor in a role that could be played by just about anyone.
The writing of this series shows little in the way of originality. It wouldn’t have been hard to take these characters and this concept and give it a real twist that would the people more “real” with more than one dimension. They have had solid situations to deal with – a teen taking inappropriate pictures of herself; “too sexy” Halloween costumes; a tomboy who wants to get a particular boy to “notice” her – but their approach to these situations has scarcely pushed the envelope in either developing their characters in these situations or taking a different direction. They seem most interested in going for the cheap and easy laugh. My big concern is how many of these decisions are flowing from series star Tim Allen through the Writers’ Room and onto the screen. Sure, I know that this show and this character fits into ABC’s current efforts to show the problems that face affluent married employed white men in modern society as comedy. And yes, I do get that part of the way to do that is to recycle a well remembered character (someone who is a lot like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor) that fits right into that mould. But I think it does a disservice to the audience, because the show isn’t funny, and it does a disservice to its star.
You see, my big problem with Last Man Standing is that it’s not a property that is going to stretch Tim Allen’s acting ability. See here’s the shocking thing; I happen to think that Tim Allen has some acting ability. Oh he’s no Kelsey Grammer, let alone a Tom Hanks, but he is personable and shows more range as an actor than Roseanne Barr ever did (there’s a reason why Roseanne’s filmography is a tiny as it is – she’s a lousy actress). Maybe he couldn’t replace Steve Carell on The Office (but that might have been something to see if just for one episode) but he could have given us something new that represents the next step in his development as an actor. Instead, Allen is in a property that is a bad retread of what he did before on Home Improvement. And a car guy like Tim Allen should know that a retread rarely performs as well as a new tire. I’m sure that barring a catastrophic drop in ratings this show is going to be back next season. I just don’t think it should be. I just wish that Tim Allen would have waited for something better to come along. He deserves it, and we, as an audience, deserve it as well.