Grumpy Middle-Aged Man: A Review of Last Man Standing
- Friday, November 04, 2011
Television programming is based on the viewing habit, with weekly series' featuring familiar characters we like played by actors who we find intriguing.
In most comedies we expect a character will play true to form, with pretty static characters since the source of humor arises from their delightfully predictable behavior to that week's plot. We know Lucy Ricardo will scheme to get something she wants but will also get into a crazy situation she never saw coming.
The Seinfeld characters are so petty that they can create problems for themselves based on the tiniest provocation. Week after week for eight seasons, Tim Taylor, played by comedian Tim Allen in his star-making role, would let his testosterone-fueled character get him in Dutch with his family on Home Improvement.
Allen, after a ten-year foray into feature films, with both ups (Toy Story 1-3, Galaxy Quest, The Santa Clause) and downs (just about everything else including the Santa Clause sequels) has returned to a domestic sitcom, Last Man Standing. With it he has brought back everything we liked about his Tim Taylor character, except the laughs.
The new series practically begs to be compared with Home Improvement, so similar is its premise, so here goes. On the first show, Allen's character, Tim Taylor, hosted a This Old House type television series while raising three sons with his wife Jill.
On Last Man, Allen plays Mike Baxter, a marketing director for a sporting goods store, Outdoor Man. His wife, Vanessa, played by Nancy Travis, has been promoted, now requiring Mike to spend more time at home with their three daughters, rather than taking his frequent business trips. This forces him to confront more estrogen than he's comfortable with.
Their youngest daughter Eve (Kaitlyn Dever, wasted here after holding her own against Emmy-winner Margo Martingdale on last season's Justified) is a soccer-playing ‘tween. Middle daughter Mandy (Molly Ephraim) would rather be mall shopping than home, and eldest daughter Kristin is a single mom living at home with her toddler, the unlikely named Boyd.
We hadn't seen the boy's father by the first three episodes, certain to be an upcoming plot element, but this allows Mike to fill in as full-time grandpa. Travis' Vanessa is a good-looking fifty-something spouse who hasn't the dryly tolerant attitude that Patricia Richardson's Jill brought to the wife role. Her catchphrase, "I don't think so, Tim," became a way of expressing doubt about a course of action used for years by audience members. So far, Vanessa isn't that much of a foil for Mike.
On Home Improvement, Tim's antics and attitudes were tested each week by his wife and the boys, who were just boys being themselves. On the new show, the daughters are thinly drawn, stereotypically whiny and critical. This may bring Mike's reactions out more, but it makes the girls less rounded as characters.
The first series arrived at the height of the so-called men's movement, where books like Iron John sought to define men's primal selves in somewhat New Age terms. Tim Taylor's neighbor, the only partially glimpsed neighbor, Wilson, on the other side of the backyard fence, was always there to help him find the right male response to familial challenges. This basic formula remained surprisingly humorous through most of its run. The problem with Last Man Standing is that it simply lacks laughs.
It feels like Mike is fighting the last century's battles of the sexes when he asks, "Whatever happened to men?" He uses the Outdoor Man internet video blog to rant into the camera about male disenfranchisement and diminishment. In a few years, Mike, the crank should be e-mailing alarming but unverified exposés of government conspiracies.
When Eve asks for a ride to soccer practice, Mike scoffs, "Soccer, that's just Europe's covert war for the hearts and minds of America's kids." That might have been funny fifteen years ago, but has Mike ever heard the term, "Soccer Mom," dating from, like, 1996? Kristin doesn't want him to take little Boyd to daycare because he teaches the toddler to diss Obamacare. Rather than a clueless but funny dad, Allen now plays a grouch in the making, the kind of guy you meet at parties who's ready to buttonhole you and vent about some social or political subject unless you can find a way to excuse yourself. In other words, a boor.
Home Improvement came along just when the men's movement was making waves through society, inquiring into the true nature of the masculine gender. This coincided with a rising interest in do-it-yourself stores like Lowe's and Home Depot, mostly male zones. The title itself had a double meaning that hinted at the show's theme of Tim Taylor trying to figure out how to be a good husband and father, with a different challenge each week.
The series had the writing and acting talent to keep the show high in the ratings year after year and it made Allen the most highly paid television star of the day. The new show is too close to the original in concept to have a clear identity of its own and the writers are left with contrived plots and dialog. The third episode did have a funny and satiric take on day cares that are driven to de-masculinize boys at an early age in the goals of eliminating male-female differences. For a few moments it had comedic traction before collapsing back to sitcom shtick. Allen's embattled male act feels very crusty and wrinkled. Though he and his co-stars are all highly talented, they sadly have few laugh lines to keep the show standing high in the ratings.
*This review first published 11/4/2011
**Watch Last Man Standing Tuesdays on ABC
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