When the biggest draw to a sitcom episode in 2013 is that it features a few minutes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas then, well, that show may have a problem.
Last Man Standing isn’t what you’d call a “good” television program but it isn’t the worst thing that airs on Friday nights, either (stick around afterward for Malibu Country, Reba McEntire’s newest show that’s practically a carbon copy of her older one but with a more baffling set of characters). It was the only surviving program of ABC’s awful 2011 “mancession” trio that included Work It and Man Up! and it was clear why. The show’s main premise about a man struggling to stay masculine in a woman’s world is problematic but such an absurd notion that it was hard to find it truly offensive and could be easily ignored. Last Man Standing isn’t a show for everyone but it certainly worked for some viewers—namely, I’m assuming, viewers who had been bemoaning Tim Allen’s absence from television or viewers who equally enjoyed watching a grown man angrily vlog about guns and enjoyed guest appearances from both Kim Kardhasian and NASCAR driver Tony Stewart.
But there was retooling done in the second season and my fascination with train wrecks perked up. There was some recasting (farewell, random Jonas brother) combined with some ill advised attempts at pushing the envelope (politics, racism, gay slurs, etc.) but for the most part the writers seemed to take a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” approach to this entire season. Sometimes this worked and the show was amusing to watch (albeit not always in the way the writers intended) but mostly it was just a convoluted and boring mess—much like tonight’s season finale.
The main story behind this episode is that Mandy, the popular daughter obsessed with makeup, has to decide between two colleges. It’s a perfectly acceptable storyline for a family sitcom, especially because it means she’ll have to decide between staying around her family or leaving for a different state. It even brings her boyfriend Kyle into the equation. However, the episode mostly just takes the opportunity to make jokes about how the parents just can’t believe that their daughter was smart enough to get into any college. Mike would prefer she stay in Denver because it’s cheaper and because he doesn’t think she’ll actually last in a better University (in this case, Laguna Beach University) so he recruits Kyle to help convince her to stay. It backfires and the two crazy kids decide to both go to California but ultimately Mandy decides to stay—at least for a year—and status quo is maintained because, afterall, this show will probably have a third season.
The dim-witted but pretty girl is a common character and it can be hit or miss generally depending on if the writers actually sneak some depth in there (see: Dalia on Suburgatory and even Brittany on Daria) or if they’re content to just have her be the butt of jokes. Mandy usually falls into the latter category. There is some heart to her relationship with Kyle (though I did also think that about Kyle and Mandy’s sister, Kristin, during season one when they dated) but not much else. Perhaps it’s because of the overly masculine nature that engulfs everything on screen (I mean, Mike even often insultingly refers to the two young men on the show as women simply because they’re like, vegan or don’t like guns or something; it’s embarrassing to watch) but every joke tonight that essentially boiled down to “she’s stupid” came off less funny and more mean-spirited.
The oldest daughter Kristin gets a slightly better story this week: She begins to question her life choices and realizes it’s time to grow up, get a better job, and move out of her father’s house. She does manage to get a better job—she goes from waitressing at the diner to waitressing at an upscale restaurant—with the help of Jonathan Taylor Thomas. His overhyped appearance is so mundane that it’s hilarious. He exchanges some awkward winking-at-the-camera dialogue with Tim Allen (“Don’t I know you from somewhere?”) much in the same way Richard Karn did a few weeks ago (“Don’t you have three sons, not three daughters?”) and then he’s gone as quickly as he appeared. In maybe the only decent scene of the night, Kristin refuses to move in with her boyfriend (slash her son’s father) because she doesn’t want to keep living under a man’s roof. By the end of the episode, she ends up inviting Ryan to live with her instead and, honestly, it’s probably the most progressive thing you could ask for from Last Man Standing.
Eve, the youngest, gets the lamest storyline and basically just spends the entire episode playing with a rifle for Junior ROTC. The Eve character is the biggest tragedy of the entire program, especially because she’s played by Kaitlyn Dever who regularly stole the show on Justified. Eve is her father’s favorite daughter, and he’s not hesitant to make this known, because she’s a mini version of him: a Republican tomboy who plays sports and raises the flag every morning. Again, she’s a character that wouldn’t be so bad if not for the rampant masculinity. Mike likes Eve because she’s the most like a guy and often writes off his other daughters because they’re just too girly. It’s unnerving to watch at times.
Regardless, “College Girl” wasn’t a terrible half-hour. It was predictable, it made me roll my eyes at times, but it did its job as a season finale. Some characters, like Kristin, made big changes to move the show into a different place if/when it returns and others, like Mandy, only took baby steps to maintain familiarity. Basically, the worst thing about “College Girl” is that it’s entirely forgettable.
- There were a few jokes about Ryan’s worry that Kristin would move to an, ahem, black neighborhood—he described it as a neighborhood with check cashing places and liquor stores and, of course, it was near Martin Luther King Blvd. The writers made an attempt to subvert it by having the one recurring black character also express worry about the neighborhood but it just fell so flat that I don’t know what to say about it.
- For what it’s worth, Jonathan Taylor Thomas was alright (I did kind of enjoy the reference about how middle children always crack jokes for attention) but I much prefer his Christian-Slater-in-Heathers impression on Veronica Mars.
- I really hope that Last Man Standing retools itself every season, or at least continues recasting characters, until it falls into the same trap as ‘Til Death.