Last Man Standing would be a better show if everybody on it was poor.
Okay, maybe not poor. But it would be a better show if you ever got the sense that these people had struggled with money at any point in their lives at all. As it is, Mike and Vanessa seem like they’ve been more or less comfortable for a long, long while, and comfort is the enemy of dramatic storytelling. Comedy doesn’t necessarily need to have high stakes to succeed, but there almost need to be some stakes somewhere in the premise. (The best exception I can think of at the moment is Seinfeld.) Everybody Loves Raymond pursued low stakes on an episode-by-episode basis, but the underlying stakes throughout the series were the idea that this family could fall apart in an instant. Cheers and Taxi and Community are all about people who might never succeed. Parks And Recreation and Mary Tyler Moore are about women who try to carve a new niche for themselves against all odds.
And then you have the really high-stakes comedies. These shows are harder to do well because the temptation to utterly fall down into overly dramatic histrionics is always present. But when a show like Roseanne nails the idea that this family might have each other, but they’re also perpetually on the edge of collapsing into economic ruin, that can be bracing and invigorating to watch. Back when I wrote about ‘70s sitcoms, I posited some differences between the MTM people and Norman Lear’s factory, and I think another overriding one is this: MTM’s shows (which would include every show listed in the first paragraph not named Seinfeld as either a direct production or one produced by people from that lineage) are shows where the stakes are highest in a character sense, while Lear’s shows were shows where the stakes are higher in a situational sense. The best of Lear’s shows—All In The Family—worked because it pitted liberal family members against conservative ones in a battle for the soul of the family and the country. It reflected debates around U.S. dinner tables back at those watching television.
I’m not saying Last Man Standing needs to get as political as a Lear show or as Roseanne to be good. I am saying that, like so many other comedies this season, it doesn’t really work because all of the characters suffer from “TV writer problems.” TV writer problems are the sorts of problems that could reasonably be expected to really affect only those in the top few economic brackets. The characters never seem to want for anything, nor do they worry about, say, putting food on the table or their kids hating them for not being able to afford a school trip. The characters, who are free from want in every other area of their lives, mostly make up stupid bullshit to get worried about, like how hard it is to be a man in modern society. You can see where I’m going with this.
There’s a vast gulf between the people who produce television and most of the people who watch it. While Home Improvement was a show about upper-middle class to upper-class people, it always maintained some degree of taking place in the world the vast majority of Americans lived in. Tim Taylor couldn’t always get everything he wanted, and there were choices made about how to spend the money the family had. They weren’t poor, but they also weren’t super-rich, and that increased the relatable nature of the show. The Taylors weren’t just like you, but there was enough overlap to make it easy to watch them and say, “Yeah, I get that.”
Last Man Standing sometimes feels like it wants to be a Lear show. When Mike rails against his grandson’s overly progressive and hippie-dippie day care, we’re meant to agree with him that a little boy wearing a princess dress is terrifying. Similarly, when Kristin tells Mike that she doesn’t want him saying “stupid”—the S-word—around her son, he says the S-word is, instead, socialism, a joke that’s in a vacuum and doesn’t really give us a good sense of Mike beyond the idea that he knows political buzzwords (maybe that’s the point). I have no problem with one of the main characters on a show being fundamentally conservative. The show can view that character with something approaching scorn, like All In The Family, or it can hold him up as a champion of good, pure American values, like King Of The Hill, and still be good. (Tellingly, both of those shows held their liberal and conservative characters up for derision from time to time.) But injecting politics into a vacuum, as this show does, just makes Mike feel like kind of a jackass for no apparent reason, and not even because he’s fundamentally conservative. He’s just needlessly reactionary, and, crucially, we’re supposed to think he’s right until the forced resolution where he realizes that sometimes, it is okay to ask for forgiveness from people.
But beyond that, Last Man Standing just feels like idiots doing things because they have nothing else to worry about. Vanessa fearing that she looks like a grandmother and having her daughter help her get a makeover at the mall starts in the sort of place that anybody can identify with—where did my youth go?—and also ends there, but the long middle section seems like the sort of solution somebody with a comfortable amount of money—like, say, a TV writer—would employ to overcome their anxieties. And I’ve had just about enough of shows where the characters struggle to get their kids into just the right day care or preschool or where they alienate the people running the day care or preschool and have to beg to get their kids back in because that’s such an upper-class/Los Angeles problem to have.
Put another way: The drama and comedy of where Boyd’s going to spend the day while his mother and grandparents work become instantly much more compelling if the day care he was in was the only one the family could afford. It becomes more compelling if there’s a chance Mike could lose his job because he brought his kid to work. It becomes more compelling if the company’s teetering on the brink and can’t afford the lost productivity of a child crawling around. The show wouldn’t need to do all of these things, but just one of them—or even half of one of them—would tear it out of a TV writer problem and turn it into a real one. Then, Mike’s reactionary nature can be both an essential character trait and a character flaw, something that is necessary for him to be true to himself but also something that gets him into trouble. (And now we’re in Archie Bunker territory.)
TV writer problems grate because, ultimately, if they aren’t solved, nothing will matter. They’re minor and pointless. If Vanessa doesn’t look good in the same clothes as her daughter, so what? She’s still loved by her husband and able to realize she’s aging damn gracefully. If Mike never apologizes to Joel David Moore (and I’m trying to think of something I’ve legitimately enjoyed that he’s been involved with and drawing a blank), he’ll just find another day care for his grandson. For all the problems something like 2 Broke Girls has, at least it takes place in a world where the characters have to struggle for something. Last Man Standing takes place in a world where everybody’s happy and nobody has to struggle for anything ever. And while that might seem like the ultimate way to ensure everybody can forget the real world and just settle in to laugh, it has the exact opposite effect and only makes the real world seem that much more present.
- I suppose you’ll ask if it was funny now. Not really? It was probably funnier than either of last week’s episodes, but the most it provoked out of me were a few mild grins, mostly because Hector Elizondo, Tim Allen, and Nancy Travis all work well together. Allen and Travis, in particular, already have a nice comedic chemistry that I hope the show finds a way to exploit.
- All of this talk about stakes has me thinking about Modern Family, which is another fairly low-stakes comedy. But the more I think about it, the show’s first season—still its best—always carried with it the hint that there had been some real strife in this family, strife that had caused rifts between the characters before. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to sell some of the more poignant moments between, say, Claire and Mitchell.
- I found the scene where Mike cackled about Boyd calling the kid in the dress “stupid” really dumb. Having Mike laugh at a poor kid just makes him seem like an asshole. I’d say that’s the point, but the show never calls him on it.
- Okay, I found the scene at the end where Mike and Vanessa discussed her memories of being a young mother and the actual reality of it kind of sweet. This is one of those scenes with that comedic chemistry I was talking about.
- Weird things: The studio audience/sweetening laugh track was mixed very strangely in the East Coast broadcast of this, so it sounded like a tin can full of bees. I thought perhaps it was just my Slingbox acting up, but I’m assured by others who watched that, no, it really did sound like that. If the sound of laughter on these shows was replaced by the sound of angry bees, that might be an improvement on many of them.