Last week, I said that Last Man Standing should make everybody poor, and that would fix many of the show’s problems. A few of you quibbled with this idea, suggesting that the Mike character would have been the type to do whatever necessary to make sure his family was provided for (including coming up with a great recipe for blue meth?!), and while I would suggest that simply trying really hard doesn’t always equal success, I’ll take your point. But I still think the show’s problem is a lack of stakes—or, as my wife put it while watching the first episode of the show she’s ever seen, the “WHO THE FUCK WOULD CARE ABOUT THIS BULLSHIT, GOD?!” problem—and I don’t necessarily think that the show needs to shift the fundamental beliefs of the central character or what “politics” (and I use the term very loosely) it has to accomplish that.
Here’s my week three suggestion, because this was another dire episode of television, and even the gifts of Tim Allen, Nancy Travis, Hector Elizondo, and Kaitlyn Dever weren’t enough to keep my interest from flagging and my hand from hitting myself in the face repeatedly: Make it so Mike’s long absence from the family has really screwed his relationships with the women in his life up.
Here’s the thing: I’d bet you anything this was in the original long-term plan for the show. It’s all right there! Mike wasn’t exactly a hands-on dad for quite some time there. His oldest daughter had a kid. His middle daughter is both emotionally needy and kind of slutty (though she’s just a teenager testing boundaries, I guess). His youngest daughter sometimes seems socially maladjusted. The thought occurred to me during the scene tonight where Mike was explaining to Kristin just why he was so hellbent on taking Boyd out for trick-or-treating for no apparent reason that the whole thing would make a lot more sense if he’d just never taken his girls trick-or-treating. If Mike’s realizing everything he missed while being a workaholic, then we at least have some conflict inherent to the show that’s about recognizable human relationships and not about, like, how bad it is that Kristin doesn’t want Boyd exposed to pagan death imagery, which what?
And I get that the show did a vague version of this, but it still felt watered down and repetitive. Pretty much everything in this show is already phoned in—like, one of the major thrusts of the episode tonight was the crackling revelation that women’s Halloween costumes have gotten sexier in the last few decades—but the one thing that might save at least some of this, the emotion, has mostly been forgotten about for no discernible reason. I don’t know that the show needs heart to work, exactly, but it sure seems like it’s going for heart at the end of every episode, when Mike has a heart-to-heart with one of his daughters (usually Kristin, which strengthens my belief that the show was originally going to be about how his absence had hurt his daughters, even as he’d made a comfortable life for them—classic TV writer problem!) or when one of the characters has a problem we’d forgotten was a problem solved out of nowhere, as Eve’s issues with Victor Blake were this week. He turned up, looking for all the world like a Disney Channel star (which he probably was), in a police officer’s costume, and he and Kaitlyn Dever—who got the only smiles of the episode—raced off into the night.
At this point, I’m primarily watching the show on the level of an unexpected found object, imagining what it will be like when the people behind whichever site succeeds Everything Is Terrible find the DVDs of this show 30 years from now and do weird edits of it. Where once I had hoped the writers might join up with the game actors and come up with not something new, exactly, but at least something that took the familiar sitcom tropes and put air in the tires, now I mostly just live for scenes like the one where the middle daughter (whose name I have never remembered because she’s not a one-dimensional character like everybody else on this show and is, indeed, not even a character at all) came down the stairs, wearing just a giant Garfield head. I like to sit there, watch these scenes, and imagine what my children, who will probably be in their late 20s in the year 2041, will make of the part where the future video compiler takes this scene, slows it way down, and adds a vaguely menacing soundtrack to make it at once hilarious and vaguely unsettling. Will they think I wasted too much time holding out hope for a show that would have felt stale in 1997? Will they, themselves, be resentful of the fact that their dad spent too much time watching TV and working when he should have been hanging out with them? Will they, too, fear Halloween’s pagan death imagery? Or will they have sworn off television altogether, as I should have done long ago?
It’s really something to think about, which is more than I can say for this show. At this point, I’m just waiting to get to the sixth week this thing is on the air, so I can call it DOA and move on with my damn life.
Let’s take the actual criticism to the…
- Okay, did anybody not see the “Mike brings home the wrong kid” plot coming? That was some Growing Pains level shit, there, and on Growing Pains, at least someone would have been slightly worried that a 2-year-old was wandering the night alone. Everybody here seemed to realize that the writers would figure out a way to get Boyd back in the third act. What’s killing this show is the utter lack of tension in every single scene, and here was a great chance to inject tension that was ruined by reaction shots of a toddler in a skeleton costume and wacky music and everybody involved just kind of shrugging and waiting for the deus ex machina to drop by in the form of two Asian-American caricatures who argued about whether or not it was racist for the husband to accuse the wife of being a bad driver. Ugh.
- Here’s your happy thought for the day: Hector Elizondo did a dance to “Monster Mash,” and then he revealed that his date for the night was Elvira—yes, the Elvira—for some reason. I’m seriously starting to think that Tim Allen and company are fucking with us on the “It’s really 1993 and you’re just confused” stuff. And if that’s the case, could they please return my nearly complete collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books to me, because you can get some serious cash for those things on eBay. (Okay, not “serious,” but more than I would have expected.)
- Middle daughter turns the giant Garfield costume into a sexy costume through sheer force of scissoring abilities, and somewhere Jim Davis weeps. And ogles, I guess. Also, how old is middle daughter supposed to be? 16, right? Should we be encouraging her objectification by laughing when she gets one over on good ol’ dad? What if Jonathan Taylor Thomas had turned up in a Garfield bikini on Home Improvement in one episode? What then? (I don’t really care about any of this. I’m just trying to stir up shit.)
- The Growing Pains 5000: (In which we replace one of the stock sitcom plots on this show with a stock sitcom plot from ‘80s series Growing Pains in hopes of making it, if not better, at least weirder. Ideally, we’ll swap Mike Seaver plots for Mike Baxter plots.) Today, we borrow from the earlier series’ fifth episode, “Superdad!” in which Mike Seaver is taking care of a dog for a friend, and it runs away. Naturally, he replaces the dog with another one he gets at the pet store. In this Last Man Standing, Mike Baxter, fearing Boyd will never return, heads to the local orphanage and grabs a kid who looks enough like him to hopefully fool Kristin. But when Kristin comes home at the same time that the Wong family returns the real Boyd, comic hilarity ensues, as Mike has to explain how he now has three toddlers—one of them Asian.
- The weird, buzzing sound of the studio audience was back, and I watched this one live! Doesn't the network notice that the audience (or the laugh track used to sweeten the audience) sounds like a SWARM OF INSECTS?
- Oh, right, Craig Feldspar from Malcolm In The Middle turned up as a neighbor who was so driven into sexual frenzy by Nancy Travis' sexy pirate attire that he promptly began clumsily stalking her. This is the natural response to anything that happens.
- Thanks to Myles McNutt for the screencap, which really made this whole effort worthwhile.