In his weekly webcam rant in this week’s episode, Mike Baxter—or “Tim Allen,” for those of you who don’t watch the show but know it stars Tim Allen, which is everybody—says that having daughters complicated his view on gender relations. Now, he wants to live in a world where women can do anything men can do—but they just don’t want to. It’s fitting that this moment comes in this episode, because this was the one where the show Last Man Standing sort of snapped into place. This isn’t a show I would watch week to week if I weren’t covering it, even after this episode, but this was an episode that finally developed a point-of-view and make Mike more than a raging asshole. It was, in short, kind of fun, even if it’s still a show that feels like it could have gone on the air in 1996 with few (if any changes) made to it.
The point-of-view thing is most critical. Up until this point, the show has seemingly been about how Mike is terrified of a world where women are running things and also of technology. There’s a way to make that work, but the show would have had to make Mike much more of an asshole than Tim Allen is apparently comfortable playing, so every episode would abruptly close with Mike realizing that, aw, his little girls were really growing up or something like that. In “Co-Ed Softball,” Mike’s still somewhat suspicious of these things, but he’s also a guy with three daughters, who wants them to go to college and kick the world’s ass. So he’s conflicted. He’s got the one side at home, and he’s got the ragingly masculine side at work from his boss, Ed. Thus, he’s the guy caught in the middle, and we get to play out the traditional sitcom dynamics of having him say, “Oh, hey, I still love my daughters, even if I think the world has gotten too feminine.” It’s a touch more Archie Bunker, and while it’s not the greatest setup in the world, it mostly works.
In its own way, making Mike the man in the middle also goes a long way toward solving the stakes issue. It’s not an immediate solution, since we don’t really care enough about Mike yet to want to see him go one way or the other in this central conflict, but at least there’s something happening that’s more than Tim Allen saying something ultra-manly, Nancy Travis rolling her eyes as he struts around the stage, and the audience of bees buzzing its approval loudly. (Come to think of it, the bee noises were gone tonight, too. I don’t know if that’s because this episode was genuinely better written—which it was, both on a story and joke level—or if it’s because the laugh track sweetening machine is properly calibrated this week. But I appreciate the effort either way.) And, what’s more, this episode also manages to make the three daughters distinct characters in their own right, with Kristin being the smart one whose life was sidetracked by having a kid, Mandi being the dumb one with a heart of gold, and Eve being the sporty one who’s closest to her dad.
Now, if you’ll notice, this is basically a gender-flipped version of the kids on Home Improvement, where Tim Taylor had one son who was pretty smart, one son who was pretty dumb, and a son who was closer to Jill than to Tim. Now, Home Improvement isn’t an all-time classic, but it was a better show than Last Man Standing has been to the present point, so it mostly makes sense that the show would want to ape it. What’s interesting is that the show is gradually evolving into something that’s literally Home Improvement with girls, instead of just having some broad, surface similarities. The various characters are all evolving to become more like their counterparts from the earlier show, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Hector Elizondo starts hiding behind random objects and spouting sage wisdom any week now. (Actually, I think the kid-whose-name-I-can’t-remember is supposed to fill the Wilson role—albeit unintentionally—and give Mike the advice he needs, but the kid’s failed to make much of an impression one way or the other.)
The stories this week were mostly serviceable. The sporting goods store’s staff votes to see if they’ll allow a woman onto their softball team for the big game of the year. When they do vote to do so, Ed’s frothing mad, but Mike sees an opportunity to let Eve, who could use a life lesson or two, apparently, onto the team. She pitches a great game, and though his pride is temporarily wounded about not being the pitcher to deliver the big win, he’s also damn proud of his daughter for being the one who did it. Meanwhile, Mandi works on her college application essays, trying to focus long enough to crank out something about how much she loves Virginia Woolf. Except it was Kristin who wrote that, obviously, as she realizes that having Boyd didn’t mean her dreams of becoming a doctor were put on hold. By episode’s end, Mandi has written an essay about how Kristin is her hero, and Mike is looking into schools within driving distance for Kristin to attend—all of which have better ratings than Vanessa’s beloved Ohio State. Aw.
Look. This isn’t sitcom rocket science by any means. But it’s a reasonable update of the form, carried out by people who know what they’re doing and have figured out a way to play to their talented cast’s strengths. (Even the actresses playing the two older daughters are more talented than I gave them credit for initially.) I still doubt I’ll write about an entire season of this show, simply because it’s difficult to see what will be worth writing about here, if it continues following its current path. But here’s hoping the powers that be behind the show look at this episode and what made it work as well as it did and apply that going forward. Making Mike the man caught in the middle frees the show up to tell more realistic stories with the women at his home, and it frees the show up to make Elizondo play an insane lunatic who shoots people in the leg with paintballs, something he does well and with high spirits. This feels much closer to the initial pilot script I read that gave me hopes for the show, and it also feels like something that, if it turned into a big hit, wouldn’t fill me with rage. Somebody somewhere is thinking hard about how to make this show better, and that’s always appreciated.
- On top of it all, there were a few lines that made me chuckle. Granted, one was the scene where Ed says that those in favor of having women on the softball team should vote “co-ed,” while those who preferred men should just write, “Ed.” Juvenile, but sometimes I’m easy like that.
- Mike is a political person with thoughts and feelings: Mike voted for Obama! He’s been disappointed in his job performance so far, however.
- The Growing Pains 5000: Today, we travel all the way back to season four for “Fortunate Son,” in which Mike Seaver takes a job at an all-night convenience store but becomes concerned his boss is showing him favoritism because he’s white. In this new “Co-Ed Softball,” Ed somehow becomes the coach of a 9-10-year-old girls softball team, but he needs a pitcher. He invites Mike to join the team as the pitcher, and hilarity ensues when Mike suspects Ed is treating him better than the other girls on the team because he’s a grown man and not a young girl.