It’s time for “Where My Lasties At?” our periodic recurring feature in which Todd VanDerWerff tries to convince you Last Man Standing is better than you have decided it is and you mostly stare at him in disbelief. Enjoy the show.
Hey, everybody. It’s Todd. Where my Lasties at? Wow, so many of you!
I wanna talk a little bit about obligation parenting. I don’t remember where I read about this, but it was almost assuredly a blog post somewhere. Anyway, the idea is that there are these two divergent ways that parents can approach the raising of their children. The first is that children are being raised to eventually become the parents to their own parents, that we have kids so we have somebody to take care of us in our old age, whether by moving us into their homes or paying for us to live in an assisted living facility of some sort. The second theory is that parents have children in order for those children to live lives the parents never could. Under this theory, children are less important as eventual caretakers for their parents than they are as extensions of them, people who can be fuller versions of their parents than said parents ever could. I’m sure you’re aware of both types of parents and just how annoying both types can be when they take things to an extreme. I’m also sure you’re aware that almost all modern parenting is a mixture of the two approaches—we want our kids to have great, rewarding lives, but we also want them to be there for us when we have no teeth. The question is more about which side of that coin you value over the other, and the answer to that question can be very revealing.
Anyway, “Parenting Bud,” the latest episode of Last Man Standing, isn’t really about whether the Baxters believe in one side of the coin or the other. It’s just sort of assumed that children have certain obligations to their parents as they age, and in “Parenting Bud,” Mike reluctantly realizes that he is now obligated to look after his father in the wake of Bud getting mugged while closing up his marijuana shop. (Because Last Man Standing takes place in Colorado, it is now doing plotlines about an old man who runs a marijuana shop. See what you miss when you don’t watch this show?) Mike’s solution to this—as to all things, I would imagine—is to get his dad a gun. But Bud doesn’t want a gun. He says his eyesight is going. Yet when he goes hunting with Ed, he’s able to bag five rabbits at a distance of 50 yards. Clearly, something else is going on.
The thing you have to understand if you’re going to enjoy Last Man Standing—and I’m not saying you should—is that it’s best appreciated less as a story about what it seems to be (a bold man standing up for masculinity in these troubled times) and more as a sort of multi-camera sitcom take on the dark antihero drama. You can trace most modern TV antiheroes back to Archie Bunker, of course, and Last Man Standing would dearly like to be this generation’s All In The Family. But I look at Mike Baxter and see less Archie Bunker than I do, say, Walter White or Tony Soprano. Everybody forced to live with him loves him, but only begrudgingly. They also kind of hate him, and the show itself is constantly looking for ways to teach him lessons about how life is more complex than his simple, Fox News-regurgitated answers to people’s problems.
Basically, the show tries to play the dark antihero drama for laughs, while also making its “antihero” a cable news personality who’s somehow been given fictional life. (It’s worth pointing out that the show is usually at its best when Mike gets to bounce off Ryan, the show’s liberal counterpart to Mike’s conservatism. The series’ central theme is that life is more complicated than political talking points, and maybe we should just all learn to get along and help each other. It feels better balanced when that’s playing at both sides, and I say that as a walking liberal talking point.) To that end, Last Man Standing often plays for about 15 minutes of its running time as a rancid, awful program about rancid, awful people, who only know how to relate to each other through passive-aggression. Then, in the last five minutes, it reveals what the story has really been about all of this time, and both Mike and the audience learn a little something about how important it is to treat the fellow human beings in your life as people, rather than those to bludgeon with your received wisdom.
Anyway, “Parenting Bud” is pretty much a textbook example of how the show pulls off this particular structure. Those first 15 minutes can feel occasionally dire—there’s a joke from Bud about getting a manicure while in Vietnam that’s really just awful—but by the time everything gets pulled back together by the episode’s end, the show’s point is deeper and more complicated than Mike might want to admit. Bud doesn’t want a gun because he was so shattered by killing other human beings in Vietnam that he vowed to never again kill anything on two legs (except maybe an ostrich, because he’d just have to take the opportunity). He’s willing to let someone who wants to rob his stash from him have it if they want it that badly, more than he wants to kill someone over it. (Another way “Parenting Bud” is a textbook example of the show’s structure: It has something like five things that kind of look like plots if you squint but are mostly excuses for the characters to riff, until they all come together in the scene where Mike and Bud talk, and you realize how surprisingly skillfully the show set all of this up.)
One of the uneasy tensions at the heart of Last Man Standing is the idea that Mike thinks of almost everything in terms of buzzwords, and one of those things is masculinity. Military service, of course, is a major part of what Mike sees as a masculine code, but he himself never served. What’s more, his own father, who did serve, did his best to make sure that Mike would never have to go into the military, because he didn’t want what happened to him in Vietnam to happen to his kid. (In addition, Mike and his wife, Vanessa, have felt a decided uneasiness about the thought of their own youngest daughter joining the military, even though she’s feinted in that direction a number of times and seemingly wants to do it.) True masculinity in the world of Last Man Standing isn’t about checking off a series of boxes. It’s about finding a way to be the best possible person you can be and finding a way to build a better world for those you love, whatever that might mean. Which loops us all the way back around to obligations versus freedoms. Bud wanted a better life for Mike, and because he did, Mike’s now around to take care of his father at a time when he’s starting to need it. Funny how that works sometimes.
The last time I checked out Last Man Standing, I said that for all of the things that rub me the wrong way about it from time to time—like the way that Mike and Vanessa seem like they’re staying married mostly out of spite at this point—I keep watching because it’s one of the few shows out there that’s telling stories about the kind of people I grew up around. And, indeed, if the show’s Facebook page is any indication, it’s wildly popular with Red Staters and the like. But what I like is that it digs a little deeper than the sorts of easy jokes that mark Mike as a buffoon to someone like me and a subversive hero to someone like my dad. Instead, it’s trying to tell stories about what it means to want the world to stand still, just a little bit, when everything is racing forward at light speed. Last Man Standing has problems, and it’s a deeply uneven show from week to week, but as long as it keeps nailing that dynamic, I’ll keep watching.