This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff, who’ll review the show week to week, and Carrie Raisler talk about Last Man Standing.
Last Man Standing debuts tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. Eastern with its first two episodes airing over the course of an hour.
Todd: There are a lot of things worth hating about Last Man Standing. It’s not funny. At least one joke is fairly offensive. The whole premise—men just can’t be men in a world dominated by women—is a head-scratcher that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Every so often, the actors playing the kids will say their lines and then stare forward at a non-specific point in space, as though counting to themselves to wait out the audience laughter. Nearly every gag on the show is based around a fear of the modern world, making the show not just fundamentally conservative but deeply, deeply curmudgeonly. Despite starring the not-at-all-elderly Tim Allen, the show is the television equivalent of an old man standing on his lawn and yelling at jet planes flying overhead.
And yet watching Last Man Standing is not a painful experience. You’re aware at all times that what you’re watching isn’t good, but you’re also aware at all times that the actor involved are doing their level best to give you a good time. It sometimes seems like Allen wrings laughs out of the live studio audience (who are remarkably silent on the unsweetened screeners ABC made available to critics) through sheer force of will. And he’s doing everything he can to make this material play. For the most part, his tricks work. He’s an old hand at this kind of comedy, and sometimes, sheer theatrical professionalism can work in this format. But it’s not just Allen. Nancy Travis—as Allen’s wife—and Hector Elizondo—as Allen’s boss—are able to get polite nods just by scrunching up their faces and trying really hard. (Indeed, Elizondo gets the only genuine laugh in the first two episodes—both airing tonight—just by taking a not-so-funny line and making it funny through delivery.)
The history of Last Man Standing is a curious one. It hails from the pen of Jack Burditt, a 30 Rock writer who got it in his head, for whatever reason, to bring 30 Rock-style jokes to the multi-camera sitcom. While Burditt’s original script (which I’ve read) wasn’t a searingly great comedic script, it was fairly strong, a good setup for a family comedy and one with a handful of genuinely funny punchlines in the midst of the usual exposition and setup. If the multi-camera sitcom is to come back as a creative force, not just a commercial force (and its resurrection as a commercial force now seems inevitable), it’s going to need people like Burditt (or Tina Fey or Dan Harmon or Greg Daniels or… ) working in the form again, and Burditt’s involvement in this show (and his original pilot script) is the best hope for the series going forward. But the original script has been watered down considerably—as the pilot process tends to do—and what’s left is weak, watery mush that doesn’t offer much for discerning TV fans.
But one of the reasons multi-camera shows often seem so strange nowadays is that there aren’t a lot of actors trained in the acting craft needed to play, simultaneously, to a theatrical audience and the cameras. Oh, sure, there are a few out there still. No matter what you think of Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory, Jim Parsons obviously has this style of acting nailed down. But for the most part, there’s a wide gulf between the kinds of subtle acting seen on single-camera shows and the “shouting at the audience” style of acting seen on, say, Disney Channel studio audience sitcoms. (One of the few to bridge this gap in that generation is—don’t laugh—iCarly’s Miranda Cosgrove, who will almost certainly be starring in a “single girl in the city” sitcom on NBC within five years and will probably be good at it.)
So the trend this fall has been to stock these shows with ringers, with people who were good at the multi-camera style in the ’90s and are willing to give it a shot again. That’s how Ashton Kutcher ended up on Two And A Half Men, and it’s how Tim Allen and Nancy Travis (of the underrated Almost Perfect) ended up here. The material Allen and Travis get here has been watered down within an inch of its life (presumably to remove anything ABC fears will isolate the audience—though it’s become more offensive in that form), but the two of them are such old pros that they have a good time bouncing lines back and forth. They both seem to realize they’re stuck in a show that doesn’t work, but, dammit, they’re gonna make the best of it, because they could be here for years and years and years.
The premise of the show is pretty stale. Indeed, there’s no reason it couldn’t have been following Home Improvement, Allen’s big ’90s sitcom hit, way back in 1993. Allen plays Mike, an on-the-road salesman for an outdoors supply company who works putting together the big catalog the company issues. Told that his job is being phased out and he’s being asked to shift his focus to the company’s website (his incredulousness about this is one of the reasons this show is secretly set in 1993), he has to spend more time around his wife, Vanessa (Travis), and kids, who are mostly unexceptional, save for Kaitlyn Dever as youngest daughter, Eve, who’s kind of fun, though that may be residual Loretta McCready love talking. One of his daughters has a child of her own—a son—and much of the pilot involves Mike wandering around and trying to build a manlier world for his grandson to grow up in. It’s basically, as you might have noticed, Home Improvement with girls.
But Home Improvement, for all its faults, had a point of view. It was about men trying to do masculine things and grunt and scratch their nuts or whatever, but it was also about self-improvement, about learning together as a family and figuring out ways to grow together and forgive each other. On that show, the Wilson character—the guy who hid behind the fence—was a vehicle to suggest that there was more to life than just the superficial pursuits any of the characters were interested in. It wasn’t great comedy; it was often clumsy. But it had something more to it than just, well, guys standing around and grunting and scratching their nuts.
Last Man Standing, at least in its first two episodes, loses that crucial point-of-view character. On Home Improvement, the show took Wilson’s view much of the time: These are good people, but they have much to learn. On Last Man Standing, the show takes Mike’s point of view, suggesting that the world has been so thoroughly feminized that even something like, say, baby-proofing is a pointless endeavor, because a kid will learn by sticking a penny in a light socket. There are occasional attempts to call Mike on this behavior—mostly through the Elizondo character, who’s even more hyper-masculine (if you can believe that)—or attempts to show that underneath it all, gosh darn it, Mike really does love his three little girls and his grandson. But there’s also a subtle, creeping fear beneath all of this, an anger at the idea that the world is now filled with guys wearing hair gel or out-and-proud gay men.
It’d be easy to call Last Man Standing needlessly reactionary, since it more or less is, but Allen and Travis make the whole thing go down easily enough that it’s hard to sit there and say it was an absolutely execrable time, like, say, Whitney is. (Travis has an utterly abominable subplot in tonight’s second episode that she more or less makes play by gritting her teeth and just getting it done.) There’s skill and craft at work here, and skill and craft can keep multi-camera sitcoms, if not good, at least vaguely tolerable. If your kids somehow get sucked into this show (and please keep them away from it), you probably won’t want to shoot yourself after. But it’s also lacking in a character that could make Mike the butt of any joke, and that ultimately hurts it. There are talented people working on this show, and it’ll probably be a big enough hit to buy them time to find out what works. But until Mike is allowed to be the one made fun of just as much as he makes fun of others, the show’s going to remain a mean-spirited mess.
Carrie: This is a show I probably should dislike more than I do. Between the caveman premise equating femininity with something to be ashamed of, the numerous hacky and borderline offensive jokes, and the strange reliance on any residual feeling the public may have towards Tim Allen’s character on Home Improvement, there’s a lot here to hate. As one of the leaders of the fall season’s strange “men in crisis” trend, Last Man Standing has its head in the wrong place so often it almost feels like a relic in time. In fact, you could probably put it in a time machine and air it in place of Home Improvement one week without a good chunk of the audience even noticing (except maybe those die-hard Wilson fetishists).
Still, despite all of these negatives, I found myself indifferent towards the show more than anything else. Much of this is due to Tim Allen’s ability to make the most out of anemic material; in a television landscape full of single-camera comedies it’s easy to forget just what a specific skill multicam sitcom acting is, and it’s a skill Allen has in spades. Allen’s gifts, which are also buoyed by a strong performance by Nancy Travis as his wife, go a long way to hide the writing’s sins. The issue isn’t so much the structure—the show is well-constructed— but the ridiculous content forced by such an asinine premise. If you’re going to marry yourself to such strange notions as considering guys who play fantasy football not actual men, you better work extra hard to be clever enough to make those notions funny. This is where Last Man Standing fails. Between Allen, Travis, and a supporting cast that seems to have promise, the quality of the show is going to live or die on its writing. From what’s been presented in the first two episodes, the latter seems much more likely.