What is it that keeps me coming back to Last Man Standing? I don’t expect you to know the answer to that question. I sure don’t. I ditched the show about midway through its first season, intending to never return, but then, when I heard about the retooling effort the series underwent before its second season, I decided to sample a few episodes before leaving it behind again forever. What’s more, I wasn’t sure I really liked those episodes. I found the one centered on the 2012 election—in which the show’s characters all argued at each other in soundbites—almost painful to watch, and it wasn’t like the episodes after it were much better. There was one in the second season that seemed to kinda sorta tacitly endorse bullying a little bit (if you squinted at it just right). But the more political approach won the show a more loyal audience in a tough Friday night timeslot, and all the more power to it.
Yet I kept coming back, and in a fall season when I’ve fallen behind on so many shows, I have yet to miss an episode of Last Man Standing. Some of that, I’m sure, is because it’s on a night when there’s not much else on (I’m all caught up with The Neighbors and Shark Tank, which both air right after it, too). But I’m usually pretty good about letting shows like this slide after I’ve cut them loose, and I’ve now seen every episode of the second and third seasons of Last Man Standing so far. What’s more, when I got a screener of this episode, I pretty much rushed to watch it. This means one of two things: I either like this show more than I will admit even to myself, or there’s something uniquely fascinating in its blandness (which, come to think of it, would basically mean the same thing as the first bit anyway).
The answer I keep coming back to is a simple one: This cast has really great chemistry. It’s not exactly a stretch to say Tim Allen knows how to work a live studio audience. No one will be surprised by that after the actor’s many years on Home Improvement. What is impressive to me is that the rest of the cast—both regular and recurring—has gelled into a surprisingly formidable force, able to make even the show’s weaker gags play at least somewhat because they seem to be having so much fun. There was a time when I felt sorry for Kaitlyn Dever, so good on Justified and then so good in this summer’s Short Term 12 (and in a smaller role in The Spectacular Now), for having to be on this show for at least five years. But every time I watch an episode, she seems to be having a largely enjoyable time hanging out with these people. That has to count for something, right?
Truth be told, that’s how I’ve started to feel about basically everybody in the cast, particularly the actresses who play Mike Baxter’s three daughters. (Sidebar: Do you know how many times I’ve written about this show and accidentally typed “Mike Seaver”? If showrunner Tim Doyle and company want to get together with Kirk Cameron and reboot Growing Pains, I’m there.) Dever is the one the Internet knows, but she still hasn’t had a major breakthrough like I think she will eventually. (Hell, Jennifer Lawrence got her start on The Bill Engvall Show. I’m not convinced such a thing is out of the question for Dever.) Molly Ephraim is a terrifically adept comedic talent I’m pretty sure no one but me even knows is alive, and when this show ends, she’s going to end up on some Happy Endings-style series and kill as a fast-talking member of a single-camera ensemble, and everyone will pretend she’s a newcomer, just because the Internet never watched this show. And Amanda Fuller, who felt a bit stiff in terms of integrating with the cast in season two (she replaced the original actress in her role), has really settled in in season three. There’s a scene where it’s just these three actresses kibitzing with Nancy Travis as their mother about whether she spanked them as children (turns out she only spanked the oldest), and it’s goddamned delightful. The whole cast is enjoyable to watch, and that makes even the show’s weaker episodes slide right on by, just the way the TGIF bloc used to make ‘em.
I think the cast is the main reason I keep coming back to the show, but I also have to throw some props out to the writers. Is this the best-written, funniest, sharpest-plotted show on TV? No. And I realize that saying it’s probably the best multi-camera sitcom on the air right now is damning with faint praise, considering it’s wresting the trophy from The Big Bang Theory, of all things. But I really do think this is a show that makes up for what it lacks in really fresh, original jokes by trying to approach subjects and topics that people are actually talking about in the way they’re actually talking about them. But that means I need to take a quick break to do some personal story time.
I spent Thanksgiving with my sister and her kids in Idaho, and the conversation eventually turned to a discussion she had had with her step-father (because I know what you’re going to ask, he’s not my step-father, because she’s my biological half-sister, and her mother isn’t my mother, and I was raised by other people anyway) about spanking her own children. She wasn’t planning on doing so. He seemed a little surprised by that. And I realized that I, in my godless liberal enclave of coastal California, wasn’t really hearing about these sorts of debates—which I knew to exist and had heard many times growing up in South Dakota—in any bit of pop culture other than on Last Man Standing. That this episode was about that exact debate made the serendipity even more interesting to me.
Plus, Robert Forster is playing Mike’s dad, now, and that’s pretty great.
If there’s something that keeps Last Man from really working more consistently, it’s the program’s seeming fear of pushing into deeper, darker territory. It doesn’t need to do this all of the time, but there are episodes—like this one—that might be well-served by taking such a plunge. There are intimations that Mike’s dad perhaps spanked him too much as a kid, and that’s why he’s never spanked his own kids. (He got results mostly by seeming big and scary to them, it would seem.) Similarly, there is a really interesting dynamic at work when Kristin finds herself spanking her own son because he ran in front of a car in a parking lot. He’s old enough to know better, yeah, but might her own snap judgment perpetuate some cycle of violence? These are the sorts of things it might be cool if the show dug into a little more deeply, because they don’t have easy answers, and this show is one of the few even coming within spitting distance of them.
Instead, as always, Last Man Standing does the thing where it says, “Everybody’s okay!” which is fine and all but always feels like a weak way out of any particular dilemma. Last Man evidently would love to be a Norman Lear sitcom or something like Roseanne, but those shows distinguished themselves by letting the “We’ll all still love each other in the morning” stuff remain mostly subtextual as the characters dealt with real, bleeding wounds. It’s a lot harder to work that sort of material around endings that constantly proclaim, “Well, we’re all family, and that’s what’s important!” Granted, All In The Family and Roseanne had their share of episodes that ended that way, too. But I’d like to see Last Man, just once, push beyond that, to say, “Oh, hey, here’s some stuff that’s genuinely hard to deal with and doesn’t have easy answers.” I’m giving this a B+ because it’s the best episode of the show I’ve seen, but I really do think this series has what it takes to move beyond that, and I’m just waiting to see it.
Oh, and it would probably be okay if it stopped doing B-stories, Everybody Loves Raymond style, because the stuff with the hat is just bland and nonsensical in the face of everything else. An episode like this doesn’t need the B-story to cut the tension.
That is all. Watch Last Man Standing. Know my madness.