In Defense of Last Man Standing
Tim Allen’s much-reviled sitcom is getting better with age.
Photo by Peter Stone © 2011 ABC.
This fall’s TV season was notable for two types of programming: shows like New Girl, 2 Broke Girls, and Whitney, which Slate’s Jessica Grose called “new lady comedies,” and series like How To Be a Gentleman, Man Up!, and Last Man Standing, which New York’s Willa Paskin dubbed “Sad Man Sitcoms.” At the season’s midpoint, it seems television is yet another marker of the mancession: The women have thrived, while the dudes sank like stones. How To Be a Gentleman was one of the season’s first cancellations, and Man Up! was euthanized after just eight episodes.
The sole survivor, Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, is doing well. Although it’s scheduled against CBS’s NCIS—television’s most-watched program, which appeals to a similar demographic—its audience has been growing steadily, and it outperforms Tuesday night’s other comedies. Still, you shouldn’t conclude that TV viewers have developed a sudden interest in “mangst.” Last Man Standing has toned down the male rage that characterized its early episodes and has transformed itself into a comedy of compromise. In the early episodes, the writers tried to shortcut characterization by having Mike spout reactionary buzzwords as if he had Tea Party Tourette’s—Obamacare! Soccer! Socialism! The more he learns to think before he speaks, and the more he listens to his wife and daughters, the more interesting Mike—and the show—has become.
In many ways, Last Man Standing is an update of Allen’s 1990s hit, Home Improvement. There’s one key difference, though: Home Improvement’s Tim Taylor was the father of three sons, while Last Man Standing’s Mike Baxter has three daughters. After a career spent traveling the world conducting photo shoots for an outdoor emporium’s catalogs, Mike is grounded and tasked with improving the store’s website. In the first episodes it seemed like Mike hadn’t been home in years—everything from Glee to young men’s metrosexuality confused and enraged him. He was so out of touch, it was a miracle he knew his kids’ names.
But in recent episodes, Mike Baxter has been transformed, and it’s exposure to all that female energy that did it. In the show’s universe, home is female, and work is male—and it is most interesting when it explores how one place affects the other. In the pilot, Mike was energized by the hypermasculinity of the lodge-like headquarters of Outdoor Man, where there are more beards and flannel shirts than in a Seattle gay bar. “No citrus body wash! It smells like balls in here,” he proclaimed as he walked through the door—and he meant it as a compliment. The office was a refuge from women and girly men.
As the show has developed, though, Mike has started to question his allegiance to the dudely world of work, in part as a reaction to the rigid views about gender held by his boss Ed (Hector Elizondo). When the parks department declared that softball teams must go co-ed, Ed raged against change; sport represents the last bastion of male camaraderie, and he didn’t want to lose it. Mike was more conflicted; he loved playing ball with his buddies, but he couldn’t bear to deny opportunities to his daughters. The team reluctantly welcomed women, and when Mike’s youngest daughter, tomboy Eve, became the winning pitcher, he was proud—and a little bit jealous that his own star had been eclipsed.
Pilot episodes have to shout to attract attention in an overcrowded marketplace, and that was literally true for Last Man Standing. Mike found a place to express himself at work in ragey video blogs attacking fantasy football and men who stay indoors. (A strange target for a TV show!) The anger of the early episodes has since subsided into vague perturbation. Mike still records videos for the company website, but now they’re full of gentle sight gags and philosophical ruminations.
Shows about parenting are ultimately about dealing with change. In Up All Night, the NBC Christina Applegate/Will Arnett sitcom, the shift is from a carefree kidless existence to the responsible life of new parents. On Last Man Standing, Mike’s kids are older—20, 17, and 13—but they’re still forcing him to make adjustments. They’re young adults, with things to teach their dad if only he will listen. He’s an old guy with rigid beliefs, but his daughters are making him question some of them. For example, he loses his enthusiasm for “snow bunnies”—scantily dressed young women who encourage male shoppers to buy winter gear—when he realizes that one of them went to school with his oldest daughter.
I find the new, more subdued, Mike Baxter far more likable and interesting, but the realness comes at a price: The angry, ranting guy was funnier. In a recent episode, Mike bonded with a lesbian neighbor over bikes, Broncos (the show is set in Denver), and a shared fascination with quicksand. It made me smile, but it didn’t make me laugh, whereas back in the pilot, a homophobic joke about little boys dancing being a direct line to a gay pride parade—“the only time men should be dancing is when other men are shooting at their feet”—raised a guilty chuckle. This is probably a problem for a comedy.
Jack Burditt, Last Man Standing’s creator and recently departed showrunner, spent much of his career as a TV writer on shows dominated by strong female characters, including The New Adventures of Old Christine and 30 Rock, where he was also a co-executive producer. Like Mike Baxter, Burditt has three daughters, was a young grandfather, and spent several years separated from his family because of work. Burditt has moved on, but let’s hope the remaining writers can find a way to make a strong male character funny without going back to being a sexist cartoon.
June Thomas is a Slate culture critic. Follow her on Twitter.