TV Review: ABC’s ‘Last Man Standing’

10.11.11 6 years ago 18 Comments


ABC, a network with no actual interest in male viewers, is launching what might generously be called “The Lamentation of the 21st Century Male, A Symphony in Three Quickly Cancelled Movements.”

The first movement, premiering on Tuesday (October 11) night is the Tim Allen sitcom “Last Man Standing.” It isn’t funny. The second movement, premiering next week, is the ensemble “Man Up,” which is less unfunny than “Last Man Standing,” but still not likely to win any passionate fans. The symphony, which deserves to remain unfinished, may or may not wrap up with the cross-dressing disaster “Work It,” which could stay permanently on the shelf without disappointing or surprising a single TV critic.
It’s a fundamentally weird thematic block. 
Outside of Saturday football and the legitimate crossover appeal of something like “Modern Family,” men aren’t even afterthoughts at ABC. They’re total non-factors. If the Contemporary American Male is feeling alienated and disenfranchised, it has nothing to do with the alleged “mancession,” an economic blip that has been statistically irrelevant for over a year. It has to do with networks like ABC. 
If there’s any network on TV that I wouldn’t trust to develop a comedy about the plight of the American Male, it would be The CW, but ABC would be a close second. 
[Note: The Modern American Male hasn’t actually been emasculated or disenfranchised. Trends are fun to jump upon and embellish, but perish the thought anybody should take any of the silliness spewed in “Last Man Standing,” “Man Up” and “Work It” seriously.]
So a network that doesn’t know (or care) what men like or want to watch on TV is attempting to make a TV show (or three) about how men feel neutered by contemporary American society? 
And it’s somehow surprising that all three upcoming ABC “Manliness Comedies” don’t have a clue what they want to be or who they want to be for?
“Last Man Standing” is either a show aimed squarely at men who would never watch a show like “Last Man Standing,” or else it’s a show aimed at people who like to laugh contemptuously at the kind of man featured in “Last Man Standing.” That is to say that “Last Man Standing” actually hasn’t the faintest idea whether or not it’s making an earnest statement about the state of modern masculinity or if it’s mocking people who might make such statements earnestly. As a result, I don’t know if the joke is on society or on the main character, but the joke is probably on the audience looking for any sort of targeted mirth at all.
More on “Last Man Standing”…
Tim Allen plays Mike Baxter, catalogue king for an outdoor sporting goods store. At work, Mike is surrounded by the tools of masculinity — Crossbows, fishing equipment, Hector Elizondo. 
But when Mike returns home? It’s all women. He’s married to Vanessa (Nancy Travis), who just reentered the work force, which freaks Mike out. His youngest daughter Eve (Kaitlyn Dever) is a bit of a tomboy, which Mike is fine with, but she plays soccer, which freaks Mike out. Middle daughter Mandy (Molly Ephraim) can’t change a car tire, which freaks Mike out. And eldest daughter Kristin (Alexandra Krosney) is a live-at-home single mom, which freaks Mike out.
At the end of the day, an astounding number of things freak Mike out.
He doesn’t know what “Glee” is and who “Voldemort” is. He’s not a particularly big fan of Barack Obama or his policies. He can’t understand why ATMs give you information in more than one language. He doesn’t get fantasy sports. He mocks the idea of baby-proofing. He doesn’t think guys should dance and he’s not especially enlightened when it comes to homosexuality. He’s so freakin’ manly he can’t understand paisley. 
Somewhat more predictably — not that anything in “Last Man Standing” suffers from a lack of predictability — Mike is confused by the Internet, which also isn’t a domain of masculinity. So when he’s told that his only chance of continued employment is to reinvigorate the company’s website, he squirms as if he’d been asked to play the lead in a production of “Swan Lake.” until he realizes that his wacky outspokenness might be just what the Internet ordered.
Crazy, right?
There’s a version of “Last Man Standing” that gives up the ruse of having a male point of view and it becomes a younger-skewing female-centric version of CBS’ “Feces My Dad Says.” That show is actually about three young women growing up with a grouchy dad who embarrasses them at every turn. The women spend each episode rolling their eyes at their father, but occasionally at the end of every episode, they realize that some of what he says has been for their benefit. Oooh. In that version of “Last Man Standing,” I’m actually getting rid of the Nancy Travis character entirely — she can go back to The CW’s vastly superior “Hart of Dixie” — and I’m repitching “Last Man Standing” as a sort of comedic “King Lear,” in which the father attempts to divide his wisdom amongst three daughters who would prefer not to tolerate his growing senility, but everybody has a good laugh in the end as the father grows increasingly mad. Admit it. You’d watch my version of “Last Man Standing.” And Kaitlyn Dever would actually make a terrific sitcom Cordelia. 
Anyway, that’s not what “Last Man Standing” is. Travis provides warmth, but no real voice, as she smiles encouragingly at her homophobic, xenophobic, gynophobic husband. The three daughters whiz in and out of frame existing not to live lives of their own, but to torture Mike with their inherent femininity. Krosney and Ephraim are innocuously interchangeable, which means they resemble sisters, but also that neither has been given the material to stand out. Dever is a little bit better and made me smile on several occasions, but being the best thing in an awful comedy isn’t what her Emmy-worthy “Justified” performance should have led to. ABC has several comedies in which young female characters are distinctive and central to the comedy, but that’s not the kind of show “Last Man Standing” is.
There’s another version of “Last Man Standing” in which the Mike Baxer character really does see himself as the last of a dying breed and he actually takes his discomfort seriously. In that version, he clearly means everything he says and he takes the slights of the world very personally. This version would be like a sitcom-ized, gentrified version of “Falling Down,” in which Mike Baxter really was mad as hell and found an outlet for his aggressions online, like a more conservative, less New Orleans-centric version of John Goodman’s character on “Treme.” Forget “Falling Down,” that version is closer to what actually would have happened if Archie Bunker had had access to a webcam. 
Archie Bunker was a pragmatic character and, for better or for worse, he believed the things he said, even if he could be taught a few valuable lessons. In Tim Allen’s interpretation of Mike Baxter, it’s unclear if the guy really has any genuine agita at all. He’s so busy smiling at the camera and trying to be a gruff, right-leaning teddybear that there’s no sting to any of his words. He’s just mouthing lazy platitudes and making over-obvious observations and he’s ultimately just a bland fuddy-duddy. His words are so empty and half-hearted that even the people who might be like Mike Baxters in their own minds are ultimately to nod in agreement, because he doesn’t say anything that’s smart or profound enough. And nobody else listens to him either, so his nattering goes from “unfunny” to “white noise” almost immediately. By the end of the pilot, it isn’t “women” or “pop culture” or “politics” that are emasculating Mike Baxter, it’s the writing. This show could be a bully pulpit for for the disenfranchised, but its main character has all of the substance and impact of an adult from the “Peanuts.”
Yes, Tim Allen is a sitcom ace. But he’s too good at his job. He’s buffed and sanded off whatever edge this character might have had. And hitting every punchline with aplomb will make you a star if the punchlines are funny, but if they aren’t funny? “Last Man Standing.” Tim Allen could be the Michelangelo of the sitcom form, but if his character’s daughter says “That’s not fair” and he’s forced to bellow, with no self-awareness at all,  “Whoever said life was supposed to be fair?” Well… He’s not a miracle worker. He’s just playing a bad sitcom character.
This seems to be the kind of show ABC feels the need to dust off every couple seasons. Kelsey Grammer was flummoxed by the modern world just two years ago on “Hank.” At least Grammer and his team had the courage to make that sitcom’s main character aggressively obnoxious and empowered Grammer’s silver-tongued patrician delivery, Hank was as awful a person to spend 22 minutes with as any sitcom lead in recent memory. So “Last Man Standing” isn’t as brave as “Hank,” but it’s also not as bad. Now shouldn’t ABC and Tim Allen be aiming a little higher than that?
So ignore “Last Man Standing.” And feel free to ignore “Man Up” next week. And I’m still counting on your never needing to ignore the unairable “Work It.” But tune in to “Suburgatory” and, in fact, ABC’s entire Wednesday comedy lineup. It’s not that ABC can’t do comedy development, but this sure isn’t an example of what the network does well.
“Last Man Standing” premieres on Tuesday, October 11 at 8 p.m. with a whopping hour of lame jokes.

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