tv review

Credit Where Credit’s Due: Last Man Standing Is Unexpectedly Warm

Tim Allen as Mike Baxter. Photo: Richard Foreman Jr. SMPSP

Earlier this year, I had the bizarre experience of sitting down and watching a bunch of the original ABC run of Last Man Standing for the first time. I did not think it was a great show then, and I still don’t love it now. But I cannot deny that on first watching the original series, I was transfixed. There, in all its well-lit, punchline-laden, couch-pointed-at-the-camera anodyne sitcom glory, was Tim Allen’s Mike Baxter, yelling about disrespecting the flag and old-school masculinity and safe spaces and kids these days and high taxes, years before Trump’s candidacy took hold. The Tim Allen character of my childhood, the grunting one from Home Improvement, had been revived as a wealthier, grumpier, less self-aware version of the same man, now harried by his wife and three daughters rather than three sons. And rather than mostly whining about how men should be men, the beloved topic of Home Improvement, the Last Man Standing dad character took a broader view of the world. For Mike Baxter, men should still be men. (Goes without saying, really.) But why stop there, when you can also take a stance on: vegetarianism, immigration, teaching children to be strong, fracking, the meaning of Christmas, and local school politics!

After getting cancelled in 2016, six seasons into its run on ABC, the show has been revived on Fox, and the thing that transfixed me about the original series has become less compelling. Mike Baxter is the same guy, but he’s no longer the odd man out, no longer the only one brave enough to spout nonsense about the danger of trigger warnings. In the time since Last Man Standing was last on the air, the world has caught up with Mike. So the near-perfect replication of the show to its former — well, glory seems dubious, but you get the idea — oddly renders it less compelling. Whatever you may think about the show’s politics, its engine was usually Mike as the lone voice of reason railing against newfangled ideals and perceived cultural boogeymen. That avenue’s lost now.

I kept watching the show’s first two episodes for that old Last Man Standing feeling, for its patented eyebrow-raising Baxter jeremiads. They did not arrive, or when they did, they didn’t pack much of a wallop. And yet, especially in the show’s second episode, there are a few scenes that work. That really work. They’re not about taking a stance; they’re goopier scenes about family history and the legacy we give to our children and, unless I’m very much mistaken, about feelings. It means the revived Last Man Standing could turn out to be a better show than I’d expected.

This is not to say that Last Man Standing has abandoned all of its old ways. Mike Baxter is still up on his soapboxes, and whatever deeper sentiment the show is aiming toward, it’s still delivered alongside Mike’s ideological bent, usually in the form of a joking aside. This is occasionally merely eye-roll worthy, and sometimes it’s so jarring that it jolts you out of the story. There are multiple jokes about separating families at border crossings in the first two episodes, and each time, the idea of forcibly tearing children from their parents is a chortle-worthy blip. The leftist members of the family are the laughable ones. There’s Mike’s daughter, Mandy (Molly McCook), whose observation that “lots of people aren’t happy with the administration’s social policies” somehow qualifies as woke-ness. There’s also Ryan (Jordan Masterson), Mike’s ever-beleaguered son-in-law, who’s so depressed by the election aftermath that he abandons all principles and feeds his son fried chicken for dinner. “Why eat healthy, whole country’s going to hell!” Ryan whines, before Mike gives him a pep talk about turning off the TV and taking action.

There’s also still a solid vein of pure cheese in Last Man Standing’s DNA. The actress who played Mandy in the show’s original run, Molly Ephraim, has not returned for the revival series, and the first episode spends an astonishingly long time making winking jokes about its shift from ABC to Fox, and Ephraim being replaced with actor Molly McCook. Mike’s son-in-law Kyle (Christoph Sanders) wonders why he can’t find his favorite show on TV; Mike’s wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) muses that maybe it was cancelled. “Why would they cancel a popular show that everybody loves?” Kyle says in confusion. “Maybe they’re a bunch of idiots!” yells Mike, entering the room to uproarious laughter. This joke continues for several minutes, as the Baxter’s youngest daughter comes home from the Air Force academy. Tim Allen actually waggles his eyebrows at the camera while delivering the line, “no matter how long you haven’t seen me, I’m still the same old guy.”

It’s goofy. It is not Earth-shattering. And as a revival of a cancelled show featuring an actor prominently known to be a Trump supporter, one whose protagonist character spends much time on the show espousing conservative viewpoints, Last Man Standing is bound to draw comparisons with the revival season of Roseanne. But, at least so far, it’s able to anchor similar stories in sincerity rather than cynicism. Roseanne kicked off its return season with an episode about how family members might disagree politically, but they should still come together and put love over politics. This first episode of Last Man Standing does precisely the same thing, ratcheting up gradually to a moment when Mike asks his whole family to sit down so he can deliver a little message about the importance of family unity. Unlike Roseanne, though, who scolds her sister Jackie about her leftist leanings, Mike Baxter reminds his family about the importance of coming together when his grandson Boyd runs away from home, and the whole family as one leaps into action. It is surprising how different that identical message feels when it’s hung around a true family emergency rather than one character’s disgruntlement.

The differences between the two series are even more suggestive in the light of Last Man Standing’s second episode. In an early Roseanne plot from the revival season, Roseanne cruelly disciplines her teenage granddaughter, dunking her head in the sink and calling her a bitch. It’s played for laughs; it’s stomach-twisting to watch. In the second episode of Last Man Standing, meanwhile, Mike confronts the task of cleaning out his deceased father’s belongings and has a lengthy confrontation with his father’s ghost, one that touches on how wounded Mike felt by the sense that his father did not love him, how damaging the sense of distance was, and how much Mike regrets not having the chance to say goodbye properly. I have watched a lot of Last Man Standing, and the scenes with Mike and his dad may be the best I’ve seen.

Mike Baxter has suddenly found himself in line with the dominant political worldview. If his newfound sense of cultural safety has given him an opportunity to really dig into his feelings of childhood pain, I’m legitimately happy for him. Sure, almost no one else feels safe in America right now, and I fear Last Man Standing will continue to skate over that reality as though it’s a huge joke. Still, Last Man Standing has chosen to make a swerve toward vulnerability and self-knowledge rather than following the Roseanne path and tripling down on implied racism and curdled resentment. It makes me hope the series has the potential to be more dynamic and thoughtful than I’d given it credit for.

Last Man Standing Is Unexpectedly Warm