Recently, Jack Burditt asked to leave Last Man Standing to deal with a family tragedy. The show’s creator—a longtime 30 Rock writer whose solid pilot script was the whole reason I got roped into this in the first place—had been sharing showrunning duties with the writing team of Marsh McCall and Andy Gordon in the wake of the event, but now, he’s headed out, to be replaced by former Reba showrunner Kevin Abbott. Reba was never a show I liked much, though I appreciated some of what it was trying to do, and since Burditt’s involvement was the reason I initially got interested in this program, this is the last episode of the show I’ll be covering, though I’m guessing I’ll keep an eye on the show just to see what happens.
To be fair, it’s been clear for a while that the show wasn’t going to try to do much more than just be a solid family sitcom. And there’s nothing wrong with that, certainly! There’s just not a lot to write about there, particularly when nearly every plot the show’s come up with could have easily been done exactly as presented here back on Tim Allen’s last show. The interesting stuff has been around the margins of the show, or in the way that the show would blend those assorted family sitcom stories together. In tonight’s episode, for instance, a story about Vanessa starting a neighborhood watch eventually turned into one about Mike leaking the gossip she’d shared with him about one of the neighborhood women cheating on her husband. I should have realized that Mike would tell someone as soon as he said he didn’t talk to anyone else in the neighborhood, but the episode did a pretty good job of distracting from that plot point by bringing up the neighborhood watch idea.
If there’s something I think Last Man Standing should work on going forward, I guess, it’s that Vanessa’s not a very strong character. She’s pretty much just “the wife,” in a way that even the three daughters aren’t just “the three daughters.” Yeah, the show started out with everybody being poorly defined and mostly just there for Mike to shout at, but Nancy Travis is a fine comic actress, and she’s doing some fun stuff. So it feels a little weak to just have her be there to instigate standard sitcom plot #6 before heading off to wherever it is that she goes when she’s not onscreen. Sitcoms don’t have to do a lot of world-building or anything, but it helps if we can imagine just what the characters might be up to when they’re not around. And that’s not really a possibility for Vanessa.
Tonight’s B-plot, involving Ed trying to prepare for negotiations with a salesman named Lippie, who always takes him for a ride, was something of an unusual beast in a multi-camera sitcom format: It actually featured a 30 Rock or Scrubs-style cut-away gag! Mike mentioned something about how the negotiations had gone poorly the year before, then we were deposited into a moment from the year before, complete with “whoooosh” sound effect for good measure. These weren’t as fast-paced as a 30 Rock cut-away (because the studio audience presence precludes the show from doing anything all that quickly), but it was still fun to see the show playing around with the timeline in this fashion and managing to do all of it in front of the live studio audience somehow. (How I Met Your Mother, which plays around with the timeline like this, isn’t filmed before an audience, so it has a much more elastic ability to play around with what’s happening when and where.)
I suppose it’s possible that just as I’m abandoning the show, it’s figuring out a way to blend the single-camera experience of Burditt with the multi-camera format of the show, but the gag—indeed, the whole storyline—was forgotten almost as quickly as it was introduced, and I’d all but wiped the thing from my memory before the storyline returned in the last act with Ed getting hosed by Lippie again because Lippie sent a beautiful female associate named Misty to do his bargaining for him. (Hyuk!) Every week on the show, either the workplace stuff or the home-life stuff gets the short shrift because there’s just not enough time to fully devote to both, and while I wouldn’t claim that I was enormously excited to see what was up with Ed’s battle with Lippie, I at least would have enjoyed a drop-in or two throughout the episode, just to keep things bubbling along.
Instead, we spent a lot of time inside the Baxter home, watching as Mike installed the new security system that would keep Mandi from breaking curfew as easily and as Eve attempted to be made second-in-command after her dad. This was all fine, as these things go, and I’ve come to enjoy the three daughters in their scenes together or with their dad. Hell, even Mandi’s dumb girl shtick is growing on me just a bit. (I enjoyed seeing her demonstrate for Kristin just how she’d been getting through math all of these years.) The show still has all of these weird loose ends that dangle around out of nowhere—the bit where Eve read the letter Kristin had written to her future self seemed to be there entirely to remind us that Kristin’s life hasn’t turned out like she’d wanted it to—but I don’t mind the family stuff really. It’s kind of fun.
The stuff with the neighborhood watch was more painful. Marvin, the security guard who never met a sentence he could finish, wasn’t a very good one-joke character (though what one-joke character is good nowadays?), while the scenes with Mike being forced to bond with the neighbor took a good premise—Mike had a family so he’d never have to talk to anyone else—and mostly squandered it. I appreciated the idea of having the gossip come back at the end, but in execution, it returned at a moment when I was much more invested in the idea of Mike having to hang out with people he didn’t know. Thus, the big resolution—Mike apologizes to Vanessa for getting her in trouble by telling everyone her gossip—didn’t have a lot of punch because the conflict between the two lasted only a few minutes in screen time.
But that gets to a larger problem with doing multi-camera sitcoms in this day and age: There’s no time anymore! To really get the most out of a multi-camera storyline and allow adequate time for the audience to laugh and the characters to play off of each other, you need somewhere around 23-25 minutes of screentime. That gives everything a little more room to breathe. Instead, today’s multi-camera producers are stuck trying to cram everything into 20 minutes or so, and that means that certain things just have to get cut. I’m not going to claim that Last Man Standing would be a masterpiece with 25 minutes of running time, but it’s not like it could hurt either. Single-camera comedies seem so much more exciting to us nowadays both because they’ve got so much freedom to go anywhere they want and do anything they want (within budgetary means, of course) but also because with their sped-up paces, they’re able to cram much more story into much smaller space. Maybe the solution for multi-camera shows, then, is to go in the opposite direction: Put less story into that space but really give it the room to play around with. That’s something Everybody Loves Raymond always did, and it’s one of the things that made that show work. It’s something Last Man Standing just might be able to replicate.
Grade (for episode and series so far): C+
- I chuckled a bit at Mike’s previous security system: an NRA sticker in the front window.
- And also at him insisting, off Ed’s mention that his own security system didn’t have any ill effects from radiation, that Ed had a full head of hair a year ago.
- The Growing Pains 5000: Sadly, it’s time to pack the Growing Pains 5000 up, but we’ll bust it out for one final story, based on season four’s “Family Ties” two-parter. In that one, Mike Seaver, frustrated with his dad for being such a dad, moved out of the house and into his car. In this episode, Mike Baxter, frustrated with his wife for being such a wife, moves out of his house and into his car, after she proposes that he install a security system. But imagine the hilarity than ensues when Mike, forced out of his car to use the bathroom, tries to bypass her new security system and gets hauled in by the cops! (Or, rather, don’t.)