Between Last Man Standing’s first and second seasons, the largely non-distinct sitcom, mostly known for being Tim Allen’s return to television, had a choice to make. Headed for Fridays, the second least-watched night of the week (after Saturdays), the program had to do something to make some noise and hopefully attract viewership. Simply having Allen in the cast wasn’t going to do it any longer. So, as Allen and new showrunner Tim Doyle discussed with the New York Post, the choice was made to try to turn a bland family sitcom into a modern-day Norman Lear comedy, complete with arguing about social issues, Barack Obama, and the nation’s legacy of genocide.
Did it work? Having watched all 18 episodes of the show’s second season, I can’t really say that it made the show better, but it certainly made it weirder. (And in terms of ratings, it allowed the show to keep the lights on on Friday, no mean feat.) Its attempt to put a finger on the country’s pulse made it much more worthy of discussion than when it was just about some angry guy living with too many women, as it was in its first season. It’s like when ’Til Death turned into a strange meta-sitcom in its final season, though somehow even more misguided.
The basic premise of Last Man Standing is the same as Allen’s former sitcom hit, Home Improvement, only his character, Mike Baxter, has three adolescent-and-older daughters, instead of three child sons. The oldest daughter, Kristin, was the promising one who was going to succeed, until she had a child late in high school, and she’s lived in her parents’ house with her son, Boyd, ever since. Middle daughter Mandy is a ditzy fashionplate. Youngest daughter Eve is the one who’s closest to her dad, into things like soccer and hunting. There’s an outdoor-store workplace setting where Mike deals with crotchety boss Ed (meant to be the even more hyper-masculine version of Mike in season one) and dumbass employee Kyle. And in the second season, the show made an attempt to flesh out the neighborhood the Baxters lived in with a handful of recurring characters, including a black couple who become fast friends with the Baxters, and a Latina maid. In addition, the second season added the father of Kristin’s son, Ryan, as a semi-regular, meant to be the Meathead to Mike’s Archie Bunker.
The problem with Last Man Standing’s attempts to go political is exemplified by the first scene of the season première, which remains one of the most uncomfortable scenes of television I’ve ever watched. It’s not even really bad so much as it’s actively discomfiting, doing its best to push buttons in the audience that don’t need to be pushed, as if it thinks what made Lear’s sitcoms a success was the yelling or the mentions of social issues that people sometimes argued about. Mike says Obama was born in Kenya. Kristin and Ryan make fun of Romney for being a robot. It goes on and on and gets more and more squirm-inducing, but in a way that is clearly meant to be a good time. This is the new height of political humor?
The characters on Last Man Standing don’t speak about issues in any sort of nuanced manner, nor do they have terribly deep discussions about them. They mostly repeat buzzwords and shout at each other a lot. The show wanted to make Mike into a conservative hero, but it didn’t bother giving him a consistent worldview. He’s just somebody who spouts Fox News talking points a lot, and while that may be somewhat true to life—in that most modern political arguments between left and right tend to boil down to talking points gleaned from elsewhere—it doesn’t make the experience of watching people shout pithy, empty phrases at each other any more interesting or involving. What’s more, Mike’s main liberal competition—Ryan and, occasionally, Kristin—tend to speak as if they came up with their own political positions from reading the list of tags at the bottom of posts on a left-wing blog.
Again, this is true to life. Few political arguments—particularly those among family—have the level of nuance one might expect from, say, a mythical boxing match between Paul Krugman and Milton Friedman. And, thinking back on All In The Family, Archie and Mike Stivic’s arguments on that show rarely had much nuance to them, either; the series gained much of its power from moments when it could step outside of their limited points-of-view and depict the world as it actually was. What made All In The Family’s political arguments work—what made the vast majority of all of Lear’s series featuring such arguments work—were the character stakes. The idea that Archie and Mike would love or even respect each other at the end of one of those knockdown shouting matches wasn’t taken for granted. They really might end up pushing each other too far, and did on occasion. The relationship, which grew to a kind of grudging respect and finally love, was one of the best developed in television history.
It’s unfair to hold a relationship that’s only existed for 18 episodes of television to that sort of standard, but the central problem with Last Man Standing’s political arguments is that the show A) never gives viewers a reason to care whether Mike and Ryan respect each other at the end of the day (after all, Ryan’s not even a series regular), and B) takes it for granted that the two will respect, and maybe even love, each other. Ryan abandoned the mother of his child and said child for three years and has returned, trying to right his wrongs. The Baxters have every right to be suspicious of him, and it would be easy enough to turn Mike and Ryan’s political arguments into arguments about something more fundamental in their relationship: what Mike perceives as Ryan’s utter inability to help out Kristin when the chips were down. That’s interesting. That’s drama. But Last Man Standing runs away from it at every occasion.
The series has the right idea in trying to ground the political in the personal. For 99 percent of us, politics is personal. Think, for instance, of the relief you might have felt when Obama won last year, or the despair you might have felt when Romney lost. Those emotions may have been driven by something politically concrete on one level, but they were also driven by a more fundamental, emotional level. No matter how much you may believe in [insert issue here], every election comes down to a choice between something you identify strongly with and something you do not. The two-party system all but guarantees this. When the characters on a Norman Lear political sitcom argue, this is what they’re really arguing about: the defense of the self against something that would encroach upon it. Too often on Last Man Standing, however, the characters just argue about politics to give each other a hard time. There’s little sense of passion, and even when the characters come up against a problem that’s truly insoluble—where there are significant arguments to be made on both sides—the show chickens out and ultimately buries everything under a gloss of, “Well, at least we all still love each other!” Take, for instance, the episode “Mother Fracking.”
Mike’s wife Vanessa (the great Nancy Travis, given sadly little to do) is a geologist, and part of her work involves using the process known as fracking to gather natural gas. Eve’s terrified of the impact this might have on the planet, so she stages a one-girl protest. Vanessa rightly points out that the best current method of finding energy comes from fossil fuels. The choice is presented along admirably stark lines: Enjoy the modern comforts that in many cases keep us alive, or probably fuck up the planet irreparably. There’s a real opportunity here to strain a relationship between mother and daughter, one viewers actually do care about. Instead, Mike tells Eve that her mother does her best, and maybe Eve shouldn’t give Vanessa a hard time, since she really loves her little girl. And… that’s about it.
This question of making giant political issues into smaller, more personal ones runs throughout the season (though toward the season’s end, it becomes less about that and more about interpersonal relationships), and it’s sometimes, frankly, embarrassing. There’s a whole episode that clumsily creates the impression it wants to make a one-to-one comparison between the genocide of American Indians and Ryan leaving after Boyd was born. (Ryan doesn’t appreciate Ed promoting Outdoor Man with a Western-themed stage show—that arrives out of nowhere, it must be said—which features rampaging Indians. Later, when Ryan tries to say that it doesn’t matter what he did in the past in regards to Boyd, Mike accuses him of turning the tables and trying to sweep his own history under the rug. It’s… awkward.) There’s also an episode, talked about in the Post article above, where Eve gets in trouble for bullying at school, which means well but also inadvertently seems to suggest that kids should be able to use as many anti-gay slurs as they want. Because the show is so intent on not having a definitive political point of view, it comes off as clumsy more often than not. It also forces the characters to behave in ways no human being ever would, as in one episode when Vanessa wonders if she received a promotion because she is good looking, then actually goes and asks her boss that very question. Who would do this?
There are stabs at character complexity here and there. Ryan is liberal to a fault but also subject to his own unexamined prejudices, particularly when it comes to how he, deep down, believes the mother of his child should submit to his authority. And Eve’s a gun-toting wannabe Marine who’s also really concerned about the potential destruction of the planet, and recoils in horror at the Wild West show when she finds out about the plight of the Indians. I’d feel more strongly supportive of these stabs at complexity, however, if the series didn’t leave the impression that it simply forced the characters into whatever straitjacket it needed them to be in for that particular episode. Eve will be a budding hippie in one episode, a budding military member in the next, and never the twain shall meet. Considering the show does take stabs at consistency of setting and story serialization, it’s just a little strange, as if Last Man Standing understands that people are complex but wants to present all of its characters as different archetypes in different episodes, lest they get too complex.
That Last Man Standing doesn’t really work is all the more disappointing because it comes close enough to suggest a show worth watching. Even if the show’s first season was more consistent across the board, it was much less interesting than the second, which was fitfully fascinating, as in an episode when Kristin learns Mandy is infatuated with Kyle, whom Kristin earlier dated, and takes this occasion to reignite her relationship with Ryan. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous moment, where Kristin’s motivations are surprisingly nuanced—until the next episode, when she and Ryan are just happy together again. In its second season, it was incredibly evident that Last Man Standing had seen some of the best shows in TV history and was trying to ape them, but had mostly just captured the surface of them.
This is too bad. The cast is game, the jokes work on occasion (particularly when delivered by Molly Ephraim, who plays Mandy, and Hector Elizondo, who plays Ed), and the show’s attempts to work politics into the mix are at least admirable and less wrongheaded than they might initially appear. Tim Allen doesn’t really have it in him to play Archie Bunker, but he does have it in him to play a guy who might have heard Archie back in the ’70s and heard in the man’s bitterness and resentment something that resonated, then found that sanded down by success and comfort. Where Archie was a blue-collar hero, Mike Baxter lives in the world of upper-class security. Where Archie was railing against a world that terrified him precisely because he didn’t know how secure his future was, Mike doesn’t have to worry about that. At its best, Last Man Standing can reflect some of the anxieties of Allen’s generation—like the thought that these late Boomer parents want to raise their daughters to be independent, then fall back on tired old gender stereotypes when those daughters really are independent—and provide a kind of comedy attuned to red-state sensibilities (ironically, since it’s set in bluing Colorado). Sadly, it’s too often at its worst, where it knows it has something to say but has no idea how to say it.