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|Topher Payne: Tim Allen’s last grunt|
|Written by Topher Payne|
|Friday, 28 October 2011 00:00|
When I was growing up, it was part of a beautiful ritual: Sister and I would get home from school and do homework, Mama would come home and start supper, then Daddy would arrive, put on his gray sweatsuit and sneakers, and we’d all pile up on the big sectional sofa with TV trays to watch our shows. A household favorite was “Home Improvement,” starring Tim Allen.
Tim loved classic cars and home renovation, just like my Daddy. The kids were the same age as Sister and me, so we could relate on that level, and even at age 11 I found Jonathan Taylor Thomas appealing in a way I couldn’t quite define.
Tim was forever trumpeting the virtues of machismo, teaching his sons how to be “manly men,” but none of them ultimately embraced his macho manifesto. Despite this, the viewer never lost the sense that Tim was attempting to forge a connection with each of them. Over the years, the writers were savvy enough to create a series that wasn’t really about a father imposing his values on his offspring. It was about how raising a family can dramatically change one’s perspective.
I thought of all of this while experiencing Tim Allen’s return to television, “Last Man Standing.” The whole experience feels familiar: Tim’s back on his old network, again with a wife and three kids. One gets the sense that the creators of “Last Man Standing” prepared for the new series by casually watching syndicated episodes of “Home Improvement” while they were distracted by another task.
Tim Allen’s still selling the same macho shtick from 20 years ago, but it doesn’t feel the same. The “manly man” ideal isn’t being celebrated in this series. It’s being used as an angry defense by an aging patriarch who sees his worldview fading into irrelevance.
When he takes his grandson to preschool (called, tellingly, “Happy Happy Rainbow) and finds out a student’s two fathers are inside making muffins, he grabs the child and escapes like the building’s on fire. A child being in that environment, he tells his daughter, will lead to “Boyd dancing on a float.”
In a later episode, a little boy named Doug wears a tutu to class because he “made the choice to be a princess today and we’re validating that choice.” When Allen’s character snorts and mocks this, the teacher reminds him that words can hurt just as much as weapons. Allen responds, “Really? Why don’t we step outside, you shout a few words at me, and I’ll shoot you in the foot.” This gets them kicked out of the preschool.
Allen’s character eventually apologizes to the teacher, not because he realizes what he said was wrong, but because they couldn’t get the child into another school. Then the teacher is called out as a bully for refusing to accept Allen’s point of view, which is when I started throwing things at my TV.
Rick “Frothy Mix” Santorum just tried this move in response to an SNL sketch that placed him cringing in a gay bar. It’s a tactic that leaves me gobsmacked: “How dare you not accept my lack of acceptance!”
“Last Man Standing” is a series that mines its comedy from fear, which worked on a show like “All in the Family” because the antihero was surrounded by people who offered a more reasoned perspective. On “Last Man Standing,” at the end of each episode everyone realizes that he was right. The audience is not expected to take the teacher’s side, because he’s presented as a completely absurd character —liberalism run amok.
The sad thing here is the lost opportunity. Two decades ago, Tim Allen portrayed a man a lot like my father, and I was interested to see what that character type would look like a generation later. What I found was a man who no longer looks anything like my father.
Daddy adapted with the world, and his values shifted as his children grew into adulthood, so that he can embrace the man who married his daughter and the man who married his son. He could celebrate his son “dancing in a parade,” and be proud that his son was the freakin’ Grand Marshal of that parade.
Tim Allen, meanwhile, chooses to portray a man who is terrified of the world he now inhabits, mocking anyone different from himself and raging at the fates, failing to comprehend why people aren’t grunting alongside him with the enthusiasm they once did.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.
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