LOS ANGELES — "Last Man Standing" is the show that brings Tim Allen back to situation comedy, and to ABC, where he starred on "Home Improvement" almost all the way through the 1990s. The series, which premieres Tuesday, is, like Allen's last, a multi-camera sitcom, which would be enough to deem it "old-fashioned" were there not a small rash of younger-generation multi-camera sitcoms also on this year. But it's pretty old-fashioned anyway.
I'd like to like this show. I feel somehow that I owe it to Allen for the hundred times I've enjoyed "Galaxy Quest" — "Home Improvement" never made that much of an impression on me — and to co-star Nancy Travis because I am a person who thinks that Nancy Travis should always be on television. It's not as if ABC hauled people off the street to make this series. Creator Jack Burditt was a writer and producer on "30 Rock" and "The New Adventures of Old Christine," and director John Pasquin produced "Home Improvement" and directed Allen in "The Santa Clause." But one feels that this is a case of people who can make situation comedies with their eyes closed making one with their eyes closed.
Allen's character, Mike Baxter, is pointedly a man of the past, of some imagined time when men slew dinosaurs and only women had feelings — a sort of cousin to Archie Bunker and to William Shatner's character on last season's "$(ASTERISK)! My Dad Says" and to any crusty curmudgeon who thinks the world has grown decadent since he was a lad. Mike is in charge of the catalog for a wilderness-goods company called Outdoor Man — "the blowgun and shotgun emporium," as wife Vanessa (Travis) calls it. But now his boss (Hector Elizondo) is closing down the catalog, even though it "was voted best catalog by Catalog magazine," and taking his business to the Web, in order "to lure young men to our stuff."
"Now you sound like my sisters talking," says Mike, whose online diatribes against Things These Days will soon go viral: "What happened to men?" he rants. "Men used to build cities just so we could burn 'em down."
Manliness and the lack of it is a minor theme in television this year — ABC also has "Man Up," premiering Oct. 18, whose characters are the sort Mike would use to prove his point — in a season that has, not coincidentally, offered a host of shows built around women. Mike himself is a male among females, with three daughters, played in descending order of age by Alexandra Krosney (single mother), Molly Ephraim (entitled) and Kaitlyn Dever (ironic). They mystify and worry him.
Like most TV grumps, his bark is worse than his bite, and his bark isn't that bad. Mike's character has been moderated to allow most viewers to agree with him some of the time — yes, kids are overprotected — and otherwise to find him wrongheaded but endearing. (Allen has worked that vein for some years.) His targets are mostly weightless — soccer, tanning beds, hippie day care — and what results is a show that feels at once toothless and mildly offensive.
The jokes and plots have been efficiently constructed, but most have no traction; they slide right off you, and the characters themselves seem disconnected from one another. Even Mike's rants feel remote, and remote-controlled. The comedy is much more promising when it slips into something more personal.
"I'm living with Lord Voldemort," No. 2 Daughter complains of Mike, exiting.
"I don't know who he is," he says to himself, hitting a lovely note of confused injury, "but he sounds like a very caring father."
More like that would be good.
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