In an episode of Louie this summer, Louis C.K. walked off the set of a fictional sitcom based on his own experiences in the TV industry. C.K. was frustrated by the bogus version of life in multi-camera sitcoms — the schlub with a wife out of his league who just nods along agreeably, kids he just can’t relate to, a job with wacky coworkers/friends — and all he wanted was some authenticity. Would it be too much to ask for that schmuck’s hot wife to not go along with his tangents and schemes? Would the show really be worse off if said schmuck had a character arc, learned some lessons, and (gasp) became a decent husband and father? Of course not.
The multi-camera sitcom exists in a stasis where the only lessons learned are that the man was right all along — and his family was silly to ever doubt his wisdom. Rinse and repeat for 24 episodes, for 8 seasons. But this sub-genre of sitcom had (very recently) almost died out. In a post-Raymond world, few examples of the family comedy existed. Once According to Jim and ‘Til Death ended their reigns of terror, this form of show was nearly an artifact.
Enter Tim Allen.
Indisputably one of the masters of the sitcom, Allen chose to make his long-delayed return to television with ABC’s Last Man Standing. It must be far from coincidence for him to choose this particular show — in it, he plays Mike Baxter, a man’s man with a wife and three kids. If you don’t notice the face-value similarities to Home Improvement, go turn on any local station around 4:00 tomorrow afternoon for a refresher.
Mike Baxter comes off as Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor on crack. He’s a guy that’d fit right in at a Tea Party event (of course, I mean Tea Party politically — Mike wouldn’t be caught dead at something as “effeminate” as a tea party). He’s got a superiority complex, he’s prejudiced, he’s bigoted, and most of all, he’s a stone-cold sexist.
I don’t mean that in an Entourage-y, “bros gotta look out for bros” kind of way. Mike is a man not just frustrated by, but deathly afraid of a world in which AAA will change a tire for you, and men drink things like “lattes” and “cappuccinos.” In Mike’s world, men, REAL MEN, don’t go to the mall or browse that thing called “the Internet.” They don’t play fantasy football — hell, a real man wouldn’t go near anything with the word fantasy in it. This worldview is decidedly stuck in another time period, most likely the early ’90s. I had to wonder if men like this truly exist?
It’s not that Last Man Standing isn’t just unfunny. It’s an entirely watchable show, even when it’s devoid of laughs (which it is), and that’s to the credit of Allen himself, as well as Nancy Travis, playing his mostly subservient wife. They’re both old pros at this multi-camera act, and it shows. It’s rare in modern TV to see actors completely comfortable in that studio-audience world, and seeing Allen at work makes one long for him to have better material.
What’s most offensive about the show isn’t any specific aspect — it’s the entire premise. The idea that we’re living in a post-masculine world full of men who don’t know how to be “men” isn’t just a backwards idea. It’s almost offensive in its disdain for anything other than Mike Baxter’s point-of-view. What may be even worse is the inherent model of the multi-camera sitcom, and the idea that the protagonist will never truly change. The writing staff, ironically or not, is firmly in support of this kind of thinking, and if the two episodes shown so far are any indication, Mike’s wife and daughters will succumb to the alpha male of their family every time.
What’s worst of all, though, is that there’s not just Last Man Standing hitting ABC this year: there are not two, but three of this type of show (see: Man Up! and *shudders* Work It). These three shows are saying something truly unsettling about where TV is heading at large.
In the last decade, the idea of women on TV being inferior to their male counterparts, both in a character sense and in importance to the overall direction of a show, has all but disappeared. Even 20 years ago, Shelley Long made Diane an equal counterpart to Sam Malone — in fact, she was the educated, logical character of the two. Even before, and absolutely after Cheers, women have been allowed, and encouraged, to be more than just window-dressing on TV.
Modern television became a place where Tami wasn’t just Coach Taylor’s wife on Friday Night Lights — she was his other half, and integral to the show’s resonance with its audience. Showtime made an entire industry out of strong female leads, between Weeds, Nurse Jackie, United States of Tara, and now The Big C. Look at Mad Men — a show set in the 1960s, no less — women are characters with freewill and the ability to make major decisions. Would Mad Men be nearly as powerful if Peggy were a subservient weakling who obeyed Don and Co.’s every word? Feminism on TV has come a long, long way, and the likes of Last Man Standing are a step about 50 years in the wrong direction.
TV is no longer a man’s world, and for good reason. Some of my favorite shows this season are centered around smart, strong female leads (New Girl, Suburgatory, Pan Am). Those shows aren’t fantasy — they’re our reality. A show like Last Man Standing exists in an entirely different dimension, one that hopefully doesn’t truly exist on a large level in 2011.
Sadly, ratings will likely be strong, and the “real men” of the world will praise the show for giving back that masculinity that was so wrongly lost. But do yourself a favor, and don’t buy into it. Tim Allen deserves better, and frankly, so do we.
There’s always a silver lining, though — if this (or even just Man Up!) gets cancelled, it only means we’ll get back to Cougar Town even sooner.
Tags: Last Man Standing
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