Both Home Improvement and Mad About You offer their series finales this week. The two sitcoms began the season as time-period competitors on Tuesdays at 8, but after regular trouncings by Home and CBS’ JAG, Mad was moved to Mondays to finish out its run.
This is clearly a case of a show hanging around too long. When it started out, Mad had some zing. For the first couple of seasons, it was fun to watch Helen Hunt’s tart acting; her exasperation with Paul Reiser’s halting mannerisms mirrored the audience’s (okay, mine). But after a while, that became tedious. And since Paul and Jamie Buchman had their baby, Mabel, in 1997, Mad has become unbearably sentimental and nonsensical.
Early in this season, for example, we were supposed to chuckle over the notion that Mabel’s first word was schmuck, which she uttered at inappropriate moments. The other subplot included Paul and Jamie making long, serious, boring speeches about how much they love each other. ”Situation comedy. Comedy!” one found oneself yelling at the set. The May 10 episode had Paul and Jamie getting arrested; I worried about who was taking care of Mabel — presumably that depressed-looking dog they have. Do they still have that dog, Murray? Oh, well, too late to care.
Although Mad traded on New York sarcasm and a Seinfeldian focus on the little things — like the difference between cassoulet and casserole — Home was always the more solid entertainment. It arrived in ’91 at the height of Robert Bly’s Iron John phase, in which men were reverting to chest-thumping lunks, and Tim Allen made good fun of this, right down to his trademark grunting. (In the May 25 finale there’s even a montage of Allen grunting, and it’s still pretty amusing.) The show also benefited greatly from Patricia Richardson’s no-nonsense wife, Jill, as well as the increase in distinctive personalities displayed by the sons — Zachery Ty Bryan, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Taran Smith — as they got older.
Weaknesses? Well, next-door neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman), whose face is never seen (until this final episode!), grew tiresomely sententious. And I always found Al (Richard Karn) — Allen’s Tool Time assistant — more charming than funny.
Home was the subject of a front-page piece in the May 6 New York Times. Its thesis? That the show was the last of a dying breed: the family sitcom. No matter that Everybody Loves Raymond (which was mentioned) and UPN’s Moesha (which was not) are still thriving. Home cocreator Matt Williams said in the Times, ”If that show was pitched to a network today, nobody would take it.” Oh, malarkey: There’s still a market for shows starring hot stand-up comics, as Tim Allen was at the time Home was born. Believe you me, if Norm Macdonald had wanted to surround himself with a wife and three kids in his new sitcom, ABC would’ve had more confidence in The Norm Show, not less, because such a setup would’ve given an untested actor the pluses of an experienced costar (producers always match stand-ups with solid pros as spouses, from Raymond‘s Patricia Heaton to Roseanne‘s John Goodman) and kids (viewers like ”cute”).
The Home farewell has a flimsy plot — Jill gets a new job out of town and the clan wrestles with the idea of moving — which occasions some reminiscing and thus allows for a lot of clips. At the end, the cast takes a bow, but no mention is made of the original ”Tool Time girl,” Pamela Anderson Lee, or of young Taylor Thomas, who left the show early in the season. This seems odd.
As for the final episode of Mad About You, it’s cowritten and directed by Hunt, and reportedly features Janeane Garofalo as a grown-up Mabel Buchman. I say ”reportedly” because the network declined to send me a review cassette of the finale. An NBC rep said, ”The talent feels you haven’t been supportive of the show” — i.e., over the years, I’ve pointed out what I thought were growing weaknesses. ”The talent” usually means the actors; whether it’s Reiser, Hunt, or some combination of people, I’ll state what ought to be obvious: It’s not the job of a critic to be ”supportive”; that’s what you have friends and public relations firms for. The critic gives his or her reasoned, hopefully entertaining judgment of a show.
Speaking of which, the following grades are for the entire run of each series.
Home Improvement: B
Mad About You: C-