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'Last Man Standing': Tim Allen returns to TV, no 'Home Improvement'

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Last Man Standing is one of those junky, by-the-numbers sitcoms I know that, as a critic, I’m supposed to dislike and put down in a ruthless manner. But I can’t bring myself to do it. When I look at the now-rounded softness of Tim Allen, and note once again how his sandpaper voice contrasts winningly with his hopeful eyes, it’s impossible to plunge a shiv into this series, which premiered with back-to-back episodes on Tuesday night.

Plus, the show co-stars Nancy Travis as Allen’s wife, and Nancy Travis has been good and charming in shows from Becker to Almost Perfect, and I always liked her performance in the underrated 1990 Richard Gere film Internal Affairs. Then too, one of Allen’s daughters is played by Kaitlyn Dever, who turned in such a strong performance in the past season of Justified. Turns out her comedy timing allows her to hold her own in scenes with Allen.

The show itself? Well, it’s a variation on — Allen wants you to think it’s an inversion of — Home Improvement. The premise takes longer to explain than it does the series to start ignoring it: Allen’s Mike Baxter works for a an outdoor sporting goods store, making promotional videos since the catalog business has been rendered pointless by the internet. Despite being a proud hater of all things modern, Mike makes videos that allow him to rant about how manly men should behave, and they go viral. Or institutionally, semi-viral. Or popular enough to have the company (and the show) keep recording them.

Last Man divides its time between Mike’s workplace and his home, where he has three daughters including one who’s a single mother. (The show seems to have modeled its living room on the sets of Everybody Loves Raymond and All in the Family, right down to the positioning of the stairway.) The purpose of all this — the job, the family set-up — is to allow Tim Allen to embody male rage comically. He vents about everything from vlogs (“Vlog — is that slang for something bad?”) to poetry in a scattershot “What’s happened to men?” manner. In the second episode, he railed at length against child-proofing one’s house (nice small role for the reliable Paul F. Tomkins), a firm believer a few bruises, cuts, and scrapes are how kids learn to cope with the world.

Created by Jack Burditt, a writer for 30 Rock and Just Shoot Me, Last Man is certainly better than ABC’s other new male-in-crisis laffer, Man Up! — whose protagonists, like those on CBS’ new, fast-sinking How To Be a Gentleman, are the sort of fellows Mike Baxter ridicules on Last Man Standing. The attractions of the show reside in the skill of its performances and its very familiarity — like another ABC show, The Middle, a better series, it’s a traditional family sitcom on both sides of the camera(s): About a family, pitched at families. The problem for Last Man may be that it’ll skew toward an older viewership; it’s not simply not trying to be hip or cool or ironic, “hip,” “cool” and irony are things its lead character actively inveighs against.

All of which make Last Men Standing kind of interesting — that, and the fact that its portrayal of adult and teen-age females is very much on the same level as women-starring new fall shows such as Up All Night, Whitney, Suburgatory, and the returning Happy Endings. That is to say, Last Man shows the women to be the smart ones, the wise ones, the quicker ones. I just wish the punchlines were punchier — funnier.

I’m guessing most of you will disagree with me on this charitable view of Last Man Standing, but I’ll ask anyway and with genuine curiosity: What’d you think?

Twitter: @kentucker