I hadn’t watched Home Improvement in quite a while. (I have to watch Frasier — it’s in the TV Critic Rulebook.) But I recently got interested in Tim Allen again. Saw him on The Oprah Winfrey Show, plugging his new book, I’m Not Really Here, and was struck again by how smart and likable a guy he is. So I got a stack of this season’s Home Improvements and plowed through ’em. First reaction: How could such a smart, likable guy settle for such a joke-less, stupid show? Second reaction: That Patricia Richardson — what a smart, likable person. Third reaction: Hey, when did the three likable knuckleheads who play their sons grow up and get such deep voices?
The fact that Home Improvement remains popular is a testament to its cast’s charm, because you can go a full half hour without locating anything resembling a setup-plus-punchline; I swear, there are weeks when the studio audience is laughing only at the slow-burn expressions on Allen’s face and at the funny outtakes that roll over the closing credits. Obviously, there’s a lot to be said for charm — millions of people choose to spend time with Allen, Richardson, and company, despite every episode being just another variation on the myriad ways in which Tim ”The Tool Man” Taylor is a macho silly-billy and wife Jill is a lousy cook.
But, always in quest of another opinion, I read the just-released 1996-97 Family Guide to Prime Time Television, which takes on the daunting task of advising parents which shows are and aren’t suitable for children. Curious to see what they had to say about Home Improvement, I thumbed my way to it and found a rave: ”The Taylors, a secure family unit, stand out in a TV landscape littered with atypical or dysfunctional families.” The book praises HI for its depiction of a ”strong…secure marriage.”
Delving further, I found that offering secure marriages and ”encouragement to maintain faith in God” are the best ways to get a high approval rating in the Family Guide; it matters not a whit that a show might be stupid or dull. For example, UPN’s In the House is lauded for promoting ”entrepreneurialism,” surely the first time that aspect of this deeply dim-witted show has been singled out as a redeeming value.
The Family Guide is a publication of the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group whose chairman is right-wing columnist L. Brent Bozell III. Over the years, I’ve eagerly read the MRC’s MediaWatch newsletter, secure in the knowledge that whenever Bozell’s bozos condemn a show for its ”liberalism,” they are really using a code word for entertainment that is usually entirely apolitical but which contains mature or complex moral issues that adults like you and I might enjoy.
In the Family Guide you can read that the sparkling Drew Carey Show should be shunned because it ”celebrates debauchery: irresponsible drunkenness and a lascivious lifestyle.” Cripes, if it actually did that, the show would probably be even funnier than it already is. Friends is verboten because it has ”given the nod to homosexual marriage and parenting.” And the Family Guide never defines what it means by obscenity but insists that Spin City, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and Homeboys in Outer Space all contain ”obscene” or ”foul” language. Huh?
I do understand what the Family Guide is getting at. Too much television is needlessly vulgar. There are also shows I enjoy immensely that I don’t want my young children to watch, such as The X-Files and NYPD Blue, because these are clearly intended for adult sensibilities. But the knee-jerk standards applied by this book would lead you to think that The WB’s Nick Freno: Licensed Teacher, a drecky sitcom full of insufferable wiseacres, is healthy fare because it doesn’t ”introduce offensive subject matter.”
The Family Guide approaches television as a medium whose primary purpose should be to instill approved values. In its worldview, Home Improvement may not improve our kids’ minds, but by God, it’ll teach the little devils that when you get married, you stay married. C
Note: The grade given applies solely to quality of show, not the virtues of Tim Allen, his cast, or their contributions to everything that makes America great.