By Ken Tucker
Updated November 02, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT
Credit: Edward Herrera/ABC; Peter Stone/ABC

Last Man Standing returned a series transformed on Friday night, while Malibu Country debuted as a new series with regressive tendencies. Clearly wanting to shake things up, get some attention and some ratings, Tim Allen’s character Mike Baxter has become a supporter of Mitt Romney, a mouthpiece for the Republican party, and perhaps something a bit more extreme. The strategy has worked, at least as far as attention: I probably wouldn’t be reviewing this show, were Mike not saying things like, “You voted for a guy from Kenya.”

Tim Allen has suggested in interviews that he wants to make Last more akin to All in the Family, and so I presume he knows that that makes him Archie Bunker, which in turn renders him a lovable bigot. But does Last Man Standing really want their lead character’s support of Mitt Romney (and that’s what the entire half-hour was about tonight, Mike trying to convince two of his daughters to vote for Romney) to come across as the comic rants of a cheerfully intolerant rage-spewer? I doubt it. But when the punchlines include sentiments such as Obama “feeding freeloaders,” with Mike excoriating “four more years of big government bail-outs” — and I have to assume those were punchlines, since a studio audience (and perhaps a bit of a sweetening laugh track?) guffawed lustily — I think it’s time the folks involved with Last take a closer look at All in the Family, in which the prejudice was built around real jokes:

Sure, the line about Reader’s Digest is dated now, but it’s funny, even if you don’t know what the Reader’s Digest is. By contrast, the only time Last Man Standing arrived at amusement with its new agenda was early on, when Mike came into the house with an Obama for President placard that had been planted on his lawn. He held it at arm’s length, pinched his nose with the other hand, and said, “Boy, some big dog dumped something on our lawn.” Not a great joke, but poop humor works well enough on 8 p.m. Friday night sitcoms.

By contrast, Reba McEntire’s Reba Gallagher could use a bit of Mike Baxter’s spunk on Malibu Country. Playing a middle-aged country star who’s left her cheating husband and Nashville for a new life in California, McEntire musters some of the spirit she used to throw into selling the punchlines of her previous sitcom, Reba, but this vehicle is, so far, trite. Marijuana-consuming jokes for Lily Tomlin, playing Reba’s mom? There’s more potential for this pair of quick-witted performers — don’t slow down Tomlin’s comic rhythms by having her play stoned. Reba sparring with TV’s 1,728th sassy office assistant (Jai Rodriguez)? Smart Sara Rue as a wiggly ditz?

There’s a chance Malibu can find a different way to arrange these characters and build a show that could be the sitcom alternative to ABC’s Nashville. But that’s going to require some quality re-writing, and fast, before people tune away in boredom. Do it for Reba, Tomlin, and Rue, won’t you, producers?

UPDATE: As James Hibberd reports, the ratings for Malibu Country were mighty healthy. Looks like there’ll be time for this show to get better!

Twitter: @kentucker