‘Last Man Standing’: He’s alone for a reason

October 10, 2011

Years ago, you used to hear about people who worked as professional laughers in Hollywood. They were paid by networks to sit in studio audiences and bust their guts guffawing, which would, in theory, cause the people around them to laugh louder.

I guess those people have all been downsized, because at several points during the lazily conceived and terribly executed Tim Allen sitcom “Last Man Standing” (premiering Tuesday night on ABC), one can distinctly hear a studio audience not laughing. It’s entirely possible that a sound editor will come along and add some more laughs to the two episodes I’ve seen; otherwise there is an unsettling silence throughout, broken only by a muted chuckle or cough.

“Last Man Standing” is Allen’s much-ballyhooed return to sitcomville, and it is thickly coated in nostalgia for his “Home Improvement” hit of the 1990s. It’s less of a newly conceived comedy and more of a prime-time haunting.

As before, the undercurrent is one of manhood in a state of perceived crisis. Burdened with the Hollywood interpretation of a suburban lifestyle and parenting duty, can a tough man really be a man in the face of such emasculating affronts as a paisley bedspread? At least Tim Taylor (the home-improvement TV host and family man that Allen gruntingly portrayed) had three sons, only one of whom exhibited anything remotely approaching a whiff of nerdiness or softness.

Now, as Mike Baxter, Allen lives in a home dominated by women, which is immediately presented as a personal nightmare: His wife (Nancy Travis) has gone back to work. His oldest daughter (Alexandra Krosney) is the single mother of a baby boy who lives at home and works as a diner waitress. A teenage daughter (Molly Ephraim) is a pampered whiner obsessed with a boy who likes to get mani-pedis and attend Lady Gaga concerts. As if to toss one more gender grenade into Mike’s realm, the writers of “Last Man Standing” envision the youngest daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) as a grumpy tomboy.

The idea is to overwhelm us with long-gone gender anxieties. Men are like this and women are like that — end of conversation! In an entirely avoidable coincidence, “Last Man Standing” is part of an unfortunate duet on ABC, with another bad sitcom premiering this month called “Man Up!,” which just as stupidly arranges itself around threats to 1950s notions of manhood.

Let me say that I’d be the first to enjoy a well-made comedy about whatever today’s men are feeling about their roles as husbands and fathers in an economy and culture that they think is marginalizing them. But I no longer have faith that the networks can make such a show.

Mike works for the catalogue of one of those overcompensating sporting-man retailers, which sends him on excursions to jungles and tundras to gin up sales imagery for “manly” boots, knives, archery gear and the like. When his boss decides that the young male market no longer reads catalogues, Mike is reassigned to the Web site, where he uploads video diatribes about the softening of the American male, bilingualism and whatever tea-party-lite issues the show heaps upon him. Within its 22 minutes, “Last Man Standing” reveals Mike to be homophobic, xenophobic and generally just phobic.

When his sporty daughter sits at the breakfast table and frets about her upcoming soccer game, Mike says: “Soccer! That’s just Europe’s covert war for the hearts and minds of America’s kids.”

“We’re scrimmaging the boys to make us tougher,” the daughter replies.

“Well, the boys aren’t that tough,” Mike says. “I’ve seen them play. They run around and get hair gel in their eyes and then run into the goal post and then they cryyyy.”

When Mike is tasked with dropping his grandson, Boyd, off at day care, he finds the place repugnantly enlightened, especially when he learns that “Ruby’s two dads” are teaching the children to make pumpkin and flax muffins.

Mike flees with Boyd and instead brings him to work, where he can be surrounded by hunting gear. Because otherwise the day care was going to make the baby gay. “You know how it ends up,” Mike says, in case it isn’t quite clear. “Boyd dancing on a float.” (A gay pride float — get it?)

It’s not surprising that Allen and ABC think this unga-unga shtick still has market potential, but I once again refer you to the eerie silence from “Last Man Standing’s” studio audience. It speaks volumes.

‘Reed Between the Lines’

More strange ’90s revivalism to round out your Tuesday night: Malcolm-Jamal Warner is Cosbying it up in BET’s new sitcom “Reed Between the Lines,” in which he plays Alex Reed, an English PhD who is married to Carla, a psychologist (Tracee Ellis Ross). They have three kids and live in New Rochelle, N.Y.

It’s the floor plan of the Reed house that got me: The kitchen is where “The Cosby Show’s” Huxtable family’s kitchen was, down to the placement of appliances. Living-room furniture is in the same configuration. Stairs are right where we remember them. There is the same sexy frisson between Mom and Dad. All that’s missing are the geometric sweaters.

There’s barely a show here at all. “Reed Between the Lines” is instead a totemic analogy, bemoaning in sitcom form the lack of well-adjusted black families living in upper-middle-class splendor on network TV. It is here to shame us all for our shared lack of progress. There’s a look on Warner’s face throughout the first two episodes, and it is the look of a man who knows that he is Forever Theo.

Last Man Standing

(two 30-minute episodes) premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC.

Reed Between the Lines

(two 30-minute episodes) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on BET.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation.
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