How unfortunate it is that “Last Man Standing” didn’t stay on the air at ABC?
To be clear, I am neither a fan nor a detractor. Some shows are going to do what they do, especially shows in entering their seventh season, which the Tim Allen vehicle did on Friday. It has a loyal fanbase ready to see its return and still miffed at ABC for canceling it in the first place.
The network explained as a financially motivated decision as opposed to a political one; “Last Man Standing” is produced by 20th Century Fox Television, and only that studio would gain from its continued existence, not ABC. (Mind you, this decision came down before the companies merged.)
“Last Man Standing” is a family show centered upon a conservative character, an edgy proposition to a liberal-skewing industry in years less rancorous than 2018. Family series aren’t in the business of channeling political bile. Well, they weren’t until this spring.
Besides, partisanship is marketable. In 2017, when ABC cancelled “Last Man Standing,” the show was the second highest rated comedy on the network, with a season-to-date average viewership of 8.1 million.
However when political identity is written into a show’s DNA, even a family show, this means the audience probably expects certain elements of politics to be addressed within the show. And if there were ever an opportunity for a show to say something about the seething ire that has encompassed our political discourse, especially as it pertains to gender politics, it’s this one.
Think about it: the entire premise of “Last Man Standing” is that it follows the day-to-day misadventures of the titular character Mike Baxter (Allen), a man struggling mightily to maintain his manliness in a house dominated by women.
Mike is a jovial outspoken guy and staunch conservative who has three daughters. Eve (Kaitlyn Dever), his younger, serves in the military. Kristin (Amanda Fuller) works with him and identifies as liberal. She’s generally sensible, although married to a crunchy, dithering Canadian named Ryan (Jordan Masterson), His other daughter Mandy (Molly McCook) also is a liberal and an idiot, married to another idiot, Kyle (Christoph Sanders).
Wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) is fairly ambiguous about her political identity although she voiced her intent to vote for Hillary Clinton. In these new episodes she follows the classic sitcom mom role of peacemaker and counterweight to Mike’s manly man unreasonableness.
The Baxters are the so-called “traditional” American family, in other words – generally nice people with Mike leading the way as an old school paterfamilias.
He has a black friend and co-worker, Chuck (Jonathan Adams) with whom he trades jokes about race, because in the realm of the “traditional” family sitcom, all the fuss about racism is just overblown and, we’re past it now, can’t everybody just get along? And the owner of Outdoor Man, where Mike serves as the marketing director, is a guy named Ed (Hector Elizondo). He’s also conservative, but like Chuck and Mike, enjoys sharing a tumbler of brown liquor and commiserates on the lot of man. That’s where everyone finds common ground.
“Last Man Standing” was never a show meant for the likes of me.
Whereas for other viewers, mainly those lamenting the dearth of family-friendly television series and “family values,” “Last Man Standing” is the perfect chaser to Friday night Miller Time. That’s great. Do you.
But if the comedy had stayed on all this time, in a season where Allen’s centrist Mike could have something to offer in defense of classic conservatism while standing against Trumpism, that would be valuable.
In August, when the cast and producers appeared for a panel at the Television Critics Association’s press tour, Kevin Abbott, the series showrunner, described Mike Baxter as a conservative Republican. “He holds those ideals.”
Allen characterized Mike as a centrist, “a practical guy. He owns a big business. If it’s helping his business, he’s probably pro-Trump. He probably doesn’t defend him.”
And in some respects, that’s understandable. Making the politics of the day central to a comedy is a difficult balancing act. Making it the heart of a family comedy seems like the surest way to polarize viewers. Remember, “Roseanne” debuted to huge numbers but by the finale its viewership came back down to Earth, to a ratings level just a notch higher than Allen’s comedy.
But there’s taking the middle road, and there’s failing to address a real-world concern that directly impacts the premise of your show: Mike is a guy who lives with four women in a year where women’s social and political empowerment, feminism and basic civil rights are all anyone can talk about.
Men sure have opinions about it, ranging from outrage to confusion to dismissal. Mike is a man with a lot of opinions. Therefore, pardon me for being curious about what Mike would have to say about what’s going on with women in the world, and showing us how that impacts the women in his world.
And indeed, “Last Man Standing” season premiere addresses how ugly the conversation has gotten, but it does so very much in the way “Roseanne” does: the conservatives in the Baxter house snarl and the liberals, represented by the intellectual Lilliputian that is Mandy, return fire with a heaping helping of smugness and, in Mandy’s case, malapropisms. Because in case we didn’t get it – she’s dumb!
But when Mike gathers for a manly men meeting of the minds with Ed and Chuck, they help guide him to the conclusion that politics is cyclical and a give and take proposal. One side loses, the other side rises. And everything turns out OK.
The episode sets this course early on when Mike confronts a despondent Ryan who can’t get off the couch, overwhelmed by how quickly the country is going to hell.
Mike gives him an “oh come on” and suggests that maybe the problem is he’s watching too much news.
“Listen: politicians, politics always change. Sometimes my guys, sometimes it’s your morons,” Mike says as the studio produces gales of laughter. He then tells Ryan that he can’t change the world, but there are certain small things he can do like, say, shutting off the TV and ignoring the problems.
“Last Man Standing” is frequently mischaracterized as a “working class sitcom,” but the Baxters live in a large Tudor-style brick house in Colorado. Mike has a cushy office job, and Vanessa used to work for a company that specialized in fracking. They are anything but working class.
What they do, however, is radiate the visual of comfortable America, the version where there are no worries. Its writers created this episode long before the storm surrounding Brett Kavanaugh hit Category 6 levels, but well into the era of #MeToo and its related concerns.
But at the end of a week where Mike’s “guys” heard testimony from a woman, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, detailing her accusations that she was sexually assaulted by conservative Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, its “this too shall pass” message feels tone-deaf.
Again: this sitcom was never for me. But I suspect there are conservative women who may question why a guy surrounded by women has nothing to say about the fact that his guys have done things that are demonstrably dismissive of women and their well-being. Mike, a nice guy who is chock full of opinions and advice, may not want to touch the fact that “his guys” signed off on dividing mothers from children at the border, but a guy with three daughters may have something to say about how he’d hope other men in the world would treat them.
Even as one acknowledges that the primary obligation of “Last Man Standing” is to entertain, it’s tough to give the show a pass for not using its platform to stand up for centrist conservatism – if not through Mike, than at least through his interactions with the people around him. You see, one of the recurring scenes in this show is for Mike, Ed and Chuck to share a drink and share wisdom.
This week’s question is whether our cultural divide is a bad as it’s ever been. Ed mentions, “I missed the good old days when we were all on the same page.” Mike brings up the Vietnam era, and Ed concedes, and offers the tensions during the McCarthy era.
Chuck – a black man in America in 2018 -- reminds Mike about the “cake walk” that is the Civil Rights era. And that’s where he leaves that point, in history. No mention of what Chuck experiences as a black man living in Colorado right now. Not even a Starbucks joke! Conservatives love to go after Starbucks!
If political identity is part of show one would think the writers would address what ills the body politic in the present.
But “Last Man Standing,” like “Roseanne,” treats voting and governance like a team sport, where there are no consequences for its characters, where everybody would be fine if we could just all, you know, get over the fact that “Mike’s guys” won. That’s a terrible plotline to peddle at any time this year, but on September 30, 2018, it’s beyond tone-deaf.
After last week, when Mike’s guys refused to find common ground with liberal Ryan’s “morons,” not many people are going to listen to Mike’s insistence that we not turn on each other.
“We treat each other with dignity and respect, because that’s who we are!” Mike says to his daughters.
It’s a message from a bubble where everything is easily solved and everybody can simply agree to sit down and get along.
Yet Mike’s daughters don’t have to worry about sexual assault or their right to choose; after all, as Kristin’s storyline demonstrates, if one of them unexpectedly gets pregnant they’ll just go the right thing and have the baby. And if they don’t want to get pregnant… well, they won’t put themselves in a position to do that, will they?
Pardon me, but it’s been a week.
But if “Last Man Standing” is your show, or a favorite show of someone you care about, perhaps you’d want to see conservatism and masculinity portrayed in a positive, empathetic and honest light, if only to prove, you know, #NotAllMen.
Perhaps this series’ writers could acknowledge that no one’s manliness is threatened by standing up for women since, as many guys are fond of saying, Mike has three daughters and he wouldn’t want them to be treated like that.
The writers might consider ways to honor their fans' point of view while seizing the opportunity they have with this set-up to actually address the issues causing strife in our culture, and the role tribalism and, yes, being a “bad winner” plays in damaging our democracy. They could speak to a side that isn’t interested in listening to the other in a way that actually gets them to listen.
They could prove that being a "centrist" and a conservative doesn't mean refusing to stand up for that which is morally right.
At the of the episode, Mike hands Ryan, a natural born Canadian, an American citizenship application. (In this version of sitcom America, his path will be easy. For a different perspective, watch the actual working-class comedy that is Netflix’s “One Day at a Time.") Ryan points out that if he gets the right to vote, his vote will cancel out Mike’s.
“Oh no, this’ll be fine. There’s a lot more me’s out there,” Mike brays, to the delight of the audience.
In the real world, perhaps not, or not for much longer: one lesson of 2016 is that those who remain in bubbles of blissful unawareness, refusing to see the problems stirring the pot, are setting themselves up to be pushed from the top of the mountain. "Last Man Standing" probably will perform well for Fox, but I wonder how long the writers can ignore the cacophonous disconnect between the Baxters' world, a place devoid of political consequence, and our own, where so many of us feel like we're relegated to viewing tragedy unfolding from the outside.