Men Without Punchlines

Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing and Man Up! reviewed.

Tim Allen and Nancy Travis in Last Man Standing
Tim Allen and Nancy Travis in Last Man Standing

Photo by Randy Holmes – © 2011 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.

Last Man Standing (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) stars Tim Allen as Mike Baxter, the marketing director of a company called Outdoor Man—a kind of XY L.L. Bean or, in the network’s phrasing, a “sporting goods man-cave.” Mike is married to Vanessa (Nancy Travis), who drinks heavily, as would you had you coupled yourself with this goofy and graceless loudmouth. They have three daughters. The youngest is a soccer player on the cusp of puberty. The middle child is a princess-y high-school student who goes on mani-pedi dates with her metrosexual boyfriend. The eldest is a 20-year-old single mother who works as a diner waitress, which offers a pretext for Mike to slobber over mentions of bacon and pie and other favorites from The Homer Simpson Cookbook. In the unlikely event that this show is still around two months from now, I expect to see a very special episode devoted to beef jerky.

Living with this pack of women, Mike has traditionally viewed work as a kind of sanctuary. This is especially true of his jaunts to dangerous places to direct catalog shoots, but even a humdrum day at the office has its pleasures. “No hair dryers!” he exults upon entering the building. “No tears! No citrus body wash!” (One notes that, despite his vocal aversion to all things overrefined, Mike decorates his office with a Barcelona chair rather than the Archie Bunker kind.)

Now, however, his boss—a low-end J. Peterman type indifferently played by Hector Elizondo—is discontinuing the catalog in favor of building up the website.* Simultaneously, Vanessa receives a promotion and starts working longer hours, so Mike “must spend more time in his female-dominated household.” Adapting to contemporary life even while struggling inanely against it, Mike starts making Outdoor Man Web videos, simultaneously demoing products and delivering overheated rants about the decline of masculinity. Asking “What happened to men?” while brandishing a crossbow, he becomes the company’s Howard Beale. The boss appreciates the traffic.

Very probably the worst sitcom on network television, Last Man Standing makes Whitney Cummings look like Noël Coward. It is hammily acted, lousily written, and shoddily designed, with crummy back projections in the driving scenes and harsh happy lighting during the kitchen-island confabs. Most of the homophobic jokes fall flat, but an Islamaphobic one landed nicely: Dropping his grandson off at a hippie-dippie day-care center, Mike is about to wave goodbye when the (male) employee says to the child, “Take the shoes off. We’re buildin’ a mosque out of pillows!”

And something is wrong with the laugh track. The producers could have created the illusion that the show is 12.5 percent less unhumorous than it really is by springing open cans of mirth at opportune moments, but the timing is off. A few of the half-decent jokes are greeted with silence while the worst are met with passionate intensity. Now, your experience of this alienating phenomenon may differ from mine. Before staring slack-jawed at the first two installments of Last Man Standing, a reviewer encountered a common on-screen disclaimer that this was a rough cut; the graphics, audio, and music were temporary. It is possible that the laugh-track problem will be fixed. But the show’s ineptitude is so thoroughgoing that I rather doubt it.

The prefatory note also asks that reviewers not reveal any major plot points to their readers, a courtesy easily extended. All of the show’s plot points are exceedingly minor. Mike sets up a handsome young doofus from his office on a date with his middle child—an attempt to separate her from her fey beau—but the kid takes out the eldest instead. After the middle daughter takes a pizza-delivery job to support her shopping addiction, Mike, fearing that she’ll be attacked by some psycho customer or rivalrous Noid, tails her in a van. Kids are coddled these days, Mike believes; Vanessa comes to agree with him after the family’s excessive babyproofing thwarts her access to the wine fridge.

Dan Fogler and Mather Zickel in Man Up

Next week, Last Man Standing will be joined on ABC’s schedule by Man Up! (Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. ET), which explores similar themes in a fashion that is somewhat less odious and necessarily more funny. Here we meet a trio of dudes whose grandfathers won World War II and whose fathers fought in Vietnam and who themselves belong to an “overevolved generation of pantywaists.” The promotional materials ask, “What happened to all the real men? They’re still here—they just smell like pomegranate body wash now.” What is the deal with these body-wash jokes? What products is it okay for a real man to bathe with? Dial? Irish Spring? Or does he just put a pinch of solid Old Spice between his cheek and gum?

One of the Man Up! manboys, though partial to hazelnut creamer, is holding onto his masculinity by a thin margin. Where this guy is henpecked, his cohorts are worth chickenfeed, having been dumped by women for whom they carry torches with limp wrists. One is preparing to pull a Graduate at his ex’s wedding, the other—delightfully played by a rageful Dan Fogler—sputters upon seeing that his ex-wife has taken up with a dark-skinned, muscle-bound, sensitive hunk. Take care to note that both of the shows traffic, intentionally or not, in the phallic symbolism of knife blades. But neither cuts the spicy beer mustard.

Correction, Oct. 12, 2011: This article originally misspelled the last name of the actor Hector Elizondo. (Return to the corrected sentence.)