Dear TV Clubaroos:
There’s a show on right now that mostly explains the world we’ve abruptly realized we live in, and almost nobody in TV criticland is paying attention to it. (Fortunately, you’ve got two of us in this very discussion, since I know Pilot also watches sporadically.) I speak, of course, of ABC’s Last Man Standing.
Should you somehow be unaware of Last Man Standing, it airs Fridays on ABC (the first reason you’re not watching), it stars Tim Allen as a red-blooded dude named Mike (the second), and its original premise was about how hard it is to be a man’s man in a world run by women (probably the third). I started out watching it because it was created by Jack Burditt, a 30 Rock writer, but once he left as showrunner early in Season 1, I mostly tuned out.
A curious thing happened in the show’s second season, though, that prompted me to tune back in. It got, if not consistently good, at least interesting on a regular basis. The show was obviously written by a bunch of Hollywood liberals, but their star, the reason the show existed, wanted to use it as a platform to talk about the kind of red-state conservative issues that had become whatever the conservative equivalent of “woke” is about. He wanted to talk about how maybe bullying toughens kids up a little bit. He wanted to dig into why Obama was such a disappointment. He wanted to talk about guns and spanking and PC culture.
The writers, led by then-showrunner Tim Doyle, took a while to get the hang of this, but they eventually turned out a show that seemed as tuned into these debates as anything on TV had in years, mostly because nobody was talking about this stuff anywhere else. When’s the last time there was a TV episode about whether it’s OK to spank your kids? (On Last Man Standing, Mike had never spanked his three daughters, but the oldest of them, a left-leaning type, spanked her son after he ran out into the street and was almost run over by a car.) And the show was always critical of Mike. His three kids and lefty stereotype son-in-law-to-be (hi, Meathead of the 2010s!) almost always got the best of him. But he was allowed to make his case, and make his case he did. It was fascinating TV.
I don’t want to overstate the show’s quality. Now in its sixth season, it still mostly turns political debates into a series of buzzwords, and Doyle’s departure a couple of seasons ago has resulted in a more hit-or-miss show. But it’s got a good cast, and I sometimes think in its “political arguments as buzzwords” writing style, it slyly understands just how often we, in our own political discussions, end up spouting off things we only half know from the headlines.
But the thing that makes Last Man Standing eerily predictive of many Trump voters is both how it grasps their surface-level concerns about a kind of white Protestant cultural erosion and how, the deeper it goes, the more you realize that what Mike is most worried about is his kids. His kids become the lens he views politics through, and he simply doesn’t understand what his kids believe. Like at all.
Take a recent episode, which rattled the conservative social media world. In it, Mike, a successful businessman, is invited to give a speech at his daughter’s school, but his speech isn’t approved by the school because it’s too filled with microaggressions. What follows is a labored, over-the-top parody of campus political correctness, but it concludes with Mike and his daughter Mandy (played by the wonderful Molly Ephraim, who’s going to pop up on a Happy Endings–style show when this is over, and you’re all going to say, “Who is that?!”) agreeing on the idea that sometimes your assumptions need to be challenged in a democracy. Hey, conservatives, the show constantly argues, your kids are going to be all right.
I wrote a long piece at Vox about trying to square my religious conservative upbringing with the pop culture I consumed both then and now, and I’ve been amazed by how the Golden Age of TV largely pretends conservative people, rural people, and working-class people don’t exist. (When it comes to television’s general shittiness around class—a fairly recent development!—I wrote about this back in 2012.)
In the wake of thinking and writing about bridging those pop culture gaps, I’ve talked to a lot of Trump voters, and once you get past the bluster and the buzzwords, many of the older ones are freaked out about either what their kids believe or about the dire economic opportunities for twentysomethings or about the rural drug epidemics that the national media largely doesn’t know exist, which have hit those communities’ younger populations hard. This is a generation gap as profound as any in American history (just look at the votes by age cohort), and we’re not talking about it. For those viewers who are—usually around 6.5 million of them, which is great for a Friday night—Last Man Standing is there.
It’s not like these folks aren’t tuned into pop culture otherwise. I never tire of pointing out that Breaking Bad was a hit in rural areas and smaller cities long before the coasts caught on to it, and they’re also a big force behind The Walking Dead’s rise to prominence. (Now there’s a show that read as conservative allegory for a long time and now abruptly reads as progressive allegory.) There are shows about people who live in rural areas—particularly ABC’s The Middle and Sundance’s luminous Rectify, which should be the Wire of small-town America– but they tend to be under the radar of viewers conservative and progressive both.
So, yes, Willa, I want TV to re-engage with our political world, but I don’t want it to do so in a way that constantly feels the need to prove a lesson, to have the best argument, to override all other opinions. A show like All in the Family could never be made today not because nobody would air it, but because it’s too tempting to make Archie Bunker softer, so we can understand why his kid loves him so much. (This is probably the central flaw of Last Man Standing—it too often acts like Mike is kidding about his most unprogressive opinions.) But that show was written by a man who loved his own father, even though he thought his father was in the wrong about many, many things. TV can get back there, and it can continue to show ever more faces of an increasingly diverse America, and it can try to bridge those political gaps with love and understanding, instead of unearned righteousness.
In fact, arguably, it already is doing this on NBC’s The Carmichael Show, which just missed my top TV of the year list and will feature heavily on my list of its best episodes. I genuinely believe that if NBC just parked that show in a time slot for a couple of years, it would become a hit and would make the country a slightly better place.
But I’ve talked too much, and mostly about Last Man Standing, the very opposite of a sexy TV show. I was intrigued, Willa, by your mention of Mr. Robot because I watched an episode of it immediately after the Republican National Convention one week, and the dovetailing between the two made all my synapses fire. There’s a show that, even when it’s flailing, feels like it’s flailing because the country is. And I want to know, from all of you, whether you think this trend of TV dramas set in the past really is failing to engage with our current reality. Because I don’t know that any show was as timely this year as The People v. O.J. Simpson.
Yours in no-longer-that-ironic Last Man Standing fandom,