Brow Beat

Tim Allen Is Not a Working-Class Hero

Actor Tim Allen on the TV show Last Man Standing. He sits in an armchair, a beer in his right hand while he enthusiastically points with his left. He has a happy expression on his face. He wears a navy blue polo shirt and jeans.
Tim Allen on Last Man Standing
Tony Rivetti / ABC via Getty Images

Thanks to the success of Roseanne, there’s been a wave of speculation about which new reboots could best speak to working-class Americans. And whatever else you may think of the show, Roseanne does create a portrait of a family on the brink of real financial disaster. Roseanne and Dan can’t afford vital health care. Roseanne drives an Uber because she needs the money. Their daughter tries to become a surrogate, entirely because it’d help her get out of debt. If the intent is, as ABC Entertainment president Channing Dungey said, to make more shows that depict “economic diversity,” Roseanne fits the bill.

So the search has been on for other dead TV shows that could get rebooted with a cultural impact similar to the Roseanne phenomenon, and one frequently floated possibility is either of the two major Tim Allen sitcoms, Home Improvement or Last Man Standing. Both seem like post-Roseanne reboot catnip. They’re set in “middle” America (Home Improvement is in Michigan, Last Man Standing in Colorado). In both, Allen plays related versions of the same macho man who stands up for “traditional” values and the right to shoot things or saw his own hand off without intrusive government regulation. And if the true intent is to depict Trumpian sensibilities in television sitcoms, either of these shows could do the trick. But if the implicit idea is to give its audience more working-class families, as has been so lauded in the Roseanne reboot, it seems like a good time to note that Tim Allen shows do not meet those criteria. They’re not “blue collar,” as Deadline described both Home Improvement and Last Man Standing. Nor do they mirror “the family life of middle-class workers,” something Home Improvement was praised for during is run in 1994. In truth, Home Improvement and Last Man Standing are shows about wealthy families, media personalities, and massive privilege. They are very, very far from working-class America.

On Home Improvement, at least, you could be forgiven for forgetting that Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor isn’t actually a construction contractor with a blue-collar life. Tim uses tools. A lot. When it originally aired in the ’90s, you could’ve flipped past it on TV and assumed it was a show about Tim Allen fixing things, working with his hands, and generally exuding a masculine joy in all things dumb and dudely—engines, beer, football, grunting, busty ladies. He has catchphrases, which include “More power!” (in reference to power tools), and a guttural “arrooo?” sound that, okay, is less catchphrase than it is musical motif.

Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor is not a contractor or plumber or dirty-job-doer à la the reality show Dirty Jobs. He’s a TV host, one of two guys on a show called Tool Time, in which he and his colleague Al show off tools and give tips on how to use them. Like Tim Allen, Tim Taylor is a member of the media, and even within the fiction of Home Improvement, he plays up his machismo for the Tool Time brand. He fixes little and knows even less; the running bit is that Al is the only one who can actually operate the machinery, while Tim’s job is to grunt and, presumably, take home a paycheck. The Taylors are probably not billionaires, but they live in a very large, very comfortable suburban home. In the first season alone, there are plots about the hot rod Tim restores as a hobby, Jill and Tim attending an opera fundraiser, and Tim installing a new satellite dish that will get them “200 channels.” They are a far cry from working class.

The financial picture is even less ambiguous over on Last Man Standing, where Allen plays Mike Baxter. He’s still got a hyper, defensive masculinity; on Last Man Standing he plays the joint owner of a chain of Cabelas-esque retailers called Outdoor Man, and he’s the titular Last Man because he lives with his wife and three daughters. He loves guns and work boots and the American flag. He’s also very proud of how much he’s accomplished. His house is enormous and gorgeously furnished. When one of his daughters gets into a college that will cost him $200K, he worries about the money, but mostly because he thinks she’s not very bright and the money will be a waste. When another daughter has a chance at a college scholarship, he cheers. If she gets it, he can buy a boat! (How much money does an owner of a sporting-goods chain make? It probably doesn’t matter; his wife is a Ph.D. geologist for an energy company). If Tim of Home Improvement is comfortably upper-middle class, Last Man Standing’s Mike is probably invited to the Koch brother’s next Colorado Springs retreat.

It’s true that if networks are looking for a show that can be a voice for modern conservatism, a Tim Allen joint might make sense. Last Man Standing, in particular, was already a straightforward outlet for eerily prescient Trumpian ideals when it premiered seven years ago. Even in 2012 and 2013 the show was doing jokes about hating Hillary Clinton, wanting to jettison New York and California from the country, whether women can be taken seriously at work, whether kids these days are too soft (spoiler: yes), illegal immigration, and the dangers of PC language.

He may not be working class, and his life might look nothing at all like the significant majority of Americans, but Mike Baxter absolutely does represent an important vision of the Trump voter. He is an immensely wealthy patriarch of a privileged white family who sees himself as a beleaguered victim. He enjoys filming himself as he rants about political topics—yes, he is also a vlogger—and tends to take a “just good common sense” tone on issues like racism and immigration (sample dialogue: “But these days, everyone’s gunning for the American white male. [waves at camera] Hello!”).

The best thing to say about both of these shows, especially Last Man Standing, is that they share with Roseanne a surface-level interest in political debate within the family. Mike’s daughters often disagree with him. One daughter is in a relationship with a man who lives in the show as Baxter’s default softie liberal snowflake, the guy who doesn’t want his kid subjected to the violence of dodgeball and who prefers not to eat meat. In the most charitable reading, the Tim Allen figure in both series is knowingly parodying himself, offering up the absurdity of his positions for pushback and gentle teasing. But Allen’s character sets the agenda on these shows. There may be some political disagreement, but the topics for debate are always Trumpian bugbears. Allen’s privileged white male characters are, without question, the default “self.”

Networks may well reboot one of these shows—“economic diversity” was always a thin euphemism for Trumpism. But any reading of these shows that argues they’re speaking to a “real,” silenced America is false. They are representations of wealthy white privilege, every bit as elitist as the politics they supposedly rail against.