Tim Allen’s sitcom “Last Man Standing” was cancelled on May 11th by ABC, prompting a Change.org petition in the name of conservative empowerment. The petition reads in part:
Last Man Standing is one of the only shows on broadcast television, and the only sitcom, that is not constantly shoving liberal ideals down the throats of the viewers. And sadly, that is likely the real reason the show has been cancelled.
The petition has received 350,000 signatures to date and has been filtered through various news outlets through their respective platforms. Sarah Palin predictably weighed in. Conspiracy rumors might stay afloat given that the fact-checking website Snopes won’t confirm that it’s an entirely apolitical decision. But even if the decision was based in part on political bias, critics are demonstrating a misunderstanding of TV dynamics.
To call any show that’s run for six seasons with middling ratings “cancelled” is a bit of an understatement. TV has always been and will continue to be unilaterally cruel to its viewers whether they are black, white, conservative, liberal, sci-fi nerds, or Judd Apatow fans. The Nielsen ratings system is arguably outdated and certainly frustrating beyond belief but the pure math is what decides the fate of TV shows. As evidence, consider that “The Real O’Neals” was cancelled in the same press announcement. This was a show that featured a gay teenager (played by a gay actor who has been vocal about Hollywood not being liberal enough) and two newly divorced parents whose spiritual maturity is achieved through reexamining their relationship with the church. Maybe conservatives can call it one in the win and one in the loss column?
At the same time, the annual rite of TV cancellation heartbreak is always accompanied by a series of mostly fruitless petitions. This isn’t too far off from the norm. Even many of the signatories of this petition likely realize that the political charge is just an effective way to capitalize on the politically-divided climate.
Still, even if this isn’t as overtly political of an action as some are making it out to be, it’s worth asking how Tim Allen evolved into a modern-day Archie Bunker, what his TV shows say, and whether TV is an inviting place for conservatives.
Two decades ago, Tim Allen was TV royalty, with “Home Improvement” regularly topping the ratings charts. The stand-up comedian and mock handyman counted celebrities like Oprah as fans and had his brain picked by James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.” This, however, is an evolved TV landscape in which comedies have generally forgone laugh tracks for deeper and more sophisticated humor. Allen’s comedy still relies primarily on punch lines that only require one line of set-up. That’s not to say that Allen shouldn’t stick to what he does or that laugh track sitcoms are incapable of achieving ratings (or even cultural success as “How I Met Your Mother” was recently able to do), but it is understandable if “Last Man Standing” is not the success that “Home Improvement” was.
Viewers of “Home Improvement” who have never seen “Last Man Standing” might be shocked to learn that Tim Allen is now a culturally polarizing figure. A.V. Club writer Sean O’Neal’s unsubstantiated assessment of “Home Improvement” as “casually misogynistic” not withstanding, “Home Improvement” was a harmless sitcom. Allen starred as a Michigan-based tool enthusiast named Tim Taylor, an essentially decent man negotiating his own idiocy while raising a household of rambunctious teenagers. If there’s any insensitivity in character Tim Taylor’s thinking, it’s generally used as a starting point for the episode’s conflict that is usually resolved by him listening (and eventually acquiescing) to either his domestic wife (Patricia Richardson) or his work wife (played as an unlikely bastion of effete sensitivity by Richard Karn).
“Last Man Standing” features similar echoes of negotiating change. Allen’s expy, Mike Baxter, is a traveling salesman and co-owner of an outdoors store who reacts to the downsizing of his travel budget with a rant against change that inadvertently makes him an internet personality. It’s essentially “Home Improvement” with a podcast replacing “Tool Time” although the mantra of “more power” is replaced with more overt ranting that’s par for the course for TV shows where stand-up comedians work their material into the show inorganically.
Like “Home Improvement,” Baxter’s more unexamined notions are put in check by life experiences and the curbing influence of family (instead of three sons, he has three daughters and son-in-laws who are written as bigger foils). Tim Taylor and Mike Baxter both negotiate their wife entering the workforce. In an episode of “Home Improvement” he ultimately lets his son quit organized religion but negotiating that conflict is not easy. Similarly, in “Last Man Standing” his daughter wants to join Air Force Academy and his wife (Nancy Travis) is the main voice of opposition.
Either side trying to posit Tim Allen’s screen persona as any sort of cultural warrior would be severely disappointed. The petition’s creator, who goes by the internet avatar Deputy Matthew, is aware of that. A paragraph of his petition reads:
Last Man Standing was not just selling conservative ideals though, as some of the characters in the show are clearly of the liberal persuasion, yet the characters on the show all manage to get along and take care of one another, despite their politically opposed views. The show is about more than politics though, it is about family. In fact, politics is only a secondary part of the show, but one in which many Americans can readily identify.
For his part, Allen probably agrees. In an interview with The Kelly File, he calls out Trump for saying stupid things and identifies himself as an anarchist more than a conservative. Allen explains his show is conservative “in point of view” and has liberals on staff.
His most inflammatory episode (full disclosure: only the sixth season was available for viewing when I wrote this article) comes in the episode “Liberal Snowflake” that attacks the P.C.-culture of speech when Baxter is forced to give a talk but it gets heavily censored by the college and he makes fun of microaggressions.
A sample of the dialogue (and another scene of the show) can be found here:
Mandy’s college is one of those safe spaces you have to conform or you’re shouted down.
I believe Red China has a similar program except there was less shouting and more shooting.
The issue is likely informed by Allen’s experiences as a public figure who has stated he has been bullied for expressing conservative inclinations. This has been, by and large, confirmed by the heat Allen took in the 24-7 news cycle when he made a comment comparing Hollywood to 1930s Germany. Furthermore, the Los Angeles Times did an excellent story about how conservatives in Hollywood are literally being forced into secrecy.
Allen’s frustrations with PC culture are informed by his experiences as a touring comedian where PC culture has been cited as an enemy of discourse regardless of overt party affiliation. Many famous comedians from Chris Rock (who stopped touring colleges altogether in 2014) and Jerry Seinfeld have attested to this is a problem.
The claim that TV is entirely a liberal space is increasingly dubious in an era where over 450 scripted shows were airing as of this past December. Still, there are shows that are distractedly partisan. “Girls” creator Lena Dunham, for example, is a polarizing figure— deservedly so—and the new Netflix show “Dear White People” tries to guilt people for using the words “post-racial” before you even watch the first episode.
I previously wrote here that a lot of TV criticism is being seen through an overwhelmingly liberal prism. It is also fair to say that liberal TV criticism has used politics to advocate for changes to television. The pressure on SNL to hire a black woman in 2013 as a reaction to a hiring slate that included six new white cast members (give male) is but one of many examples. It’s also indicative of the kinds of biases that underlie these campaigns that it was mostly omitted in this advocacy that the new cast members were hired to replace a graduating SNL cast of three white cast members with enormous amounts of screentime. Other examples include the barrage of “2 Broke Girls” Michael Patrick King or his thinly stereotyped racial characters at a press conference and strong attacks by Salon TV critic Sonia Sariya of debatable veracity on “Time After Time”, that accompanied most news articles of the show’s cancellation.
Ultimately, television is a medium where you are shown a world different and trust a creator and writing staff to guide you through it. It is unrealistic to expect conflicts like this to end up like an episode of “Home Improvement” or “Last Man Standing” where most problems are tied up in a neat little bow at the end of a half hour.
Orrin Konheim is a freelance journalist and entertainment blogger in the Washington, D.C. and Richmond markets. His work can be found at http://sophomorecritic.blogspot.com.