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  • Dan Connors

The Funny Family Sitcom That Redefined Masculinity For A More Feminist Era

While situation comedies are something of a dying breed today, they were a television staple from its earliest days right up to the turn of the century. The introduction of cable television and streaming services have greatly changed television, especially comedic television, allowing shows to get darker, more adult and risque, and directed at smaller niches. Family sitcoms were just that- comedies about families tailored for families. If there is a family sitcom hall of fame it surely would include The Brady Bunch, Leave It To Beaver, Family Ties, Modern Family, The Addams Family, and All In The Family. But at the head of the pack would be this gem from the 1990's- Home Improvement. This show was my winter binge show, and I watched most of all 8 seasons for the first time in 20 years. Most of the episodes still hold up in our changing tv landscape.

Tim Allen was a successful standup comic in the 1980's who built up a comedy act around defining what is manly while grunting a lot. Disney approached him about starring in a sitcom built around the world of tools where he could both mock and celebrate masculinity, and Home Improvement was born. Originally called "Hammer Time," the title was changed after MC Hammer's song went platinum, and the show began with different actors in the roles of Tim's wife, Jill and his sidekick, Al. The pilot and sitcom development process can be a messy one, but Disney got it right with the great cast they eventually came up with.

The typical Home Improvement episode was fairly predictable, but funny. Tim and Al would host a cable tool show where Tim inevitably made a fool of himself by underestimating the power tools used in the show and having funny accidents. Then he would go home where he was and repeat the cycle of overconfidence, failure, and learning. Each episode's crises were neatly resolved after a session with the show's guru and therapist- neighbor Wilson Wilson, a colorful character whose face always remained partially hidden. While Tim would always mangle Wilson's advice, he used it to grow in his understanding of his family and their problems, and it made me wish we all had a friendly neighbor over the fence to turn to.

The beauty of this show, and of Allen in particular, was his ability to make fun of himself and his frequent accidents while also proving competent where it counts, as a loving father and husband, and as a television host. It takes a lot of courage to look like a fool in front of others, and the show uses his exaggerated needs for more power as a running gag for 8 season. And at the end of each show, they show funny outtakes where all of the actors mess up their lines and crack up. It makes the entire cast more human and likeable, which rarely happens in popular culture anymore (with the exception of Ted Lasso). We live in a world that takes itself seriously, especially when it comes to masculinity, and to see someone comfortable with showing both their vulnerable and macho sides was inspiring.

Allen and Patricia Richardson, who played his wife Jill, were both nominated for but never won Emmy awards for acting. They portrayed a strong, stable couple, and the show occasionally covered difficult subjects like drug use, infidelity, disease scares, death, Tim's vasectomy and Jill's hysterectomy. The writing on the show was so good that the mood never got too dark, and the characters were so likeable that you always wanted them to succeed.

Home Improvement, being a show about masculinity, includes three young boys as the Taylor children- Brad, Randy, and Mark. Randy, who was the oldest, played the smart-aleck middle child due to his shorter stature, and eventually left the show after season 7 to pursue college. Brad got into many of the messes that young boys can get into, and his stories were handled well. Mark, as the youngest, had little to do the first 4 seasons except be bullied by his brothers and going Goth in the later seasons.

If there are any weaknesses to the show, it was the easy laughs at the expense of fat people and the sexist portrayals of the show's tool girls, Heidi and Lisa. Tim made fun of Al's mom because of her weight, and those jokes seem so out of place today. He also made fun of Al's weight and his love of flannel shirts, but Al always had the last laugh after Tim's inevitable accidents. The chemistry between these two characters was great, and all joking aside, they respected each other and supported each other. As for the tool girls, they were treated with respect on each show, but their sex appeal was very much on display for the enjoyment of the male audience.

The rise of feminism and LGBTQ stories in culture has left some men feeling defensive and angry today. They are doubling down on macho culture and what it means to be a 21st century man. Men are questioning their place in a society that increasingly paints them as villains or less evolved. There is an important discussion to be had here about men, boys, gender, and what it all means, and shows like this could lead the way. Home Improvement showcases masculine men who both celebrate their manhood and get silly with it from time to time, rarely putting others down in the process. The men of Home Improvement are not afraid to consider improvement itself as a human goal, and are willing to listen to a nutty neighbor to learn something new about themselves.

Since the show ended its 8th and final season (Disney tried hard to entice the actors into a 9th season), Tim Allen has gone on to be an iconic presence not only from this show but also from the Toy Story and Santa Clause movie franchises. He has caught a lot of flack for both his personal past (Allen was arrested for drug trafficking in 1978, with his sentence reduced for turning in other drug dealers) and his conservative politics (never on display in Home Improvement but front in center in his later show, Last Man Standing). From all I can tell on an internet search for him, Allen has been a decent person off-screen with the public, which is no small accomplishment for someone as rich and famous. His politics are at odds with most of Hollywood, but he has shied away from the craziness that has consumed some on the right these days.

While I don't share Allen's politics, I share his view of masculinity. I learned a lot from his show within a show, "Tool Time", and enjoyed diving into the world of contracting, cars, and tools. And I loved watching both him and his family grow all during the decade of the 90's. In the finale episode, which was watched by record numbers, Tim's character offers to move with his wife to Indiana to support her in her dream psychology career, and that act of selflessness ends the show on a surprisingly high note. Real men can be manly and still put women first once in a while. And they can grunt and be selfish sometimes too. We need more real men like Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor.

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