ABC's recent comedy success has spawned several attempts this season by the network to build upon that young - but already surprisingly strong - foundation. A couple of weeks ago, I praised the very funny "Suburgatory," a show which has started strong in the slot between "The Middle" and "Modern Family" on Wednesday nights.
Two more new sitcoms have debuted on ABC since that one premiered, "Last Man Standing" and "Man Up!", but neither of them come close to being as sharp, well-observed or just plain funny as their network mate.
Airing in the 7 p.m. anchor slot on Tuesday nights, "Last Man Standing" (which, oddly enough, was originally titled "Man Up" during the development process) marks the return of Tim Allen to ABC, the network that was home to his breakthrough series, the long-running family sitcom "Home Improvement." This new series, created by Jack Burditt - whose credits include NBC's "30 Rock" - is a multi-camera family comedy about an old fashioned (and manlier-than-thou) husband and father, an Allen specialty. This time, however, he has three daughters - and a grandson - all of whom seem to serve as befuddlements that he can't quite manage to wrap his head around.
I'll admit that I was intrigued by the possibilities that Allen and Burditt brought to the table, especially as they teamed to make a traditionally-filmed family comedy. Unfortunately, most of that potential seems to have been pushed to the side - or even massaged out of the show. I wonder if this was because there were concerns that it was going to end up being seen as "Home Improvement: The Next Generation"; in other words, a carbon copy of a show that was extremely popular, but carried a stigma of not being edgy enough.
"Last Man Standing," on the other hand, longs to be edgy, it really does. But the "Last Man Standing" version of edgy translates to stock characters in stock situations, all played out over clearly-sweetened audience laughter.
An example. In the most recent episode, Allen and his wife (played by the ever-patient and pleasant Nancy Travis) attend a "Grandparents' Day" at their grandson's preschool. The teacher isn't just a student of the school of "I'm OK, You're OK," he's working on a Ph.D. Allen thinks the man's methods are silly, and says so, too, which causes the little boy to be expelled from the preschool. Ultimately, Allen finds that he has to apologize for his behavior, and when he does, the teacher insults him, which earns Allen a fairly passionate defense from his eldest daughter. In the end, the situation at the preschool goes right back to where it was before the whole dust-up. Nothing in this is challenging or unique; there's no twist on the material that can take it up to a next level.
To be fair, "Home Improvement" wasn't exactly a piercing examination of the American experience, but it wasn't supposed to be. I think the main reason that "Home Improvement" was as successful as it was had to do with how we in the audience could identify with Allen and his family in the show, how we appreciated their growth and change, and mostly how we liked spending time with them.
"Last Man Standing" doesn't have that same affinity for its characters, and it ends up frustratingly flat and unfunny. One and a half stars (out of four).
The show that follows "Last Man" at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, "Man Up!" (which was not known as "Last Man Standing" during development, but wouldn't that have been nutty), somehow manages to fall just as flat, but in different ways.
"Man Up!", which utilizes my editor's least favorite punctuation mark right in the title, is the story of three male friends (played by Mather Zickel, Dan Fogler and series creator Christopher Moynihan) who, by all outward appearances, would be considered fully-grown men. To wit, Zickel's married with a 13-year-old son, Fogler's divorced and Moynihan is holding on to hope than an old girlfriend from his college years is still in love with him. They all appear to be gainfully employed in actual careers where they are required to wear business suits.
But look closer and you'll notice those suits don't quite fit. Why? Because they have decided that they are not fully-grown men, especially when measured against their fathers and grandfathers. This allows them to let themselves off the hook for a number of stupid decisions, not the least of which is getting into a potentially violent confrontation with another group of men during a child's birthday party.
And that's a show-killing flaw. Because not one of the central characters is someone that you as a viewer can identify with, they come off as whiners who don't appreciate how good their lives are, nor do they feel any real consequences for their actions. Zickel plays a cardboard-cutout version of Phil from "Modern Family," Fogler's performance is all over the map and Moynihan barely seems to have a pulse, at least in the pilot. The few laughs in the first episode come courtesy of a supporting performance by Henry Simmons as a too-perfect example of an alpha male; when a character with about 5 minutes of screen time is the only likable or interesting member of the cast, that's a major problem.
To be clear, "Man Up!" isn't going to end up with the "worst show on television this season" crown - trust me on this - but it's certainly the worst one I've seen so far this fall. One star.