One of my favorite random "30 Rock" gags of recent vintage is that the show-within-the-show only got on the air as NBC's way of apologizing for having aired "Bitch Hunter," a misogynist action drama starring Will Ferrell as a hero who barks out dialogue like, "Put the mimosas down, bitch!" Each time we'd see a clip of "Bitch Hunter," it would come with a credit listing the various writers and producers, which included eccentric former NBC president Ben Silverman, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner and (each time) "30 Rock" writer Jack Burditt.
At the time, I just took it as a friendly dig at one of the series' own writers. But having watched two episodes of "Last Man Standing" (it debuts tonight at 8 on ABC), the Burditt-created sitcom in which Tim Allen plays a sexist, homophobic, xenophobic sporting goods executive, I had the following thoughts:
1)Allen's character would probably be right in the "Bitch Hunter" target demo;
2)"Last Man Standing" is Burditt participating in an elaborate practical joke to see how much of that ethos he can put into a network sitcom; or
3)That "30 Rock" kept associating "Bitch Hunter" with Burditt was less a friendly joke than a veiled cry for help.
Allen's Mike Baxter has a cliched sitcom wife - always rolling her eyes at his foolishness but ultimately going along - named Vanessa (Nancy Travis), a trio of daughters(*) and a job at Outdoor Man, a sporting goods company defined for so long by Mike's real baby: a catalog featuring photos of outdoor men doing manly outdoor things in exotic locales. But as boss Ed (Hector Elizondo) points out, not enough people read catalogs anymore, so Mike's globe-trotting lifestyle gets grounded while he tries to fix the company's terrible website - and so he can realize how much his girls need a man around the house.
(*) The youngest of them is played by Kaitlyn Dever, who was so incredible last season as the orphaned Loretta on "Justified." I know work is work (and that a regular role on a network sitcom almost certainly pays much, much more than a recurring role on a basic cable drama), but it's disheartening to see her here.
Mike's a guy's guy who has no idea what "Glee" or the Harry Potter books are, is happy to be at the office because, quote, "it smells like balls in here," and seems convinced that his family in particular and the world in general are going to hell in a hand basket because there aren't enough real men anymore.
"Men used to build cities just so we could burn them down!" he rants during a webcast that unexpectedly turns into a viral sensation. "You can't even change a tire! A tire! Why don't you get off the couch, you moron, and go outside!?!?"
Other jokes involve Mike being uncomfortable about other cultures (he pulls his grandson out of a daycare center when he hears the kids will be building a mosque out of pillows), gay people (there's a joke about parade floats so unfortunate I'm not even going to dignify it with a full quote) and immigrants ("I'm not an ATM. You know how I know? I only speak English!"), among others.
Allen played a similar character on "Home Improvement," and while I was never a big fan of that show, I don't remember Tim Taylor ever being this abrasive. I didn't like Tim Taylor, but I didn't instantly hate him the way I do within 90 seconds or so of being with Mike Baxter.(**)
(**) And there's humor to be mined from a prejudiced and/or reactionary character. See Archie Bunker, most famously, or Stacy Keach on "Titus," or even much of what Burditt and company had Jack Donaghy say and do on "30 Rock." But those shows told those jokes with more style, and usually had an awareness of the ludicrous and/or offensive nature of those characters' words and deeds. "Last Man Standing" doesn't.
Allen's a comedy professional, beloved sitcom star and the voice of Buzz Lightyear. These are all things that would lead me to assume that the studio audience - a species that tends to be generous with their laughter, anyway, by virtue of being physically present and encouraged by the warm-up guy - would enthusiastically respond to all of these groaners. Yet the episodes ABC made available for review were clearly done before the laugh track was sweetened - a common industry practice where the studio audience's laughter is augmented with pre-recorded laughs from older sitcoms - and you can hear crickets most of the time.
The whole thing feels like a gross miscalculation - a failed attempt to update Allen's familiar persona for an angrier, more desperate time. "Last Man Standing" is the first of three new ABC comedies in which men struggle with what it means to be men in a world dominated by women. Each of them - "Man Up!" and "Work It" are the others - are terrible in their own way, but given the presence of Burditt (who wrote the classic "Rosemary's Baby" episode of "30 Rock," among many, many gems) behind the camera, and Allen (whom I've usually liked as a performer, even if I only occasionally - as in "Galaxy Quest" - like his vehicles) in front of it, the cringe-inducing badness of this one feels the most frustrating.
Unless, again, the whole thing is a very expensive, well-disguised prank.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org