Disney’s Marvel Comics once published a title called “What if … ?” which tampered with comicbook history to explore the rewritten consequences. Think of “Last Man Standing,” Tim Allen’s not-so-triumphant return to ABC, as “What if the Dad on ‘Home Improvement’ had girls instead of boys?” Although it’s one of several comedies dabbling in gender (and a touch of conservative) politics, probing such matters gives this “Man” too much credit. Mostly, it’s an excuse to watch Allen occupy an Archie Bunker-like role 20 years after he began raking in cash for ABC. Good luck catching lightning in a bottle twice.
Mike is normally away on business for long stretches, but a shift at the catalogue where he works — plus a promotion for his wife Vanessa (Nancy Travis) at her job — will keep him closer to home. That means he has to figure out how to deal with his daughters, including the single mom Kristin (Alexandra Krosney), who lives with them.
Kristin’s toddler is in daycare, where Mike is told they’re “building a mosque out of pillows.” His grimace and grumbling about “Obamacare” tells you he’s conservative (“old school,” as his daughter puts it), but the more pertinent issue regards a guy’s guy mystified by all the estrogen surrounding him. Of course, Vanessa is by contrast omniscient — so much so that when one of the girls bursts into tears, she immediately snaps at Mike, “What the hell did you do?”
What writer Jack Burditt (“30 Rock”) and director/”Home Improvement” alum John Pasquin have done is concoct a series meant to reach women by watching a man’s man chafe against society’s perceived feminization. If there’s any potential here, most of it comes from Allen’s relationship with his youngest daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, fresh off FX’s “Justified”), an awkward tomboy; and his boss Ed (a slumming Hector Elizondo).
But that’s grasping at straws. Allen’s Mike saunters through the wispy pilot (something about an errant blind date he arranges involving his daughters) spouting laugh lines like, “It smells like balls in here,” which is truer than intended. A second episode — creating a one-hour premiere — is equally arid, with Mike pushing middle-kid Mandy (Molly Ephraim) to find a job, and chafing about the sissified notion of baby-proofing the house.
Allen is one of those rare standup comics with the chops to actually thrive in a sitcom format, but here he’s simply going through the motions — in a series determined to replicate “Home Improvement’s” vibe and hope nobody notices the difference.
Stranger stunts have worked, and the show has a fair shot of at least opening — especially given the promising numbers for some new comedies. That said, unlike when “Home” premiered, neither men nor women will need to stand in order to change channels.