Ellen Gray: 'Last Man': Shades of Taylor

Allen's new show's like his old show, but no laughs

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* LAST MAN STANDING. 8 tonight, 6ABC.

SOMETIMES MY body betrays me. I'm not oversharing here, I promise.

I'm talking about the laughter that bubbled up two or three times while I watched the pilot for Tim Allen's new sitcom, "Last Man Standing," which premieres tonight in two back-to-back episodes on ABC.

Two or three laughs might not seem like a lot, but when they're in reaction to something my conscious brain insists isn't funny, they're mildly disturbing.

Like hiccups.

And like hiccups, my unexpected amusement eventually vanished. By the time I saw a screener for the second episode, I was laughter-free.

But a little sad.

Because while Allen's "Home Improvement" wasn't close to being my favorite comedy of the 1990s, it was seldom unfunny. It was also a show happily watched by millions more people than tune in for any of today's supposedly more sophisticated sitcoms, from ABC's "Modern Family" to NBC's "30 Rock."

Or as Allen joked in a press conference this summer, referring to the 30 million or so who once watched him weekly, "We could tell the president what to do."

That was a few presidents ago, of course. And despite a joke about "Obamacare" - seems Allen's new character, Mike Baxter, isn't a fan - there's little overtly political about "Last Man Standing," unless having a few things to get off your chest about kids today is now considered a political message.

In "Last Man Standing," Allen, whose crankiness seems to have ratcheted up over the course of all those "Santa Clause" movies, has essentially retooled the family of Tim Taylor, giving him a new long-suffering wife (Nancy Travis), daughters instead of sons, and an infant grandson.

Hector Elizondo plays his boss, owner of a sportings-good mail-order company that's been funding Mike's outdoorsy adventures for years through his work on a catalog that's about to become defunct.

After a memorable turn on FX's "Justified," Kaitlyn Dever plays Mike's youngest daughter, Eve, a 13-year-old tomboy on the cusp of becoming yet another member of the tribe he doesn't understand, and Travis (who made an abrupt exit last week from the CW's "Hart of Dixie") is as good a straight woman as "Home Improvement's" Patricia Richardson, projecting the image of a woman who's moved past exasperation and into acceptance.

Creator Jack Burditt ("30 Rock") seems to have delivered what Allen and ABC were looking for in that setup-joke style that's supposed to be so over but at which Allen excels. Single-camera devotees may wince at the studio audience's raucous laughter, but where it's earned, it belongs to the actors, not the jokes.

We all know Allen can work a punchline. He just shouldn't have to be working these so hard.

 

Anthrax revisited

In tonight's season premiere, PBS' "Frontline" looks back 10 years, not to the Sept. 11 attacks, but to the still-mysterious acts of terrorism that followed that fall, in "The Anthrax Files" (9 p.m., WHYY 12).

Think you know who was behind the mailing of anthrax spores that killed five people and launched a nationwide panic? The FBI says it does - Army scientist Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide after replacing another scientist as the agency's prime suspect in the poisonings.

"Frontline," which conducted an investigation of the case with ProPublica and McClatchy Newspapers, isn't so sure. And after tonight's installment, which pokes some holes in the case the feds never got to make in court, viewers may not be so sure, either.

 


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