For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors and laugh at them in our turn?
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen: using witty female protagonists to describe and critique the social norms of late 18th century.
Tim Allen: using witless male protagonists to describe and critique the social norms of the late 20th century and early 21st.
Social commentators Jane Austen and Tim Allen
Every five years or so, I go on an Austen binge. I love Sense and Sensibility (my car is named Colonel Brandon) and Persuasion most of all, but who can forget the charismatic, titular Emma or the provocative, prideful and prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet? Jane Austen’s novels have the magical ability to place you into all the different social classes of England of yore and give you a more realistic Cinderella story with fancy balls and handsome rich guys. When reading these books, you can almost feel the corsets smothering you and the enormous, beautiful dresses weighing you down as you demonstrate your feminine accomplishments on the pianoforte. Total immersion into that world.
The best thing about these novels, however, is how hard those women fight to make their living circumstances better than their time period actually allowed them to be. Emma chooses the guy who encourages her to be the best version of herself she can be instead of becoming sleazy Elton’s arm candy. Elizabeth Bennet forces Darcy to change everything about his worldview to treat her, a woman in every respect his inferior, as his equal. That’s what makes these stories better than Cinderella. Being the rich prince doesn’t automatically make a man worthy of the lower-class heroine.
Jane Austen is one of my heroes. Tim Allen… isn’t. Maybe he should be, though.
Like Austen, Tim Allen’s TV shows accurately mirror and shrewdly critique their current societies. As a working couple with three young boys in the early 90’s, Tim Taylor in Home Improvement was the epitome of the working-class Everyman. Currently, Mike Baxter is the Last Man Standing, or at least that’s what it feels like to be that Everyman hero of yesteryear today. 20 years of change between Allen’s two big sitcoms show a similar character in vastly different cultural climates.
Tim Allen’s two shows reveal as much about the world in which I grew up as Jane Austen’s six novels do for the world in which she grew up. This time, though, instead of focusing on the burgeoning idea of women as complex individuals, the focus is on masculinity and its changes as feminism blossoms in America.
In the 90’s, there was still a middle class. I was in it! Just about everybody I knew was in it. Tim Taylor was in it. Being in the middle class with a successful working wife made the Taylor family just like every other family I knew–that is, if every other family had JTT in it. Tim learns lessons in each episode about how to be a more supportive husband and father while everybody gets to laugh at his simple-minded, best-of-intentions mistakes.
Add a bit of intelligence and twenty years of accumulated money, and you get Mike Baxter’s world. Now, he’s existing in the remnants of the middle class, swimming in a sea of women at home, and trying to be the man that he grew up to be while everybody’s telling him all those lessons he learned in the previous show were either wrong or entirely incomplete. He struggles with wanting to teach his grandson how to be a boy from his generation, when the boy’s own father wants him to be a modern, organic, peaceful, hipster baby. Although he appreciates that the world is now allowing his three daughters the same opportunities afforded to the likes of his 90’s sons, he still clashes with the liberality of modern child-rearing.
Overall, these two shows portray a normal guy who loves his family, trying to understand this crazy world and his place in it. In one show, he clashes with the world due to his own stupidity, and in the second, he struggles with the way the world is changing. The first show offers us a mirror to society, and the second offers a mirror with critique, as if the mirror had Siri’s voice telling you everything you should be doing better. The brilliance of Last Man Standing, in my opinion, is how both sides–Mike Baxter’s and the brave new world’s–are equally thrown into question. Both sides are obviously satirized, and they make audiences examine society as much as Jane Austen’s novels did.
America is split into two very angry camps–the conservatives and the liberals. Wait, no it isn’t! America is full of people trying to work together to make things work. The news is only showing those two angry camps, but we’re mostly a bunch of Mike Baxters and Tim Taylors, regular people who get things wrong and listen to each other and learn. We compromise and love people who think differently than we do. Yes, those angry people do exist. Ignore them. They are not the majority of America. Tim Allen taught me that much.