Improvement " or not, this popular television show will always
be "Tool Time" to me. ABC ran the show finale this evening,
after a wildly successful run of 10 years. Like good friends moving
out of the old neighborhood, the cast of the show were special people
with whom you've shared good times (and maybe a few rough times) over
the course of a good chunk of your life. The cast and the show Home
Improvement will always be missed.
"Of course, Neighbor", as Wilson might say, we would discourage
the extremely prevalent practice of over-identifying with your favorite
actors and actresses on serial TV shows. This calls to mind all those
folks who gossip and for hours about events unfolding on their favorite
daytime TV soaps.
Your average American TV viewer is still able to draw a sharp distinction
between actors and the characters they portray of television. Maybe
I'm not as sharp as that average viewer. I still get the impression
that the actors on Tool Time would not behave that differently in their
off-stage lives. The acting and the cast of "Home Improvement" come
across as genuine.
I first discovered this show about 9-1/2 years after everybody else,
just about one half year before it folded. I'm the kind of viewer who
might give the ratings and advertising people recurring nightmares.
I still miss M*A*S*H, watch the Discovery and History Channels for
light entertainment, and in the past have lived very comfortably without
any TV set at all.
Take My Mother-In-Law ... No, Take My TV Set
Some years ago friends of mine mentioned mentioned that their tube
burned out. I had recently bought a nice new color Sony, even though
we were all very poor in those days. Those were days when I still believed
every well-informed citizen should own a television set. I said, "well,
by all means take mine. I never watch it anyway." And they did.
After two years, I bought a new set, and I didn't watch that one, either.
For me, and evidently for millions of other viewers, "Home Improvement" stood
in a show category by itself. I would pick up the local re-runs as
often as several times a week, and for the weekly half-hour slot I
would join those millions of others who organize their evenings around
some aspect of television programming.
What I liked most about Tool Time is that the people in it were extremely
successful in coming across as "real". Others I know say
the same thing. There's a remarkable consistency in people's selection
of the word "real" to describe what they like about Tool
Even if the cast members of the show were only just really, really
believable actors, the cast of "Home Improvement" played
people I have known in the past and would always have preferred to
know in the future. That's not "believable" acting; that's "good" acting.
In a fantasy TV world of glitz and beer commercials and dysfunctional
families and bulimic psychotic lawyers, and kids who cuss out their
parents, and sick pushy New Yorkers who like to shout at their friends
and shoot people and kick small dogs: well, Tool Time was different.
Real People, Real Lives
How do you describe "real people"? How do you describe your
best friend? You probably resort to comparisons, just as we're doing
here. The first minute I heard Tim open his mouth on TV, I knew this
had to be a guy I grew up with, or my long lost cousin, or someone
with whom I'd shared a million insights and laughs in some other lifetime.
And, Jill -- there's a gal I would love to have long talks with, and
laugh over coffee. Always trying to do the right thing, always caving
in gracefully under pressure, smart as a whip.
Real people always have extra dimensions which reveal themselves when
you least expect it. The cast of "Home Improvement" presented
those extra dimensions. There's an irresistible contrast between these
players and the flat, monomaniacal script acting in the current crop
The "kids" - Brad, Mark, Randy: the parents are a hard act
to follow, and they did a wonderful job of defining their own roles
and niches, just as I'm sure they did and shall do in real life.
The show capitalized on a humorous aspect of human nature which most
shows ignore or deny: Most of our "hidden agendas" are transparently
obvious to everyone who knows us well, excepting, of course, ourselves.
We, as audience, could "see it coming" because we've all
known people with motivations, methodologies and attitudes which get
in the way of what we say we want to do.
The show was like a family to which I would always have wanted to
belong, and never quite did, and I REALLY don't think I'm alone in
feeling my best friends just moved out of the neighborhood, and, sure,
I wish I could have those times back.
Just as in real life, it's only a TV show.
Real Life In The Vast Wasteland
Abstinence from television is a form of conflict avoidance for me.
I don't like being annoyed by desperate phonies. To many folks, if
the analysts can be believed, TV actors are a safe distraction from
work and baby diapers and fixing the roof, and all of those unpleasant
chores in a work and home environment, we are told, they basically
Given that my views are extreme, still, you'd think that anyone who
needed to cling to TV for their highest visions, would deserve and
support a higher vision. A hatred of life might just begin in the first
place with a TV mind set. We are, once again, what we eat.
The portrayal of the best within us as innately corrupt, or as actual
dysfunction and ineptitude, cannot be neutralized with feeble attempts
at slapstick. Neither can a need for a strong sense of right and wrong
be satisfied with a violent presentation of cornered rats fighting
it out in a world in which there can be no winners.
Funny, a handful of visionaries once actually believed television
would be the key to unlock adventure, education and discovery in the
hearts and minds of middle America. You really do need to step back
a few paces from what we've come to accept as "normal" television
fare to realize how pathetically off-base those visionaries were.
The Relevance Of The Golden Age
If Jackie Gleason's "The Honeymooners" show represented
TV's "golden age" of comedy, how would we characterize "Home
Improvement"? The question itself dates me to the black-and-white
TV generation, and makes me appear to be talking down to a generation
which has no chance to answer back. You can't equate Ally McBeal with
Mary Tyler Moore, and maybe you can't equate Jackie "The Great
One" Gleason with "Tim the Toolman Taylor" Allen. The
fair question would be: who wants to?
Who wants to see TV shows which portray people you might meet in real
life, or might want to? I do, but from the ratings in the '90's the
folks people really want to meet, or even emulate, are McBeal and Jerry
Springer, or that Norm creature. Jerry Seinfeld, Drew Carey ... the
differences in the new shows are a matter of relative indifference
Are the "new" shows really relevant? I get them all confused,
which is a classic symptom of the apathy of advancing years. Actually,
I just don't care. As a "TV Outsider", most shows are, at
best, just a blip in the spectrum of dinnertime diversions that come
and go without leaving much of a mark on anything.
If this knocks a show you care for, don't take it personally. Exasperated
friends have said for years, "you would understand it if you only
just tried". And they're right. When there are so many shows to
choose from, throughout the course of so many decades, I'm one of those
holdouts, one of those "just a few close friends" personality
types, who just doesn't care to understand.
Whether you put "Home Improvement" in a historical context
or not, it's pretty clear that the "Home Improvement" formula
was appealing and distinctive for a broad spectrum of people. Forty
years from now, people may not remember Tim Allen and the cast of "Home
Improvement" in the way that so many still remember the overwhelming
stage presence - on the same platform - of Jackie Gleason, Audrey Meadows
and Art Carney.
Tool Time was less act and more Real People than anything I've seen
on the tube in years. That's what I think we'll remember. Downstream
of a television culture which Newton F. Minow, former chairman of the
FCC, once described as "that vast wasteland", what Tim Allen
and his team accomplished is truly outstanding, memorable, and incredible.
Family Values In Real Life
In our highly politicized and agenda-ridden 90's, associativeness
in the very phrase "Family Values" is enough to make decent
people cringe. It may be decades before the phrase can regain the respectability
that belongs to it. The problem with the current buzzword is that it
never named those values or what makes real values possible (would
you believe "honesty" and "integrity"?), but instead
subverted the concept with exclusionary politics and misappropriated
"Home Improvement" will be remembered in large part because
real family values were integral to the show, and they were fun, as
they ought to be. The neighborhood changes in real life, too, but I'll
really miss Tool Time, neighbor.
When I was a real kid, I mean about seven or eight, my best friend
in the whole world upped and moved to Sweden. I was crushed. I thought
I'd never get over it. I don't know if other viewers could be as juvenile
as me, but I never wanted to see the cast of "Home Improvement" move
to Sweden ... or Indiana. Now that I'm grown, almost a half century
later, will I get over it?
Taking It All With Us
Well, now, at my age I do recognize now that actors, just like the
rest of us, have lives and timetables to get on with, but, heck no,
I won't ever really get over it. I'll just grin and try to. I'll spare
us all a "Wilson" take on the deep underlying meaning of
us all wanting to take the past with us.
I'll counter-offer a brief take on how we actually do take it all
with us, every last drop of it, and the hell with how they say it can't
be done, and how BAD it is for you if you try.
I am the very best parts of all those people who are now, or ever
were, very close and dear friends to me. And so are you, whether young,
or old. And most of us were so very clever as to ensure we didn't adopt
the bad parts, "if any".
So, when you delightful* younger ones ask us faded old timers a question,
and we so characteristically answer in halting and distant tones, it
really isn't so much that we're any slower of thought than we were
thirty or forty years ago. The truth is, you can no longer be quite
sure how many of our "lives" are mulling over our response
And now, the sponsors return you to ... Tool Time! Thank you, Tim
and Jill, and Brad, Mark and Randy. Thank you Al Borland, and the entire "Home
Improvement" cast for being our friends for a few years, anyway.
We'll miss you in Sweden or wherever your lives may take you, but you've
earned all of our best wishes. We have the best parts of what you taught
us, we have the fond memories to fill our mental scrapbooks, and we
have the re-runs.
In an entertainment world of throwaway lines and disposable people, "Home
Improvement" offered a vision of people next door who worked hard
to achieve meaningful dreams, and had one hell of a good time doing
it. That's lasting value.
For one who professes such a dim view of TV, the opportunity is ripe
to yell, "so get a life." My point, which I think I share
with everyone else, is that we already have a life. We chose to open
it up through "Home Improvement" -- we deliberately chose
to make time out of our life to watch this one show -- because it actually
entertained and enriched. I thought that was supposed to be what it
was all about.
About that television set: if your tube burns out, don't just whip
out the old credit card and rush down to your local electronics store.
I may just have a TV set for you, free for the taking. Shows like this
don't come along so often that there's a big chance I'd miss much.
Adios, "Home Improvement".
* I was younger once. At that time, I thought I was delightful too, but I never
completely outgrew that youthful fancy that other people find us as thoroughly
delightful as we find ourselves.
© Alex Forbes, May