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"Home Improvement"

Oasis in television wasteland ...


"Home 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 Time.

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 of "hits".

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 hate.

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 indexes.

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 sectarian tenets.

"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 to you.

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 27, 1999


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