Why has time forsaken Home Improvement?

The cast of Home Improvement. (Photo: Kim Butler/ABC)

The cast of Home Improvement. (Photo: Kim Butler/ABC)

The nostalgia beast is a ravenous one, and with each passing day, it chews our pop-culture memories into an increasingly formless web-slurry. With the 1990s digesting within its belly at an incredible rate—accelerated by the Snapchat-length attention spans of former ’90s kids, and intensified by the boundless need for “remember when?” content—it seems we’ve managed to memorialize and/or reboot everything from that decade, worthwhile and not, in record time. Yet even within our incredibly lowered standards of sentimentality—where our merely remembering something is the same as it being memorable—the 25th anniversary of Home Improvements premiere passed this week without much beyond the slapdash fanfare of a “Where Are They Now?” slideshow.

The internet celebrates in its own, SEO-friendly way, of course, and it’s certainly not obligated to commemorate a quarter-century since Tim Allen first grunted about power tools by reflecting on what it all meant. But Home Improvement’s absence from that cultural conversation is combined with the fact that the show is currently airing solely on The Hallmark Channel, where it’s lumped with The Golden Girls and The Brady Bunch in a mid-afternoon block, when only those laid up by hilarious workplace accidents of their own are likely to see it. And it’s a strange afterlife for a show that vied with—and even bested—Friends, Seinfeld, Roseanne, and other widely syndicated, thoroughly picked-over ’90s icons in the ratings. Why has Home Improvement been so largely forgotten?

Let’s just state the obvious answer: Home Improvement is not a great show. Compared to its contemporaries, the series—launched as part of ABC’s move toward even more family-friendly sitcoms in the wake of its “TGIF” success—lacked the ambition and innovation that made Seinfeld, Roseanne, or even Friends seem so groundbreaking. Instead, Home Improvement was almost defiantly formulaic, the only ground it broke being whatever Allen happened to fall on.

Based on Allen’s stand-up—where he’d distilled comedy down to its purest essence as a series of caveman grunts—the show was equally simplistic in its storytelling. Allen’s Tim Taylor was like a slightly seedier, more macho Clark Griswold, a tool salesman and TV host with jocular charm, confidence that exceeded his actual abilities, and a tendency to get hurt a lot. Each episode followed a predictable arc: Tim would spar with his wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) over something stupid he did, often as a symptom of his near-fatal manliness. Their three sons—Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Mark (Taran Noah Smith)—would engage in some youthful shenanigan requiring a heart-to-heart lecture by episode’s end. Somewhere in there, Tim would strap a large engine to something, much to the consternation of his assistant Al (Richard Karn); grunting and injuries ensued. Finally, Tim would reach temporary enlightenment after consulting with the shadowy oracle next door, Wilson (Earl Hindman); slightly softer grunting and learning ensued. While the specific circumstances of Tim’s screw-ups varied slightly over eight seasons, this essential rubric did not.

Still, inventiveness and quality aren’t always factors in nostalgia; as seen in Fuller House, often the opposite is true. And they clearly didn’t factor into the success of Home Improvement’s original, 1991-99 run either, when the show spent the decade in the Nielsen Top 10, even taking the honor of most-watched sitcom—over Seinfeld and Roseanne—in its second and third seasons. While never a critical darling, it nevertheless nabbed quite a few Emmy nominations, including two for Outstanding Comedy Series and four for Richardson. Its popularity was such that then-First Lady Hillary Clinton even seriously considered a guest-starring role, believing it could help her better assimilate among humans. Even at its end, Home Improvement remained such a juggernaut that Allen and Richardson were offered $50 million and $25 million, respectively, to keep it going for a ninth season, which they politely declined.

In my very own high-school yearbook, Home Improvement was forever immortalized as the favorite TV show of graduating seniors, three years in a row. The competition wasn’t even close.

From the author’s own 1993 yearbook. Sorry Sienfield.

From the author’s own 1993 yearbook. Sorry Sienfield.

As the student newspaper’s most widely ignored entertainment critic, I considered this to be a personal affront. Week after week, I hate-watched Home Improvement largely because of my dad, himself an engineer and amateur craftsman predisposed to chuckle at jokes about compressors, and silently fumed over its sucking. To teenage me, Home Improvement represented everything lame about “mainstream” culture, and that my classmates would pick it over The Simpsons or Seinfeld only confirmed what unsophisticated rubes they were. It’s like they didn’t even read my sneering op-eds! At the time, I despaired, it seemed Home Improvement was destined to be the defining comedy of our dumb era.

Yet today, you’d be hard-pressed to find much of a following who’s still expressing reverence for it, at least on par with what the show’s ’90s popularity would suggest. The sole extant Home Improvement fan page is hosted on Angelfire and was last updated nearly a decade ago. Home Improvement does boast a surprisingly strong Facebook following of 433,000 for its own sporadically updated page—though by comparison, its much lower-rated ABC contemporary Family Matters draws twice as many. Meanwhile, Lowe’s Home Improvement reaches 3.6 million.

There is, naturally, a tiny smattering of Home Improvement fan fiction—a not-at-all-surprising amount of it involving Randy exploring his newly awakened homosexuality—but that’s true of just about everything. And if Home Improvement is remembered at all, it’s probably as a crossword prompt or pub quiz question: how it spawned the career of original “Tool Time” girl Pamela Anderson, or how a proposed movie sequel to the series supposedly mutated into Mrs. Doubtfire. What is it about this show that’s caused it to fall so far out of favor, not even ’90s nostalgia hounds and other masturbators want to touch it?

Perhaps most crucially, Home Improvement has not been afforded the faintly damning courtesy of becoming retro kitsch. The Taylors have not been dragged, grayer and puffier, into any Old Navy ads; the closest we’ve come is Richard Karn doing infomercials for something called the Pocket Hose. You also won’t find Karn’s face smirking, “I don’t think so, Tim” among the racks of Sandlot and Kelly Kapowski shirts at Urban Outfitters, nor see the show reimagined as an 8-bit game. (Though Nintendo’s legendarily shitty Home Improvement: Power Tool Pursuit! may have made that a moot point.) Even in the rock-bottom terms of what should be a meme, Home Improvement has had relatively minor traction: The most popular of these is far and away the “Grunt Replacement,” where every sound in a video game is replaced with Allen’s primal expression of manly confusion.

That the entire series could be reduced to a single, meaningless noise may partially explain why Home Improvement became so instantly ephemeral. Over time, sitcoms tend to degrade until nothing is left but their catchphrases, and—Tim’s battle cry of “More power!” aside—that grunting sound is pretty much all anyone remembers about Home Improvement. Unfortunately, it would look shitty on a T-shirt. (“Aaaaaa-ooooh-Eh!”? “UhhhhOOOggeehhh”?) It’s certainly no “Did I do that?” or “You got it, dude!” Now those are the kind of irritating phrases that bury deep within the cultural bedrock.

Still, there’s a certain, classic sitcom blandness to Home Improvement that would at least suggest a more lasting life in syndication than it’s enjoyed, where it’s bounced from network to network after finally losing its plum 2002-13 spot on TBS. After all, it’s not as though Home Improvement is uniquely dated. Outside of Mark’s bizarre transformation into a network executive’s idea of “goth” in the later seasons, and a parade of then-hot sports stars like John Elway and Grant Hill, the series mostly avoided reference to current culture in a way that can’t be said of contemporaries like, say, Full House. (Though oddly enough, both featured cameos from The Beach Boys.)

There’s a similarly stale timelessness to Home Improvement’s jokes about bumbling dads, cooking-impaired moms, and wisecracking kids that’s been a sitcom staple since the medium’s invention; as more than one Amazon review notes, it’s wholesome and “harmless” in a way not seen in today’s broadcast smut-peddlers. It’s also not as though its cheerfully casual misogyny is particularly rooted in a less progressive past. Bumbling guy’s-guys engaging in battle-of-the-sexes repartee with their much smarter, albeit nagging wives has remained a tried-and-true formula right up through Kevin Can Wait—and in fact, through Allen’s current ABC sitcom, Last Man Standing.

It isn’t rocket science, what I’m doing,” Allen said just before Last Man Standing’s premiere in 2012, openly acknowledging that his latest role—a sporting goods salesman whose masculinity puts him at odds with the world, a concept he developed with Home Improvement producer/director John Pasquin—barely qualifies as an idea. “Instead of tools, it’s sporting goods and guns and ATVs and boats, and I come home to four women,” Allen shrugged, before saying the show was exactly what he’d been looking for after a decade of being disappointed at not being offered another Home Improvement. “I don’t know why we would not do a version of the same show, rather than put me in a legal drama,” Allen said, a man who is nothing if not admirably upfront about his limitations.

And perhaps, just as it is for Allen, the fact that Last Man Standing exists means there’s no real point in anyone longing for Home Improvement at all, so thoroughly does it fill that niche. The show has even provided a de facto reunion in the form of an episode where Richardson guested as Allen’s neighbor. And that followed various on-and-off-screen encounters between Allen and his estranged TV son Jonathan Taylor Thomas, who’s appeared in several Last Man Standing episodes and even directed a few. Their reconciliation ended a long-running feud that erupted over Thomas’ decision to leave Home Improvement in its eighth season and focus on attending college, even declining to appear in its series finale.

Thomas’ early departure also saw the loss of the show’s token heartthrob (with apologies to Zachery Ty Bryan, who I’m sure did just fine), and that was reflected in its slightly diminished ratings toward the end. Today, it could also help to explain Home Improvement’s slow fade from the collective consciousness of Things Only ’90s Kids Will Remember. As both Broad City and The People Vs. O.J. Simpson recently reminded us, posters of “JTT” and his smirking, floppy-haired face adorned the walls of young girls from the lowliest seventh-grade locker to the highest echelons of society (Kardashians version). But that phenomenon existed mostly on the Tiger Beat periphery. Unlike Full House, Family Matters, Step By Step, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, et al., Home Improvement was always a show that was far more focused on its adults rather than the characters those kids would identify and grow up with—something crucial to its being wistfully recalled now.

Instead, outside of a token Very Special Episode (Brad gets caught with marijuana; Mark’s aforementioned goth phase), the series focused on Tim and Jill’s married and professional lives, while nearly all of the boys’ storylines were presented as problems for the parents to solve. And while some latent JTT love might have carried the show into the new millennium, after Thomas made a conscious decision to retreat from public view, Home Improvement lost its claim on that most fruitful source of nostalgia—teenage horniness—which can excuse even the corniest of material. Instead, Home Improvement ended up being a sitcom for dads like mine, and dads only get nostalgic for things that happened when they were horny teens.

As such, any call for a real Home Improvement reunion, often tossed out by interviewers who have run out of other things to talk about, are usually met with tepid, vague assurances that “things are aligning”—or in Richardson’s case, with protests that Hindman’s death in 2003 means there can never be a reunion, technically. It’s implicitly understood that no one’s exactly clamoring to see what those adults are doing, now that they are slightly older.

Which is fine: Richard Karn’s assertions that “it could be very funny” aside, there’s no real compelling reason to revisit Home Improvement, let alone revive it. After it wrapped in 1999, Richardson (presumably pretty well off from the salary she’d commanded) has taken sporadic acting gigs with the enthusiasm of someone who doesn’t particularly need to, concentrating instead on her philanthropic work. Of the boys, just Zachery Ty Bryan has made much of an effort to stay in the business, popping up on shows like Burn Notice and in movies like The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift. With Last Man Standing, Thomas is only lately taking some tentative steps back into the spotlight; Taran Noah Smith quit acting entirely while still in his teens, later starting a vegan food company. No one seems particularly invested in reliving their glory days besides Allen himself, even though he could easily spend his days lounging on a giant pile of royalty money covered in Buzz Lightyear bedsheets instead.

But whether or not Netflix would ever come calling for Home Improvementier, the show’s absence even from the inherently lazy act of nostalgia farming—despite its being one of the most popular, recognizable series of the decade—makes it an interesting case study in what we choose to remember about ourselves and why. It was a series that millions more watched than the majority of the things that litter our neon-splattered brain pans. Its success was also enough to encourage ABC to develop several more shows around comedians, including The Drew Carey Show, Brett Butler’s Grace Under Fire, and Ellen. (Alas, Home Improvement’s proposed Dave Chappelle/Jim Breuer-starring spinoff Buddies never got off the ground, to the internet’s perennial delight.) And in the face of so many encroaching shows about gratefully childless, gleefully nihilistic New Yorkers, it helped prolong the life of the sentimental, classically predictable family sitcom right into the 2000s and beyond, to the point where Tim Allen can just make it again and no one seems to mind—or notice.

Yet beyond the industry, Home Improvement’s wider cultural impact is next to nil: not special enough to revere, not dumb enough to ironically appreciate. Its dominance of the 1990s now appears to be a mildly embarrassing, yet ultimately harmless fad we would just as soon forget, its name forever yellowing in our collective yearbook next to some guy wearing a Spin Doctors shirt. In a way, that something could be so popular yet disposable makes Home Improvement the very quintessence of mediocrity—a grunt by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, now dissipating lonely in the wind. Maybe that’s its most lasting legacy.

Well… That, and this.

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