More power to `Home Improvement'

Preview: `Tool Time' is up too soon for a series that wasn't afraid to be square.

May 25, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Jill has a great job offer in Indiana, and Tim is leaving his cable show, "Tool Time," over what the TV industry likes to call "philosophical differences." Will the Taylors really leave their home in Detroit and Wilson and Al and all their other friends?

That's the premise of tonight's 90-minute series finale, as "Home Improvement" signs off after eight years near the top of the Nielsen ratings with one of the most successful runs in sitcom history. As flimsy as the finale seems at times -- Tim (Tim Allen) stops every few minutes to say, "so many memories," as a lead-in to clips from past episodes -- I watched with a growing sense of admiration for this series.

"Home Improvement" was special in a number of ways. As TV in the 1990s sank deeper and deeper into a sea of irony, detachment, cynicism and a cold-hearted form of all-knowing coolness with series such as "Seinfeld," "Home Improvement" was willing to be four-square, old-fashioned and traditional in its celebration of TV's nuclear family. The dots connect from "Home Improvement" to "The Cosby Show" in the '80s straight back to the likes of "Father Knows Best."

And, like "The Cosby Show," "Home Improvement" managed to keep abreast of its times. In some critical circles, comparing a series to "Father Knows Best" is no compliment. It has become shorthand for early prime-time TV series today considered by some to be sexist, repressive and reactionary.

But "Tool Time" was actually quite smart about gender. Allen's stand-up comedy act was based on his take of gender difference. He wore his tool belt proudly and gave off Neanderthal grunts while in the presence of such male pleasure zones as a TV football game, his garage workbench or under whatever car he was restoring. When the going got tough, he fearlessly shouted "more power" for his power tools without worrying about the consequences.

A lot of the humor was the silly, slapstick, physical kind that inevitably followed Tim's calls for "more power." But, in viewing tonight's episode, I was struck by how much the physical humor in "Home Improvement" at its best resembled that of "I Love Lucy."

As executive producer, Allen also gave Jill Richardson the rope she needed to develop her character. The result was that Jill grew from being the all-suffering wife of the Tool Man and mom to his sons to a woman with her own ideas, dreams and vision.

Letting Jill go back to school for a Ph.D. in psychology was seen as a risky move by some at ABC, because Ph.D.s were not the audience for "Home Improvement." There was fear that some viewers would tune out, threatened by Jill's educational journey. (And, whatever we do, we don't want to threaten viewers with challenging ideas.)

But, again, the audience was underestimated; they liked Jill-as-grad-student. Furthermore, I think one of the reasons "Home Improvement" was able to not only withstand but triumph in head-to-head matchups against such NBC series as "Frasier" and "Mad About You" is that Jill's return to college tapped into a movement of baby boomers going back to school. Rather than turning viewers off, her educational growth attracted new viewers.

Rightfully so, the focus in tonight's finale is on Jill and Tim. Yes, there's a storyline about Al's (Richard Karn) marriage and a couple of scenes with Wilson, the neighbor (Earl Hindman), but it is mainly about Jill and Tim and the negotiations in love and power that make up a marriage.

I could live without the sappy ballad sung by Kenny Rogers that pops up in the middle of the finale to celebrate the relationship. But that's the thing about "Home Improvement." It was never afraid to show its feelings. It didn't care if critics dismissed it as square and sentimental, while saving their accolades for those series that lived to be cool.

'Home Improvement'

What: The final episode

When: Tonight 8 to 9: 30

Where: WMAR (Channel 2)

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