The TV Weekly #217: Was It Really That Good? #1: Home Improvement

Welcome to the first installment of a new segment called Was It Really That Good?

This is where we take a look at beloved and successful TV shows of the past and present to find out whether or not the shows were actually that good or were they just successful because they came at the exact right place and time.

With that said, let’s talk about one of the most successful sitcoms of the 1990s, Home Improvement:

Home improvment logo.jpg

Home Improvement is an American television sitcom starring Tim Allen that aired on ABC from September 17, 1991, to May 25, 1999, with a total of 204 half-hour episodes spanning over eight seasons. The series was created by Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra, and David McFadzean. In the 1990s, it was one of the most watched sitcoms in the American market, winning many awards. The series launched Tim Allen’s acting career and was the start of the television career of Pamela Anderson, who was part of the recurring cast for the first two seasons.

The series centers on the Taylor family, which consists of Tim (Tim Allen), his wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) and their three children: the oldest child, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), the middle child, Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and youngest child, Mark (Taran Noah Smith). The Taylors live in suburban Detroit, and have a neighbor named Wilson (Earl Hindman) who is often the go-to guy for solving the Taylors’ problems.

Tim is a stereotypical American male, who loves power tools, cars, and sports. In particular, he is an avid fan of local Detroit teams. In numerous instances, Tim wears Lions, Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers clothing, and many plots revolve around the teams. He is a former salesman for the fictional Binford Tool company, and is very much a cocky, overambitious, accident-prone know-it-all. Witty but flippant, Tim jokes around a lot, even at inappropriate times, much to the dismay of his wife. However, Tim can sometimes be serious when necessary. Jill, Tim’s wife, is loving and sophisticated, but not exempt from dumb moves herself. In later seasons she returns to college to study psychology. Family life is boisterous for the Taylors with the two oldest children, Brad and Randy, tormenting the much younger Mark, all while continually testing and pestering each other. Such play happened especially throughout the first three seasons, and was revisited only occasionally until Jonathan Taylor Thomas left at the beginning of the eighth season. During the show’s final season, Brad and Mark became much closer due to Randy’s absence.

Brad, popular and athletic, was often the moving factor, who engaged before thinking, a tendency which regularly landed him in trouble. Randy, a year younger, was the comedian of the pack, known for his quick-thinking, wisecracks, and smart mouth. He had more common sense than Brad but was not immune to trouble. Mark was somewhat of a mama’s boy, though later in the series (in the seventh season) he grew into a teenage outcast who dressed in black clothing. Meanwhile, Brad became interested in cars like his father and took up soccer. Randy joined the school drama club, and later the school newspaper; in the eighth season, he left for Costa Rica.

In early seasons, Wilson was always seen standing on the other side of Tim’s backyard fence as the two engaged in conversation, usually with Wilson offering sage advice as Tim grappled with his problems. In later seasons, a running joke developed in which more and more creative means were used to prevent Wilson’s face below the eyes from ever being seen by the audience. Also in later seasons, Wilson’s full name was revealed to be Wilson W. Wilson, Jr.

Each episode includes Tim’s own Binford-sponsored home improvement show, called Tool Time, a “meta-program,” or show-within-a-show. In hosting this show, Tim is joined by his friend and mild-mannered assistant Al Borland (Richard Karn), and a “Tool Time girl” — first Lisa (Pamela Anderson) and later Heidi (Debbe Dunning) — whose main duty is to introduce the pair at the beginning of the show with the line “Does everybody know what time it is?” The Tool Time girl also assists Tim and Al during the show by bringing them tools.

Although revealed to be an excellent salesman and TV personality, Tim is spectacularly accident prone as a handyman, often causing massive disasters on and off the set, to the consternation of his co-workers and family. Many Tool Time viewers assume that the accidents on the show are done on purpose, to demonstrate the consequences of using tools improperly. Many of Tim’s accidents are caused by his devices being used in an unorthodox or overpowered manner, designed to illustrate his mantra “More power!”. This popular catchphrase would not be uttered after Home Improvement’s seventh season, until Tim’s last line in the series finale.

Tool Time was conceived as a parody of the PBS home-improvement show This Old House. Tim and Al are caricatures of the two principal cast members of This Old House, host Bob Vila and master carpenter Norm Abram. Al Borland has a beard and always wears plaid shirts when taping an episode, reflecting Norm Abram’s appearance on This Old House. Bob Vila appeared as a guest star on several episodes of Home Improvement, while Tim Allen and Pamela Anderson both appeared on Bob Vila’s show Home Again.

The Tool Time theme music, an early 1960s-style saxophone-dominated instrumental rock tune, was sometimes used as the closing theme music for Home Improvement, especially when behind the credits were running the blooper scenes that took place during the taping of a Tool Time segment.

Home Improvement debuted in the fall of 1991 benefiting from having being sandwiched between two of the most successful comedies on ABC’s Tuesday lineup, Full House and Roseanne. In its’ second season, the show was moved to the anchor 9pm timeslot of ABC’s Wednesday lineup where it was placed with veterans The Wonder Years, Doogie Howser M.D., and Coach, where it would stay until moving into the Tuesday 9pm slot in 1994, opposite NBC’s Frasier, where it stayed until its’ final season when it was moved up to Tuesdays at 8pm in 1998.

This show was pulling in some pretty big numbers and was one of the biggest surprise hits of the decade, averaging in nine seasons, 16 million viewers, that makes it one of the biggest consistent hits of all time, always having that steady number in all nine seasons regardless of timeslot changes. To this day, it continues to have a strong run in syndication as well.

So, was Home Improvement really that good of a series to merit such a loyal fanbase?

Well, let’s look at some of the key aspects of what made Home Improvement a success. For one thing, Tim Allen.

Tim Allen was one of the most successful rising comedians at the time but there was question before Home Improvement debuted on whether or not he could expand as an actor. In fact, Allen himself said to a magazine his range as an actor is “strictly limited. I can only play a part if I can draw on personal experience, and that well can go dry pretty quickly.”

Despite that, Tim Allen was able to find success with Home Improvement that led him to becoming one of the biggest movie stars on the planet starting in 1994 with The Santa Clause. In fact, in November 1994, Allen had simultaneously starred in the highest-grossing film (Disney’s The Santa Clause), topped the New York Times best-seller list with his book Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, and appeared in the top rated television series (Home Improvement) within the span of one week, which as far as I know, has never happened before or since.

As far as Allen’s role on the show as both the father figure and a TV star, he fit the role very well where he can be himself and he had good chemistry with the rest of the cast involved.

Another aspect to Home Improvement’s success, the likeable characters.

Not only was Tim Taylor a character the audience could relate to but the rest of the family, Patricia Richardson had great chemistry with Tim Allen, Zachary Ty Bryan, Taran Noah Smith, and Jonathan Taylor Thomas were three of the better kid characters you’d see in sitcoms, Earl Hindman is great as Wilson, Richard Karn is great as Al, and Debbe Dunning has a nice little role as Heidi and even Pam Anderson in the first two seasons as the original Tool Time girl is decent for the role she’s given.

But let’s really look at why we come back to Home Improvement every time….to see all the crazy accidents this show can pull:

Give a lot of credit to the props and effects guys who handle these ridiculously insane situations, a lot of these over the top scenarios are what kept us coming back for more every week, a lot of these looked incredibly complex to put together and the outcomes always manage to get a good hard laugh regardless of the situation.

So, overall question, Was Home Improvement really that good of a series? For the most part, yes.

The series works because it found a way to appeal to all forms of audiences, the people who like the typical family comedy of the timeperiod, people who like to see more zany over the top antics, and people who can actually get good hard laughs at what’s being thrown at you. Home Improvement was a success because it appealed to everybody and it found success all throughout its’ run and even still to this very day.

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