BEVERLY HILLS, California— “Right off the bat!”
That was Tim Allen, co-star Nancy Travis, and the Last Man Standing cast and crew’s reaction when—yes, right off the bat—a reporter at the Television Critics Association conference in Los Angeles asked whether Allen’s character will be a Trump supporter on the series’ unlikely revival.
While Allen admitted that, at least in some respects, his character Mike Baxter probably supports certain aspects of President Trump and his administration, he and the comedy’s executive producers say that there is no specific plan to vocalize that support. At least not now, and certainly not with the blatant, headline-grabbing pride that Roseanne Barr’s character on Roseanne did in that series’ controversial revival. That series was so popular before its scandal-induced cancellation that many critics, reporters, and couch surfers cynically assumed it had led to Fox’s decision to bring Last Man Standing back from the dead.
“It’s a legitimate question,” Allen said, referring to whether his character, who voiced his displeasure with then-President Barack Obama many times during Last Man Standing’s original run on ABC, would be openly MAGA.
“I think the guy’s kinda a centrist,” he continued. “I think the best line I heard is actually from [Bryan] Cranston from Breaking Bad. The dude’s flying a plane right now. There’s really no reason to get him out of the pilot seat until he lands. So this guy’s a practical guy. He owns a big business. If it’s helping his business, he’s probably pro-Trump. He probably doesn’t defend him. Whatever is good for his business and good for the state of Colorado.”
Executive producer Kevin Abbott jumped in. “I don’t think we’re going to comment specifically on Mr. Trump,” he said. “I think Mike Baxter is a conservative. He’s a Republican. He holds those ideals. But the character itself, I don’t think we’re going to address it one way or another.”
It echoed what FOX chairman and CEO Gary Newman had said earlier in the day at the TCA conference, though Newman had an interesting addendum: “Of course, that could change during the season,” he said. Production on the new season of Last Man Standing officially starts next week.
The reason this is such a heated topic of conversation is because of the outrageous circumstances behind Last Man Standing’s return to TV this fall.
The show, a family sitcom seen as a descendant of Allen’s Home Improvement, had been a solid performer for ABC for six seasons and over 120 episodes when it was surprisingly—and abruptly—canceled in 2017. A lot has happened in the year since.
Not only has there been more news out of Donald Trump’s presidency than could be possibly recounted, but the revival of Roseanne became a ratings juggernaut the likes of which most TV execs thought couldn’t happen in our current era of splintered viewership.
More, a major factor behind that success was presumed to be that the character of Roseanne Connor was a Trump supporter, echoing the politics of Barr herself. Following its blockbuster season premiere, Donald Trump even personally called Barr to congratulate her.
Unsurprisingly, the revival’s success triggered what’s been ruled “the Roseanne effect,” with networks hurrying to greenlight more conservative-friendly programming. So when Fox decided to cancel fan-favorite comedies like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man on Earth and bring back Last Man Standing, many viewed it as a cynical move to cash in on the Roseanne ratings, especially since when Last Man Standing was canceled, a common narrative held that it was because of the show’s conservative bent. (ABC has denied this.)
As for the direct comparisons to Roseanne, while it seems perfectly logical to view the resuscitation of Last Man Standing as due to its success, the latter’s creative team seems to be trying to distance itself from comparisons.
“I look at the Roseanne audience and I think, Jesus, if we’d had gotten that kind of promo on ABC we would’ve gotten that kind of audience,” Abbott said. “The only similarities we have with the Roseanne show is that we’re a family sitcom and that the central character has more conservative views.”
Still, the Last Man Standing revival is a peculiar test case for the ways in which we’re still unprepared to process conservatism on scripted television and family entertainment, and our allergy to any fictional Trump support that mirrors a large part of the country.
In an interview on Norm MacDonald’s podcast after the cancellation, Allen wondered aloud if the show got the axe because of his and his character’s politics.
“There’s nothing more dangerous to me, especially in this climate, than a funny, likable conservative. That was the most dangerous thing,” he said. “Because he was mitigated on his show by a family of women that had different opinions — but the guy was a likable guy, a principled guy, just about work and ethics and all this stuff. I think there’s nothing more dangerous now than a likable conservative character.”
On Thursday during his TCA press conference, Allen said that he now doesn’t think the show’s cancellation was a politically motivated decision. “I’ve worked for ABC for years. I know these people,” he said. “If it was a political motivation to move that show, they certainly would have been big enough to admit or show that side of themselves. I think it was a financial decision on ABC’s part. I think it was too early. We’re here because of that.”
Allen has often compared his character to Archie Bunker because his views “pushed boundaries.” Much like the Roseanne revival, Last Man Standing often dipped into current events, including one memorable episode in which Baxter rails against the cost of Obamacare. About Obama’s healthcare initiative, the character jokes, “Who does he think he is, that cooler black dude on the Allstate commercials?”
Allen himself attended Donald Trump’s inauguration. In a 2017 interview about it on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, he controversially compared being a conservative in Hollywood to living in 1930s Germany.
“You gotta be real careful around here,” he told Kimmel. “You get beat up if you don’t believe what everybody else believes. This is like ’30s Germany.”
Asked whether he thinks that outspokenness influenced the reception of and conversation around Last Man Standing, Allen stressed the importance of separating himself from the show he’s starring in. “I’m not the character I play. If you want to know what I think come visit me at the Mirage in Las Vegas.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter Thursday afternoon, Allen spoke more about the pressure on comedians to toe the line of propriety without arbitrarily crossing it, speaking directly in the context of Roseanne Barr’s racist tweets and the show’s cancellation.
"I go way back with Rosie and that's not the Roseanne that I know," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "She was the most diverse and tolerant woman I've ever known for a long time. So, whatever got in her head isn't the Roseanne that I know."
"It's a very icy time. I've been a comedian for 38 years. What Lenny Bruce said at the Purple Onion in 1951 … we've gone backwards," he said. "There's things you can't say, there's things you shouldn't say. Who makes up these rules? As a stand-up comic, it's a very dangerous position for me to be in because I like pushing buttons. It's very sensitive."
The truth of the matter is that there is room—a need, even—for series with conservative characters set in conservative parts of the country sparking conversations about conservative politics. It’s arguably egregious that the introduction of a sitcom character who, like many people in this country, voted for the current president was considered controversial, and that it still seems to be a risky enough creative decision that the Last Man Standing team doesn’t want its lead character to voice that support.
If there is a “Roseanne effect,” it seems to have more to do with the noise surrounding these shows than perhaps their eventual acceptance or success.