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Television Review

‘Last Man Standing’ could use some improvement

From left: Tim Allen, Molly Ephraim, and Nancy Travis in “Last Man Standing,’’ which premieres tonight on ABC. From left: Tim Allen, Molly Ephraim, and Nancy Travis in “Last Man Standing,’’ which premieres tonight on ABC. (PETER STONE/ABC)
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / October 11, 2011

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In the new ABC sitcom “Last Man Standing,’’ premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 5, Tim Allen stars as a macho man’s man who loves the outdoors and building and destroying stuff. He hosts a program where he discusses these issues and rants about what it means to be a man. At home he tries to navigate among a wise-cracking, no-nonsense wife and three children with different temperaments. He sometimes seeks advice from an older, wiser friend and finds himself exasperated by a quirky work colleague whom he often mocks.

Any resemblance to “Home Improvement’’ is purely intentional.

Indeed, the first thing Allen’s character says when he walks into his home is “I’m back!’’

If fans of that immensely popular ‘90s sitcom were to check out “Last Man Standing,’’ they could be forgiven if they thought they were actually seeing the continuing saga of bumbling-but-lovable handyman Tim “the Tool Man’’ Taylor. (Although they might be a little surprised at how cranky he’s become and wonder if he’s had a little work done.)

Instead, they will be getting the story of the bumbling-but-lovable Mike Baxter who works for Outdoor Man. For years he’s been traveling the world shooting exotic locales for the company catalog but, in these tough economic times, his boss Ed (Héctor Elizondo, “Pretty Woman’’) wants to ground him and have him beef up the website. This means Mike will be spending more time at home. Which is good since his wife, Vanessa, former Bay Stater Nancy Travis (“Three Men and a Baby’’), just got a promotion at work and could use his help with the kids.

There are two main, if slight, differences between Allen’s two shows. Baxter is the father to three daughters, as opposed to a trio of sons on “Home Improvement.’’ They are a young single mom, a “Glee’’ and boy-obsessed high school student, and a tomboy tween, to all of whom he haplessly gives advice. And in lieu of a TV show about home improvement where he gruffly barks in testosteriffic joy about being a man, he hosts a video blog where he laments that the world has become a place where he can no longer gruffly bark in testosteriffic joy about being a man.

For instance, he blanches at the touchy-feely day care where his eldest daughter takes her son. He worries, homophobically, that this “sensitive’’ approach to child-rearing may lead to his grandson one day dancing on a parade float. “The only time men should be dancing is when other men are shooting at their feet,’’ grouses Baxter.

He is also annoyed at soccer, which he calls “Europe’s covert war for the hearts and minds of America’s kids.’’

And yet. As borderline odious and stale as some of the jokes are in the pilot, “Last Man Standing’’ could be a fixer-upper.

Allen is clearly an old pro. And I do confess a soft spot for his “Galaxy Quest’’ and “Toy Story.’’ (The creators give one sly nod to Buzz Lightyear in the pilot.) He manages to make Baxter mostly relatable and less angry than the character could’ve been in a less-gifted sitcom actor’s hands. It is not hard to imagine men Baxter’s age voicing similar gripes, and his scenes with Travis actually generated a couple of chuckles. Elizondo is dependably offbeat.

If all of the characters receive some fleshing out - right now the whole broad enterprise seems better suited to the throwback style of TV Land - as the series progresses, don’t be surprised to find Allen settling into a new TV home.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.

LAST MAN STANDING

Starring: Tim Allen, Nancy Travis, Hector Elizondo

On: ABC, Channel 5

Time: Tonight, 8-9