Many years ago, the hashtag #slatepitches made its appearance on Twitter in reference to Slate Magazine’s headlines, and it was a beautiful thing.
For those of you unfamiliar with #slatepitches, the premise was basically this: Slate loves in-your-face, left-of-center contrarian stories with purposely combative headlines, making it easy to mock.
Some of the beauties created by the hashtag’s participants: “Suck It: How Chewing Is Destroying Food,” “Soccer: It’s time to let players use their hands,” “Lead pipes and your genius baby” and (my personal favorite) “What ‘Twilight’ can teach us about climate change.”
The hashtag #slatepitches may be lost to the ether of social media history, but the concept still lives on. Take Katherine Vanarendonk’s piece excoriating the buzz about Tim Allen’s “Home Improvement” or “Last Man Standing” being brought back to television in the wake of the success of the “Roseanne” reboot.
The article originally appeared in New York Magazine’s Vulture, but the headline is pure Slate, even if it wasn’t originally written for them: “Tim Allen Is Not a Working-Class Hero.”
Vanarendonk notes that now that “Roseanne” has been successful, “the search has been on for other dead TV shows that could get rebooted with a cultural impact similar to the ‘Roseanne’ phenomenon, and one frequently floated possibility is either of the two major Tim Allen sitcoms, ‘Home Improvement’ or ‘Last Man Standing.’
“Both seem like post-‘Roseanne’ reboot catnip,” Vanarendonk notes. “They’re set in ‘middle’ America (‘Home Improvement’ is in Michigan, ‘Last Man Standing’ in Colorado). In both, Allen plays related versions of the same macho man who stands up for ‘traditional’ values and the right to shoot things or saw his own hand off without intrusive government regulation. And if the true intent is to depict Trumpian sensibilities in television sitcoms, either of these shows could do the trick.”
But no, Vanarendonk cries! If you think any of these shows should come back, you’re falling for reactionary trap of entrenched white privilege!
She says that “if the implicit idea is to give its audience more working-class families, as has been so lauded in the Roseanne reboot, it seems like a good time to note that Tim Allen shows do not meet those criteria.
“They’re not ‘blue collar,’ as Deadline described both ‘Home Improvement’ and ‘Last Man Standing.’ Nor do they mirror ‘the family life of middle-class workers,’ something ‘Home Improvement’ was praised for during is run in 1994. In truth, ‘Home Improvement’ and ‘Last Man Standing’ are shows about wealthy families, media personalities, and massive privilege. They are very, very far from working-class America.”
Vanarendonk says that while Allen’s character on “Home Improvement,” Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor “uses tools. A lot,” he wasn’t necessarily “blue-collar” (anything involving “middle” America, “traditional” values or “blue-collar” jobs is always put in quotation marks, for reasons unbeknownst to God and man), he is “not a contractor or plumber or dirty-job-doer à la the reality show ‘Dirty Jobs.’ He’s a TV host, one of two guys on a show called ‘Tool Time,’ in which he and his colleague Al show off tools and give tips on how to use them.”
“The Taylors are probably not billionaires, but they live in a very large, very comfortable suburban home,” she writes. “In the first season alone, there are plots about the hot rod Tim restores as a hobby, Jill and Tim attending an opera fundraiser, and Tim installing a new satellite dish that will get them ‘200 channels.’ They are a far cry from working class.”
A hod rod? An opera fundraiser? A satellite dish? J’accuse, Tim Taylor! You filthy class traitor! Onto the tumbril with you. And things get even worse, at least from Vanarendonk’s perspective, when you consider Allen’s other sitcom, which was unceremoniously cancelled for reasons that remain unclear but which one might suspect is because it was embraced by the same sort of plebs Vanarendonk thinks should only like characters who are lower-middle class, at most.
“The financial picture is even less ambiguous over on ‘Last Man Standing,’ where Allen plays Mike Baxter,” she writes. “He’s still got a hyper, defensive masculinity; on ‘Last Man Standing’ he plays the joint owner of a chain of Cabelas-esque retailers called Outdoor Man, and he’s the titular Last Man because he lives with his wife and three daughters.
“He loves guns and work boots and the American flag. He’s also very proud of how much he’s accomplished. His house is enormous and gorgeously furnished,” she continues. “When one of his daughters gets into a college that will cost him $200K, he worries about the money, but mostly because he thinks she’s not very bright and the money will be a waste. When another daughter has a chance at a college scholarship, he cheers. If she gets it, he can buy a boat!”
Yes, those unwashed peons who love the fact that “Roseanne” portrays middle America in a positive light are never “very proud” of how much they’ve accomplished! Their kids never go to college! They live in shame and indignity — as they rightfully should, the gun-loving jerks. Why on earth would they furnish their house with anything other than rotting couches and milk crates? This article reeks of being written by someone whose acquaintance with what they consider to be middle America has taken place entirely through Walker Evans photographs.
Oh, and “Last Man Standing” viewers are also racist, too: Allen’s character is an “immensely wealthy patriarch of a privileged white family who sees himself as a beleaguered victim. He enjoys filming himself as he rants about political topics — yes, he is also a vlogger — and tends to take a ‘just good common sense’ tone on issues like racism and immigration (sample dialogue: ‘But these days, everyone’s gunning for the American white male. [waves at camera] Hello!’).”
Vanarendonk’s piece seems to imply that the only redeeming part of “Roseanne” — and the reason it must be popular — is that it presents a sort of kitchen-sink realism that the “blue-collar” people in “middle” America with their “traditional” values want to see. They can’t afford satellite dishes or hot rods or to belong to the opera, so why on earth would they identify with anyone who can?
Leaving aside the speciousness of Vanarendonk’s argument about what blue-collar — sorry, “blue-collar” — people can afford (they’ve seen significant job and wage growth over the last few years, after all, although nowadays they’d be more likely to go for an Apple TV and a Netflix subscription, and most experienced welders and plumbers also probably make a great deal more than either Vanarendonk or I take home as writers), the argument completely leaves aside why people would like the show. And, to be fair, she isn’t alone. In fact, she bases part of her argument about the fact that “Roseanne” is supposed to appeal to “economic diversity,” at least according to ABC executives.
“Networks may well reboot one of these shows — ‘economic diversity’ was always a thin euphemism for Trumpism,” Vanarendonk says in closing. “But any reading of these shows that argues they’re speaking to a ‘real,’ silenced America is false. They are representations of wealthy white privilege, every bit as elitist as the politics they supposedly rail against.”
Tim Allen is elitist, says the writer trying to tell blue-collar Americans why they shouldn’t like him. If cognitive dissonance could create electricity, we could decommission most of the nuclear reactors on the East Coast and simply wire up Katherine Vanarendonk, sit her down at a MacBook and let things play out from there. As for the frequent invocations of “white privilege” throughout the article, I’m just going to look at the kind of “diversity” the liberal Hollywood establishment typically gives us and call for summary judgement.
Yes, “economic diversity” may be a pretense media execs may pitch to explain the popularity of “Roseanne” using the argot and tone of the industry, but that’s likely not why it’s popular. Here Vanarendonk and I agree, but for vastly different reasons.
People have long known that television is fantasy and that, no, a minor Detroit television tool-show host probably wouldn’t be able to afford that house, the same way that the semi-employed NYC residents on “Friends” would not be able to rent that loft. In Vanarendonk’s ideal television landscape, Maj. Healy would have been discharged from the Air Force on mental health grounds, Florence would have been fired by the Jeffersons for insubordination and Gilligan, the Skipper and everyone else on the island would have been carrion by episode three.
The reason that “Roseanne” is and Tim Allen’s shows were popular is simple: the people that Vanarendonk likes putting in quotation marks so much — “blue-collar” “middle” Americans, etc. — embrace shows that make “just good common sense” and share their values instead of ridiculing them. Allen’s character was unabashedly conservative, not a classist, and embraced the blue-collar ethos. That’s a rare thing in the media these days, and people take it where they can get it. That includes shows with characters who can somehow scrounge up the money for a satellite dish even though they didn’t graduate from Harvard. As the cultural left is fond of saying so often, representation matters.
In closing, it’s interesting that Vanarendonk chose to write an article about Tim Allen with a title that unironically references John Lennon’s song “Working Class Hero.” It seems like a good time to note that at the time Lennon wrote that song, he was one of the world’s richest entertainers, and arguably its most famous. He was many times richer than any of Allen’s characters and hadn’t counted himself among the working class in years, yet using a reference from such a “privileged” individual doesn’t seem to bother her.
The moral of the story is simple: You can be as rich as you want and talk about the working class, just as long as your politics are correct. If they aren’t, though, no matter how popular your reboot may be, you or the characters you represent had better be dirt poor, or else your popular show is going to get cancelled and you’re going to be called out by Slate Magazine for not sufficiently checking your privilege.
It’ll leave behind a great #slatepitch, though.
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