Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Touchstone Television have released Home Improvement: The Complete Eighth Season - the final season of the most popular family sitcom of the 1990s. Spread out over four discs, these 28 episodes wrap up the saga of the all-American Taylor family, while still providing plenty of laughs and tears along the way. Fans of the show who journeyed with the Taylors this far won't want to miss this surprisingly strong finale season.
I wonder where Home Improvement fits in with today's zeitgeist, considering it's almost been ten years since the incredibly popular show was on the air (it was never out of the Top Ten). For several years, reruns seemed to be everywhere, often occupying the primo syndication time slots as befitting such a former ratings powerhouse. Now, I don't see it that often when I'm flipping the dial, so I would imagine its visibility is inevitably winding down. Looking back on the show in comparison to its frequent Nielsen's rating rival in the 90s, Seinfeld, I wonder if it will have as many writers or pundits discussing it down through the years as no doubt the groundbreaking, genuinely strange Seinfeld will, because next to that iconic show, Home Improvement seems like such a throwback - and a happy one - to earlier sitcom models.
Based on the stand-up material of comedian Tim Allen, the first several seasons of Home Improvement revolved just as much around the wacky "More Power!" antics of tool-obsessed Tim and his bid to motorize and/or soup-up any and all inanimate objects, as it did with the family dynamics of the Taylor household. Allen played Tim Taylor, the host of a local cable show, Tool Time, that was sponsored by his company, Binford Tools (Tim had been a top salesman for the company, prior to his gig on television). At home, Tim's wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) watched over the Taylor brood: eldest son Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), the handsome (and sometimes not-too-bright) soccer star; Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), the sensitive "brain" of the three boys, and oddball Mark (Taran Noah Smith), the youngest, who was frequently the subject of his older brothers' tauntings and practical jokes. Many of the show's gags revolved around Tim's proclivity for wreaking havoc, through his quest for "more power" or by his sometimes questionable handyman skills (big, clever special effects gags were one of the series' notable hallmarks), both during his TV show and through his home improvement projects at his comfortable suburban Detroit, Michigan home. Classic sitcom supporting archetypes - the eccentric co-worker and the affable next-door neighbor - were provided by Tim's near-genius, philosophical neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman, who never exposed his entire face during the show's run), and Tim's dorky, sensitive assistant on Tool Time, Al Borland (Richard Karn).
As the show progressed through its eight year run, storylines became more serious while some of the wackier elements of the Tool Time segments and Tim's more outrageous home improvement disasters were toned down, and that shift is reflected here in this final season. The series, created by Allen and producers/writers David McFazdean, Carmen Finestra and Matt Williams, although on the surface a seeming return to the more traditional family sitcoms of earlier generations - with the home as refuge/playground/battleground for family dynamics - was particularly representative of its time, with Tim an interesting evolution of the more traditional sitcom Dad of the 1950s. While iconic TV father figures like Ward Cleaver, self-named Ozzie Nelson, and Jim Anderson stayed close to home for their storylines (Ozzie's job was never even specified for the audience), Tim's job was a major component of Home Improvement. The Taylors' relative economic ease was never offered up unexplained; the Taylors had a nice, comfortable suburban home because Tim went to work everyday and literally hammered/screwed/electrocuted/sawed/blew himself up to make a buck.
More importantly, Tim Taylor represented the "New Man" father long brewing in the 1980s and 1990s, who was deeply involved in his families' dynamics (as, admittedly, were the above-mentioned 50s TV fathers) not just as a problem solver, but as a fellow traveler who was often just as confused and searching and tentative about how to be a man, a husband, and a father figure, as his family members were in finding their own place within the group dynamic (it's no coincidence that this kind of TV dad presided over the most successful family sitcom of the 90s - the decade where one of the most infamous sayings of the then-sitting President's was, "I feel your pain."). It was an interesting dichotomy created by the producers, writers and Allen, creating a character that comically called for "More Power!" in his constant quest to reassert his masculine dominance in all things mechanical, while on the home front, Tim Taylor evolved into a supportive, non-domineering help mate for his wife and young children (with his final transformation complete in the last episode of Home Improvement, where Tim gives up a valuable promotion to executive produce Tool Time in favor of supporting his wife Jill's desire to get a low-paying job as a therapist in Bloomington, Indiana).
As well, Home Improvement was equally sensitive to Jill's character (beautifully realized by the talented Richardson), allowing her to grow and develop after the first few seasons into a woman searching to find an identity outside being a mother to three rapidly maturing sons and one rather immature husband. Seeking a career as a therapist, the series was fairly honest in portraying the long, hard struggle Jill's character had in juggling family responsibilities while attending school (she was often seen trying to find time to actually get her homework done - a situation any parent going back to school later in life will recognize and sympathize with). As well, in later seasons, the Jill character was allowed to fail, to be attracted to other men, and to face the uncertainties of growing older while her attractive, famous husband was in contact with younger, gorgeous women (Tool Time's announcer/assistant Heidi, played by the knockout hottie Debbe Dunning, would be a formidable distraction/temptation for any guy). A particularly strong two-part episode (and a surprisingly honest and layered look at the issue) this season, Love's Labor Lost, has Jill going through an unwanted but necessary full hysterectomy, with the screenwriters and Richardson doing excellent work with Jill's feelings of anger, fear of aging, inadequacy and ultimately, hope and her reassured love for and by Tim. It's an exceptional episode within a supposedly "wacky" family sitcom, and a credit to the series.
Other big changes come this season, with Jonathan Taylor Thomas leaving the show early in the season (for whatever reasons, his refusal to be a part of the big three-part finale leaves a conspicuous hole in the Taylor family dynamics), Brad suffers a career-threatening injury to his knee, and Mark comes of age with his ever-present video camera when he's hired by Tim to do his first professional, on-air video for Tool Time. Home Improvement was always good, as well, at showing believable sibling tensions between the brothers, but this final season, the writers - quite rightly - show the boys gradually maturing and coming to terms with their roles in the family, while they band together when they realize their life in Detroit is coming to an end. There's no denying that the few final episodes of this eighth season of Home Improvement have a strong sense of finality and nostalgia, as befitting the bowing-out of an American family that TV viewers took into their homes for nine successful years. Unlike many of those 1950s TV families (there was no "final" wrap-up for the Cleavers or the Andersons), Home Improvement took the Taylors full circle and gave viewers, within the three-part finale, a heavy dose of clips to remind them how far the family had come in those nine years (the boys look so small and young in those early clips, growing into young men in such a short time - as any parent can attest to, as well, with their own kids). Despite the trademark grunting "Oh ooh oooh ooohhhss!" of Allen's power-obsessed Tim, or the clever, big-scale stunts that became so anticipated by viewers each week, Home Improvement was always about family in the end, and it's fitting that the series treated its viewers the same way - as family members - allowing us to have a final emotional goodbye before the Taylors moved off to Bloomington (along with their house that Tim jacked up on a truck and tugboat, in a brilliant twist on the genre), and off our TV screens.
Here are the 28, one-half hour episodes of the four-disc set Home Improvement: The Complete Eighth Season:
All in the Family
Taylor Got Game
Al's Fair Lady
Tim's First Car
Thanks, But No Thanks
Home for the Holidays
Plays for Tots
Chop Shop Til You Drop
Mark's Big Break
Young At Heart
Love's Labor Lost (Part 1)
Love's Labor Lost (Part 2)
A Hardware Habit to Break
Loose Lips And Freudian Slips
The Long and Winding Road (Part 1)
The Long and Winding Road (Part 2)
The Long and Winding Road (Part 3)
Home Improvement Backstage Pass
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.