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Home Improvement: 20th Anniversary Complete Collection

Other // PG // May 10, 2011
List Price: $129.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted May 27, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Show:
One of the best sitcoms of the 90's, a decade that had some pretty stellar shows including Friends and the iconic Seinfeld, was Home Improvement.  Based on the comedy of star Tim Allen, the show was able to provide a funny half-hour of entertainment week after week for 8 whole seasons.  Not only that, but where many long running shows overstay their welcome (I'm looking at you Scrubs) Home Improvement manages to maintain a high level of quality over its entire run.  That's attested by the fact that the show never finished a season outside of the top ten rates shows.  That's quite an accomplishment.  To celebrate the show's 20th anniversary, Buena Vista has released all 8 seasons in a nifty cardboard 'toolbox with an exclusive Binford "All-in-one" tool.  It is a very nice way to get the entire show in one fell swoop.

Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor (Tim Allen) hosts a popular home repair show in Detroit, Tool Time.  Energetic, funny, and more than a bit childlike in his enthusiasm for "More Power", it's easy to see why the program is a success. He's assisted on the show by Al Borland (Richard Karn), a quite man who actually knows more about the subject than Tim, something that becomes a running joke on the show.  (Walk-on character: I really like Al!  He really knows his stuff.  Tim:  He assists me.)
At home (where the bulk of each episode takes place) Tim is just as energetic, optimistic, and immature.  When he notices his wife Jill (wonderfully played by Patricia Richardson) rinsing the plates before putting them in the dishwasher, he 'rewires' it, plumbing in a high powered compressor that has the ability to blast the toughest stains off the dishes, and blow the door off the washer too.

Tim is sometimes aided in his grand schemes (though more often plagued) by his three sons, oldest Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), middle son Randy (one-time teen heart-throb Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and the often picked upon youngest Mark (Taran Noah Smith). 
The last key member of the cast is Tim's sage-like neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman).  An enigmatic man, viewers never see all of Wilson's face but his advice to Tim is often the key to resolving each episode's problems.  Wilson (it's eventually revealed that Wilson is both his first and his last name) is the source of all wisdom, both arcane and commonplace, and his repartee with Tim are some of the shows best moments.  One of my favorites is from an early episode when Tim's bathroom remodeling project gets out of hand:
Tim: I like to create, Wilson. Everything I do, I wanna make bigger and better.
Wilson: Well, Tim, this obsessive desire to create partly happens because men feel inferior to women.
(Tim grunts enquiringly)
Wilson: It's because we can't bear children.
Tim: Oh, I don't mind the boys that much.
Wilson: No no no, Tim; what I mean is, women can give birth, and we can't.
Tim Taylor: And we sure lucked out on that part.
The show follows a typical sitcom formula, with each episode finding Tim, his wife, or one of his son's in a jam.  What separates this show from the myriad of other shows like it that never get past season one is the strong writing.  Created by a pair of veterans from The Cosby Show (Matt Williams and Carmen Finestra) along with David McFadzean (a writer for Rosanne) and stand-up comedian Tim Allen, Home Improvement worked on making the situations not too far removed from reality to be unbelievable, but still unique enough to get a few decent belly laughs in every episode.

Over the course of the eight seasons the show does change a little.  The boys grow up, naturally, and at the beginning of the last season Jonathan Taylor Thomas leaves the show (and does not return for the series finale, which is a disappointment).  The program also becomes a bit more serious as the seasons progress and starts to deal with subjects like the environment, drugs, and teen marriage.  They always remember that they're first and foremost a comedy however and these more topical episodes are still enjoyable.
In a lot of ways, Home Improvement was a throwback to an earlier style of comedy, like I Love Lucy or Bob Newhart.  In the late 80's there was a backlash against the 'typical' sitcom from earlier years that portrayed the perfect middle class family.  Shows like Rosanne featured less-than-ideal families that struggled with money issues and Married with Children (a show I really like) took the idea even further and made the show revolve around a dysfunctional family who were all embodied the worst aspects of the American family.  Of course the most popular show from this change in style is The Simpsons.       
While other 90's sitcoms made a conscious move to distance themselves from the family setting (Seinfeld, Friends) Home Improvement embraced it.  Here was a family that has difficulties and the occasional friction, but they also look at life in the 90's.  One of my favorite reoccurring plotlines is Jill's indecision as to what to do now that her youngest child is in school.  She looks for a job, takes classes, etc. but these are subjects that would never have been examined in Leave it to Beaver.  At the time it was (and still is) refreshing to see a 'normal' family with typical 90's problems.

Speaking of Jill, Patricia Richardson does a magnificent job in the show.  She plays her character as a strong, independent woman, who in a lot of ways is the most mature member of the household, but she also vulnerable and has insecurities.  She comes across as a three dimensional person, arguably the most fleshed out person in the show.  In addition she physically fits the part.  She is very attractive, but not a blond waif who wears a size four.  (Like Julie Bowen in Modern Family who plays Claire... I just can't suspend my disbelief enough to swallow that someone like her would marry someone like Phil.)  It's nice seeing someone who looks like a typical, middle-aged woman playing a typical, middle-aged woman.
The DVDs:

This is just a repackaging of the previously released season sets.  All eight season (three discs each save for the last one which has four discs) are housed in a shiny red 'toolbox' that is made out of cardboard but gives the impression that it's metal.  Also included is a Binford (the fictional tool brand that sponsor's Tim's show) tape measure/level multi-tool.
All eight seasons arrive with the original DD stereo mix.  It sounds fine, with the dialog being clean and clear and the music having a good dynamic range for a show from the 90's.  There isn't much in the way of separation or audio effects, but I wasn't really expecting any either.
The full frame image is just okay.  Recorded on video tape, the show looked fine on my old 25" CRT display back when it originally aired, but seen today on a 50" HDTV the limits of the 90's technology are pretty apparent.  The image is soft and the blacks aren't as inky and deep as one would like.  It's not a horrible image, just a product of its time.
The bonus features are on the weak side.  I was hoping that they'd create a new disc of extras for this release, but that didn't happen.  As it is, there are three audio commentaries with series creators Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean on episodes to the first season, but none of the other seasons have commentary tracks at all.  Aside from that, there are gag/blooper reels for seasons except 3.  The eighth season has a retrospective from 2003 where Tim Allen and Richard Karn host a series of clips from the show.  The case calls it a "reunion special" but since most of the cast never show up, it doesn't really feel like a reunion.
Final Thoughts:
One of the great sitcoms from the 90's, Home Improvement is still as funny now as when it first aired.  It never really jumped the shark and stayed enjoyable through all 8 seasons.  If you have the earlier individual season releases there's no reason to upgrade, but if you've missed picking the series up, this set is a great way to do it.  Highly Recommended.  
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Highly Recommended

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