America has a new favorite family.
In the 1980s it was the cuddlesome Cosbys. For the past two years it has been the caustic Conners. Now the Taylors are the toast of television.
Every Wednesday night, 20 million homes across the nation tune in ABC's "Home Improvement" to witness the antics of Tim Taylor, the how-to host of a cable-TV show about tools, and his wife, Jill, as they banter, bicker and buss in an ongoing battle to overcome the inherent differences between the sexes and rear their three sons.
When the 1993-94 TV season officially ends April 17, "Home Improvement" is expected to rank for the first time as prime-time television's No. 1 program, leapfrogging "60 Minutes" and "Roseanne," which placed 1-2 the past two seasons.
Tim Allen, who stars with Patricia Richardson, explains the show's steam-rolling popularity this way: "It's just so real. When we hit hard, when the writers hit a subject that Pat and I can make real, there's a joke on the set: You'll hear the whole crew--all of them are married--say: 'Been there. Done that.' This isn't a show about nothing. It's a show about little things that seem very big at the time they happen."
A look at the 1,000 or so comments on a bulletin board on Prodigy, where Allen recently fielded questions submitted by home-computer users, reveals how much some people connect with the series.
"My parents are fantastic and very similar to you and Jill," wrote D. Thomas. "Dad decides to fix something that may or may not have been broken in the first place, while Mom flips through the yellow pages for the least expensive repairman to fix the damage that Dad will inevitably cause!"
"My husband reminds me of your character on 'Home Improvement,' " wrote Christine Shaw of Stamford, Conn. "He has the accessory gene, he never gets lost and he grunts and thinks he can fix it all. There is no such thing in my house as an instruction manual."
Nadine Wallin from Minnesota simply wrote: "I feel as though you are living in my family. It's getting to be a little scary."
" 'Home Improvement' is the 1990s version of 'Father Knows Best,' turned on its head. It's more like 'Mother Knows Best,' " said Dr. Victor Strasburger, an Albuquerque pediatrician who has done research on the effects of television on children. "They're both very appealing characters, in their own ways. She's a strong woman without being too strong, and he's vulnerable without being a wimp."
The writers of "Home Improvement," all of whom have families, say they simply draw upon their own experiences when coming up with ideas for the show, now in its third season. After the initial script readings on Mondays, Allen and Richardson also give their input.
"One reason the show works is because of the relationship between Tim and Jill," said Carmen Finestra, one of the show's creators and executive producers. "People who don't watch the show dismiss it because they think it's just a show about a guy who grunts. But we look at it as a show about a man and woman, a husband and wife, a mom and dad.
"One woman once came up to me and said, 'I love your show because I get to see how men think.' I was very happy to hear that. A lot of people often say to me these arguments are the same ones they have with their wife or husband."
Allen grew up in the Midwest with six brothers and so always had a strong sense of "maleness," he said. For instance, in last week's episode about keeping the romance alive in marriage--during which Tim passed gas and burped in bed--Allen believes he may have crossed the line of good taste, but at least people could relate.
"All week long guys were calling in, fathers and friends, saying, 'Oh, God, my wife almost killed me when I did that. Jeez, I thought I was going to die,' " said Allen, who has won three consecutive People's Choice Awards as favorite male performer in a TV series. Then he calmly repeated his comedy mantra: "Been there. Done that."
"Roseanne" and "Home Improvement" have both been praised for mirroring the family life of middle-class workers, but the shows have done so in drastically different styles.
"I really would put 'Roseanne' and 'Home Improvement' in the same league: Both are outstanding shows and very socially responsible," Strasburger said. "What I like most about 'Home Improvement' is the spirit of gentleness and playfulness that it has. It's not a show that I worry about children watching, getting unhealthy ideas about sex or drugs. 'Roseanne' is a harder-edge show, and that tends to hit some raw nerves. 'Roseanne' sometimes offends people socially, where 'Home Improvement' never offends. It has perfect manners."
Indeed, many of the fans' comments on Prodigy hailed "Home Improvement's" promotion of family values. "What really impresses me about your show is it debunks the commercial TV myth that only sex and violence sell," wrote Diane Paull of West Bloomfield, Mich. "We watch it as a family and all laugh together."
Tricia Robin, president of the National Council for Families and Television, based in Los Angeles, pointed out that many new shows are centered on families with broken homes, whereas "Home Improvement" portrays a family that's together.
"Everybody's home there," she said, "and you have a friendly neighbor. I don't think we look at families that way nowadays. A lot of shows focus on families that are split up. The Taylors are a family and they are together, and you wonder if people are looking for that. We're all searching for something to hold on to in this world. When something hearkens back to how we all grew up, or wished we grew up, we feel comfortable with it."
Although "Home Improvement" will overtake "Roseanne" in the ratings this season, it has the older show to thank for its early success. "Home Improvement" aired as the lead-in to "Roseanne" on Tuesday nights during its first season, before ABC boldly moved it to Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. to build an entire evening around it. Allen feels bittersweet about the season's victory.
"Bittersweet because I'm a big fan of 'Roseanne,' and I like Roseanne (Arnold) personally," he said. "We have to give them kudos, because they put us on the map. But 'Roseanne' represents a sharper-edged look at family.
"You read so much about people who disobey the law or who are very regressive in their attitude toward life. This show celebrates and represents the majority of us who love their family, do their best, pay their taxes and obey the law. There's a huge majority of people who do that. They go to work, and all they want is weekends free, a good neighbor and a back-yard barbecue. That seems boring, but some of the best times you've ever had come out of that. This show sincerely celebrates those times."