There's nothing like popularity to make a piece of entertainment seem valuable, worthwhile, shrewd. After all, if millions of people like it, it must hit a nerve, must move an audience in some way, right? So it is with Home Improvement (ABC, Wednesdays, 9-9:30 p.m.), which has spent its second year at or near the top of the Nielsen ratings, week in, week out. The series will have its season finale May 19, and it's going out with serene confidence: At a time when most shows don't know whether they will still be around a month from now, ABC has given Home Improvement an unusual three-year renewal.
In most ways, Home Improvement is a prefab sitcom constructed with easy-to-assemble parts: A hot stand-up comic (Tim Allen) was plugged into a standard TV formula about a middle-class bread-winner, his wife (Patricia Richardson), and their children (Zachery Ty Bryan, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Taran Noah Smith: three boys, nine names).
The one original element in this show is an already outdated pop-culture phenomenon. Allen's Tim Taylor, a blustering handyman who hosts a macho home-repair TV program, Tool Time, is a comic symbol of the media-hyped ''men's movement,'' in which books like Robert Bly's Iron John were widely misinterpreted to serve as an excuse for excessive male ego and aggressiveness. Just as the men's movement's message seemed to boil down to ''guys can't help it if they're pigs,'' so many of the jokes in Home Improvement revolve around the notion that Tim just can't help grunting like a baboon and talking like a jerk. ''Why do you bug me during football?'' asks Tim when wife Jill interrupts his viewing of a televised game. ''Did I bother you during childbirth?''
Tim Taylor is supposed to be a likable lout, and he is, and not just because Tim Allen is a smart comedian who has proven to be a sly, charming actor. Taylor is a vulgar character that viewers can enjoy guilt-free, because his point of view is balanced redeemed, even by Jill's commonsense feminism. (To Tim's last query above, Jill riposted, ''No, but you bothered me during conception.'')
This being TV, Improvement cannot promote feminism without also making fun of it; the series advocates equality for women while showing us that those equal partners can be silly, and, occasionally, foolish. This is where Richardson's abilities are particularly crucial, since her role carries the heaviest burden of delivering value-laden messages (talking about your feelings is good; washing underwear is as valuable a task as repairing a car), yet she brings it off with more snap and grace than anyone else in the cast.
This season, the show has undergone some necessary growth. Tim's Tool Time assistant, Al (Richard Karn), has become a prominent costar complete with trademark catchphrase (''I don't think so, Tim''); the two work off each other like a seasoned comedy team. The Taylors' boys, who used to be a trio of interchangeable little wise guys, have developed distinct personalities. The oldest, Brad(Bryan), has become a convincingly confused adolescent, still happiest when slapping his brohters but suddenly dazzled by an unknown territory: girls.
More prominince has also been given to Tim's neighbor on the other side of the fence, the semi-unseen Wilson (Earl Hindman). There has never been good i.e. funny reason why we can't see his face, and his watered-down New Age philosophy routine is a stuffy bore. He's now the character most likely to drag the show to a halt to deliver the week's TV-PC message. (If it were up to Wilson, the series would probably be called Personal Improvement) This coy neighbor did,however; provide my favorite revelation of the season when, during an episodein which Tim agonizes over drawing up his will, Wilson points out that ''Tim Taylor'' is an exact anagram for ''mortality.'' How neat; how spooky.
Home Improvement isn't the best family sitcom Roseanne still goes further and deeper but Improvement may be the most comforting. It delivers its laughs while suggesting that our own homes would be improved if only we talked to each other with the open-mindedness and directness of the Taylors. B+