Despite the best efforts of Edward R. Murrow, Bill Moyers, and Homer Simpson, television watching remains an enduringly guilty pleasure; we rarely admit how much we watch, and we think that much of what we watch is junk. So when a show comes along that attaches some redeeming cultural significance to our tube consumption, it's tempting to succumb to the hype. A case in point is Home Improvement, a sturdy new situation comedy that has arrived weighted down with comparisons by the show's producers as well as TV critics to Robert Bly's men's-movement manifesto, the drum-thumping best-seller Iron John: A Book About Men. Golly: a TV show that cribs ideas from a serious book writ-ten by a classy poet. What next? Sandra Bernhard as a wacky Camille Paglia in the sitcom version of Sexual Personae?
To be sure, Home Improvement courts its lofty comparisons. It stars stand-up comic Tim Allen as Tim Taylor, host of a cable-TV home-repair show called Tool Time. As a TV host, Tim Taylor is a swag-gering master of the universe, slicing through two-by-fours and hammering home solid advice. But around the house with his wife, Jill (Patricia Richardson), and three boisterous sons (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Taran Smith, Zachery Bryan), Tim is Dagwood with an attitude, an aggressive goof-up whose masculine pride frequently gets him in trouble with the rest of the family. Or, as an ABC press release puts it, Tim ''forges ahead, secure in his belief that most problems can be solved by merely increasing the voltage.''
When Tim needs some manly advice, he frequently consults with his next-door neighbor, Wilson, a mysterious char-acter whose high fence always blocks his face from the camera. This is Home Improvement's version of Bly's Iron John: the aging, wise repository of misteriosomale wisdom. Wilson is a nurturing neighbor who counsels Tim to follow his testosterone to bliss: ''Just as the sander vibrates with the grain of the wood, we men should learn to vibrate in harmony with our wives.''
Home Improvement has proven an immediate hit one of the few new series this season to make it into the top 10-and not just because the show rests between two bigger hits, Full House and Roseanne. In his sitcom debut, Tim Allen is a natural not just funny, but an interesting TV presence: charming but a little edgy, a wise guy, but a wise guy with a lot on the ball.
Allen's TV character is a domesticated version of his stand-up persona a modern man so baffled and belligerent about women that he's reduced to beating his chest and making grunting noises. (Most reviewers have said that Allen is making gorilla sounds, but with his small, fierce eyes and long, severe face, Allen has always reminded me of a man-drill when he starts going ''Unghh! Unghh! Unghh!'') In his live performances, Allen's bestial punch line became his trademark; it worked because it simultaneously symbolized and criticized the stand-up misogyny of many male comics.
Allen's act was disseminated in its purest, most artistically successful form in the 1990 Showtime comedy special Men Are Pigs. On the basis of the special's hormonal hilarity, the folks at Disney signed Allen to a TV contract before they'd even cooked up a show for him. Home Improvement is a clever vehicle for his talents, and you can hear people trying to reproduce Allen's mandrill whoops all over America. But it turns out that the show, whose cocreators include Matt Williams (Roseanne), is least effective when it turns into a meditation on maleness.
For instance, the series' pilot peaked when Tim, in the course of increasing the old voltage over his wife's protests, blew up the family dishwasher. Come on an exploding kitchen appliance is a sight gag as old as I Love Lucy. Even less funny was an episode in which Tim wants desperately to watch a big football game on TV. He's obliged to take Jill out to dinner, so he brings along a portable radio and sneaks peeks at the game on the TV in the restaurant's kitchen, along with some of the other male patrons. Boy, was Jill steamed is Roseanne on yet?
That episode was weak because it undermined the best thing about Home Improvement: the playful yet complicated relationship between Tim and Jill, the most interesting sitcom marriage since-well, since Roseanne and Dan. Like Lee Garlington in the underrated-in-every-sense Lenny last season, Richardson has taken a terribly trite role the long-suffering nag with a heart of gold and imbued her character with wry intelligence and bubbling ambition.
These qualities lend even Richardson's quickest, most throwaway scenes some emotional resonance. Improvement is most fun when Jill is shooting holes in one of Tim's man-right/woman-wrong pronouncements; beyond the jokes, there's pleasure to be derived from the way Allen and Richardson grin and gaze into each other's eyes as they argue. As much as Tim grunts and moans, it's obvious he's turned on by the idea that this woman is his equal and then some.
Home Improvement is an unfinished project it has a long way to go before it can tap into the vein of family-life truth that Roseannehits just about every week. The Tylers' three boys, to take just one example, will have to develop individual personalities beyond being cute little Tim clones. But Improvement already offers a more unpretentious yet problematic view of life than Iron John or its numerous men-are-noble-savages rip-offs. At this point, I'd feel a lot guiltier reading one of those whiny men's-movement books than watching this show every week. B