#519. Home Improvement



This show was set in Detroit?

 When attempting to ascertain the ultimate Pre-Obama America television show of the past thirty years, a number of contenders leap to the front immediately.

The saccharine Full House was a show set in San Francisco that implanted a highly positive image of that Stuff White People Like (SWPL) city in the viewers mind, who would be blissfully unaware of what life was actually like on the bay.

In actuality, virtually every sitcom that has aired on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox in the past 30 years could be considered blissfully unaware of the sweeping societal changes that are transpiring in the real world.

Sure some shows have an agenda, but most exist in a vacuum as if the United States had never undergone such massive demographic changes. Pressure groups have long bemoaned the lack of diversity on network television and in sitcoms, but drastic demographic changes must be pushed slowly so the populace will hardly notice (see Modern Family and Glee). With the cancellation of M.A.N.T.I.S, Black people faced a traumatic setback in the goal of landing another The Cosby Show style hit, a blow they have yet to recover from fully.

This study, Prime Time Now 2001-2002, is a diversity study that documents the gross absence of Black people in sitcoms. It’s now 2011 and the latest network television shows continue to be bathed in a sea of whiteness, an occasionally life boat thrown out to Black actors to ensure such studies won’t be commissioned again.

One television show in the past 30 years can be labeled as the ultimate Pre-Obama America sitcom and it was set in the outskirts of The Motor City, ostensibly in an alternate reality where Black people rarely interact with white people (of course, this is considered the real world).

That show? Home Improvement. Tim Allen’s show about a bumbling tool-man, loving husband and father to three sons is set in a lily-white Detroit suburb and rarely does the harsh reality of life in that  Black-run city interfere with his families existence.

A show that also ran on ABC, The Drew Carey Show, was set in Cleveland and many people found the whitewashing of that majority Black city unsettling. Stuff Black People Don’t Like can locate no articles that point out the lack of Black characters in the strange universe Home Improvement was set in, perhaps because anyone from the real Detroit greatly desired living in that fictional world.

Consider the uproar a new ABC show entitled Detroit 1-8-7 is causing, casting that crumbling city in a more realistic, gritty role it serves on a daily basis:

Growing up near Detroit in the ’70s and ’80s, I was jealous of other cities that had their own TV shows. New York City, L.A., Boston, Chicago — even Milwaukee had both Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. (Milwaukee!) Eventually, Detroit got a few sitcoms (Martin, Home Improvement), but no series ever really explored the dramatic possibilities of this sprawling Rust Belt city.

Cut to the first scene of Detroit 1-8-7, which makes its debut on ABC Sept. 21. A policewoman shows us the homicide-division whiteboard, too small to accommodate the growing list of murders. “We may be the last assembly line left in Detroit,” she says. Later, a homicide cop is searching for a spent bullet on a roadside and finds it — after sorting through a slew of other bullets.

It’s not exactly a tourism brochure. Some locals say Hollywood is giving the city a Gucci-shod kick while it’s down: 24% unemployment, a hobbled auto industry and now this? ABC didn’t help matters by shooting the pilot in Atlanta or by making a promo that erroneously gave Detroit the highest murder rate in the U.S. (It comes in fourth.) City councilman Kwame Kenyatta sponsored a resolution asking ABC to change the show’s title, which he says equates the city with murder. (187 is police code and slang for homicide.) The resolution failed. But the question remains: Does a show set in a troubled city have a responsibility beyond the ratings?

The only 1-8-7 in Home Improvement was the running gag of Tim Taylor (played by Tim Allen) constantly hurting himself on the show he hosted within show, Tool Time. It’s hard to conjure up a more family-friendly show then Home Improvement, with jokes mature enough to fool young people watching but entertain parents at the same time.

Still aired in syndication today, the show holds up remarkably well as opposed to other 1990s (and even 2000-era) comedies.

Watching the show and growing up with the Taylor family (Home Improvement was one of the few shows that maintained a high level of continuity and would constantly allude to prior episodes in other seasons) one was tragically unaware of the dire situation unfolding in the real-world of Detroit.

A brief synoposis of the show:

The series centered on the Taylor family, which consists of father Tim (Tim Allen), his spouse Jill (Patricia Richardson) and their three children: the oldest, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), the middle child Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and youngest, Mark (Taran Noah Smith). The Taylors live in suburban Detroit, Michigan and have a neighbor named Wilson (Earl Hindman) who is often the go-to guy for solving Tim and Jill’s problems.



Tim is a stereotypical American male, who loves power tools, cars and sports (especially the local Detroit teams). He is a former salesman for the fictional Binford Tool company, and is very much a cocky, accident-prone know-it-all. Witty but flippant, Tim jokes around a lot, even at inopportune times. Family life was boisterous, with the two oldest children, Brad and Randy, tormenting the much younger, Mark, while continually testing and pestering each other. This rough by-play happened especially throughout the first four seasons, and was revisited occasionally until Jonathan Taylor Thomas left at the beginning of the eighth season.


Brad, popular and athletic, was often the moving factor, who engaged before thinking, a tendency which regularly landed him in trouble. Randy, a year younger, was the comedian of the pack; known for his quick-thinking, wisecracks, and smart mouth. He had more common sense than Brad but was not immune to trouble. Mark was somewhat of a mama’s boy, though later in the series (in the seventh season) he grew into a teenage outcast who dressed in black clothing (a goth). Meanwhile, Brad became interested in cars like his father and took up soccer. Randy joined the school drama club, and later the school newspaper; in the eighth season, he left for Costa Rica.

A ratings titan, Home Improvement showed us a world inhabited by the Taylor family (Tim, Jill, Brad, Randy and Mark), Tim’s affable assistant on Tool Time Al Borland, the vivacious Heidi and the lovable, erudite neighbor Wilson Wilson Jr.

It was a show that was a testament to Robert Putnam’s study on how diversity breeds distrust in a community, for the world of Home Improvement seemed to be a thriving, tightly nit group of white Americans that would congregate at the local hardware to swap stories of life, family, cars and the dreams, aspirations and hopes for the future.

Putnam’s study shows a much different for the real United States:

IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.


“The extent of the effect is shocking,” says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

Home Improvement is the ultimate sitcom that glorifies Pre-Obama America, and though it was made in the 1990s, the show reminds of all that was once good in this nation. Sadly the show completely excuses any mention of Black Detroit from polite conversation, a city that recently sent out 60,000 incorrect tax bills. Detroit, a city that may have to close half of its schools (only 50 percent graduate anyways, so some would say they are already closed) after initially closing 40 schools earlier in 2010.

The world of Home Improvement is a thriving one, a white one and a peaceful one. Detroit 1-8-7 seems light years away from the world the Taylor’s inhabit, though it should be right around the corner from their fictional home in the Detroit suburbs.

We have talked about Detroit before here at SBPDL, though we have never brought up the sore subject of the happy fictional Taylor clan and Home Improvement.

Stuff Black People Don’t Like includes Home Improvement, a sitcom that shows normal suburban life in a whitopia. Juxtaposed with the reality of Detroit, a city destroyed not by regulation, unions, socialism or natural disaster, but by white flight and a majority Black-run government, Home Improvement shows us all what Pre-Obama America was really like.

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