(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the series finale of “Last Man Standing.”)
After nine season and two networks, “Last Man Standing” finally sat down on Thursday with a series finale that metaphorically said goodbye to the show by literally saying goodbye to Mike Baxter’s (Tim Allen) beloved truck, which was stolen just after he’d completed his 10-year restoration on the antique car.
The hourlong two-parter, titled “Baxter Boot Camp / Keep On Truckin,’” managed to remain mostly upbeat, which is exactly what Allen and “Last Man Standing” showrunner Kevin Abbott wanted for the ending of the Fox sitcom. But the writers did get in one big emotional scene, where Mike, Vanessa (Nancy Travis) and all the members of the Baxter family and their closest friends gathered together for a memorial service to mourn the loss of the show — er, truck.
Here, Abbott breaks down the decisions that went into the final episode of “Last Man Standing,” including why Allen got his first-ever writing credit on the show for the finale and how they managed to virtually work in Kaitlyn Dever’s Eve for that “punch” of a scene with Mike.
TheWrap: How did you decide how heavy to go in the finale, in terms of the tone you wanted to close “Last Man Standing” on?
Abbott: We really like to have emotion in our show. Matt [Berry, executive producer, writer and former showrunner] and I always approached it with the sense that we want to base it on true emotion. We want to put people through things and get them to some really emotional truth, but always with fun. Our first and foremost job is to bring joy to people. So that was the big challenge. That is the big question that we asked ourselves, how do we do this so that it’s not just a maudlin, cryfest of an ending, because I think that would be untrue to what the series was. Essentially, what we decided to do was to split it into two halves. In the first half hour of the show, we told the individual stories. We did three storylines where we were kind of pointing the direction of where these characters are going to go on with their lives once the series itself ends, and address that that way. And then we felt like we would save the goodbye to the series for the second half of the show, and we wanted to confine that as much as possible. We wanted to honor it and have it, but not to dwell on it.
So that’s why, when Matt came up with the idea of using the truck as a metaphor for the show — something that you loved being taken from you that you worked on for a long time — we were able to kind of do an episode that would have been just a normal episode and wrap it around that. And then we just saved the emotion until we got to the memorial scene. That was the one scene that I wanted to allow the cast members to express their feelings for the series through the metaphor. Other than that, we wanted to keep it fun, not only for the audience’s sake, but frankly for the actors’ sake. I mean, that scene was tough enough for them to get through as a metaphor that I can only imagine if we were constantly dwelling on it… We broke some other stories as the series finale, like Kyle moving on to the priesthood, or Ed retiring and throwing a goodbye party for him. They all just seemed to dwell in the maudlin. It just was very hard to picture it not being kind of a sad week. And we didn’t want it to be a sad week. We wanted it to be a happy week, as much as you could under the circumstances. One of the reasons we wanted Jay Leno on the show is that he’s always such an upbeat presence, and we were able to inject comedy in a highly emotional situation.
Kaitlyn Dever makes her final guest appearance as Eve, Mike and Vanessa’s youngest daughter, via Zoom from the Air Force academy during the memorial scene. Was that a creative choice you made on purpose or one that COVID made for you?
That was a decision driven solely by the realities of COVID. If we’d been able to get Kaitlyn live, we would have devised the scene differently. We would have written it differently and probably would have still wanted to save her for the final emotional endpoint of that memorial scene. But she was shooting “Dear Evan Hansen,” so just the logistics of quarantine and being able to get her on set, we were not going to be able to do it. I thought it actually worked quite well because there’s the false ending to that scene, when Kyle gives what could have been the emotional end of the scene, which is, “I wish it wasn’t gone. I don’t want this going.” And it kind of gives you that head fake. And then you come in with Eve. Tim and Kaitlyn have always had such a special relationship. Not that he didn’t have it with the rest of the crew and everything, but I think he felt very fatherly to Kaitlyn. And I think that was a punch that really landed that scene nicely. So it worked out really well. But yeah, that was a creative decision driven by the realities of production.
The finale includes a lot of winks to “Last Man Standing” changing networks and Allen’s old sitcom,”Home Improvement,” with lines about how the truck’s GPS can’t be tracked because it’s “off the network” and they could try “another network,” and how long Mike has been doing “improvement on this home.” How did you decide to what degree you wanted to make those references?
Look, most of the meta stuff is usually for the writers and the actors and hopefully the audience enjoys it. But I don’t want to take them out of the story either. But we had more (Laughs). For a while, we were going to accuse that guy Neil, up the street, that his son’s a bad guy. You know, “Neil’s son took this thing off.” [Note: If you didn’t get that, Abbott was making a joke about Nielsen TV ratings.] We had a bunch of stuff and we pulled it back a little to just a couple of the good jokes. The “improving his home” joke was Matt’s, which we loved. And then “stupid, stupid network.” We love the network, by the way. That’s a friendly poke at them because they couldn’t have been better to us. So those kind of things, what we wanted to do was just make certain that when we got to the memorial scene, that people were picking up on the fact that this was a metaphor. I didn’t want people to walk away thinking they just did a show about a truck being stolen for the final show; that’s odd. I wanted them to see the larger picture, and that’s why the beginning of the memorial scene was, it’s for a truck — and then Vanessa keeps describing the show. I thought that that worked well. We used it for other than just the meta, fun purposes of it to kind of wink at the audience that, hey, this is more than a truck.
Tim Allen has the writer’s credit on the finale, which marks his first writers credit on the series. How did you decide Tim would write this one?
As you know, the show is group-written every week with the writers. And then we will assign the “written by” credit
based on who contributed the most, or who kind of felt the strongest about the subject, or just who was up next. When it came to the final episode, of any season, normally it would be Matt or I that would take it and would write it ourselves. But when we got to this one, neither one of us really wanted to take it for some reason. It just felt like hogging credit to me. And Matt didn’t want to take it because if his name is on it, he wrote it. And that wasn’t going to happen, we were going to all write the final show. So he came up with the idea, why don’t we give it to Tim and put Tim’s name on it? I said that’s exactly what we should do, because Tim is a big collaborator and a big part of every episode. We go through the episodes with him, he gives us Mike’s attitude, he gives us storylines and throughlines and jokes. And he’d never had his name on a script on the series, which seemed, when we thought about it, to be wrong, to be unfair. So we said, we want to give this to Tim. We went to Tim and asked him if that would be OK. And he was very, very honored to have that, because he earned it over the course of the series with all of his input.
In the final scene between Héctor Elizondo’s Ed Alzate and Mike Baxter at work, Ed goes to say something before saying goodbye, but cuts himself off and walks out without finishing his thought. What was he going to say and why did you have him not say it?
We wanted Ed to have his moment with Mike to say goodbye, as well as Vanessa. So that’s why we put him in just before the vlog shot. Originally, it had just been where he says, “I’ll see you tomorrow, OK?” And then Hector and Tim had come up with the last bit, where Hector stops, turns around and clearly is like, I’m not going to say it, but clearly I had something important to say. We loved that. I wanted to leave it the way it was and just let the audience kind of imagine what he would say. We knew it would be emotional and powerful and strong. But it had a strength without actually verbalizing it. So only Hector knows what was in his head when he was thinking what he didn’t say.
Why did you make the final scene of “Last Man Standing” one of Mike’s “Outdoor Man” vlogs?
We decided to end it with a vlog because he felt like the vlog was the signature device for the show throughout its run. We wanted to give it its own place of honor, set it aside much like, you know, we wanted Mike to have a moment with Vanessa and we wanted Mike to have a moment with Ed. We wanted Mike to have a moment with his vlog. And it gives Tim the final chance to say goodbye, because we deliberately kept him from having too much emotional dialogue in the show because we were avoiding the maudlin. We wanted to let the other characters say goodbye, and then the vlog would be Tim’s chance as Mike. And to give credit where credit is due, Kevin Hench wrote the vast majority of the vlogs throughout the series run, and he wrote this one along with Tim. So that was what he wanted to say. Broadly, we talked in the room about what should be said, but Tim and Kevin Hench wrote the actual dialogue, so their decisions that went into that are only known to them.
TheWrap: What was the series wrap, the final scene shot, for “Last Man Standing”?
The series wrap was on the vlog. We did a COVID show, in the sense that we did not have live audiences throughout the year and that felt very– unfair is wrong, because people really suffered through this pandemic, but it felt off. We love having our audience shows. And it didn’t feel correct to me that the actors wouldn’t get a final curtain call. So we invited 45 members of production and family who sat in booths that were sealed and stayed six feet apart. It was very much like an ICU room on that stage. But we were able to have live people for the final scenes. And Tim did his vlog. It was very emotional and a difficult time. Obviously, the rest of the cast joined him after that vlog was done. I had intended, if we had the room, if we had the time, I was going to actually use the final curtain call as the tag and have the vlog be the final moment of the show. But we ran very long on the final show. We went almost five minutes long, which is a lot to cut when you can only air for 20 minutes. So none of that got to air. But we did do the vlog and it felt like a very fitting moment to end the season and series on, especially when the cast was all able to join Tim and to share in the love that we all had for each other.