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"Home Improvement" The Complete Seventh Season DVD Review

Buy Home Improvement: The Complete Seventh Season from Amazon.com Home Improvement: Season Seven (1997-98)
Show & DVD Details

Regular Directors: Peter Bonerz, Geoffrey Nelson, Andrew Tsao, Peter Filsinger
Regular Writers: Eric Horsted, Bruce Ferber, Lloyd Garver, Elliot Shoenman, Marley Sims, Jennifer Celotta, Adam England, Jon Vandergriff, Charlie Hauck, Laurie Gelman

Regular Cast: Tim Allen (Tim Taylor), Patricia Richardson (Jill Taylor), Earl Hindman (Wilson Wilson), Richard Karn (Al Borland), Debbe Dunning (Heidi), Zachery Ty Bryan (Brad Taylor), Taran Smith (Mark Taylor), Jonathan Taylor Thomas (Randy Taylor)

Recurring Characters: China Kantner (Willow Wilson), William O'Leary (Marty Taylor), Kaylan Romero (Ronny), Courtney Peldon (Lauren), Tammy Lauren (Patty), Jim Labriola (Benny), Tom Wopat (Ian), Blake Clark (Harry), Casey Sander (Rock), Mickey Jones (Pete), Gary McGurk (Dwayne), Patrick Cronin (George "Sparky" Henderson), Milton Canady (Milton)

Notable Guest Stars: Ashley Peldon (Diane), Charlie Robinson (Bud Harper), George Del Hoyo (Doug), Cory Everson (Herself), Kyle Howard (Greg Clark), Dan Aykroyd (Rev. Mike Weber), Eileen Heckart (Elaine Jenkins), Tom Poston (Ted), Rodney Dangerfield (Himself), Alex Rocco (Irv Schmayman), Liz Vassey (Donna), Kari Coleman (Kathy), Polly Holliday (Lillian), George Coe (Parker), Al Fann (Felix), Josh Blake (Brett), Maitland Ward (Christy), Maggie Lawson (Samantha Hayes), Kristen Hooper (Gracie Taylor), Kaitlyn Hooper (Claire Taylor), Payne Stewart (Himself), T.J. Thyne (Todd), Justin Shenkarow (Matt), Kaj-Erik Eriksen (Brian), Bonnie Bartlett (Lucille Taylor), Thom Sharp (Jeff Taylor), Graham Jarvis (Delvin), Grant Hill (Himself), Megan Cavanagh (Trudy), Ken Bowersox (Himself), Joan Lunden (Barbara Canfield)

Running Time: 554 Minutes (25 episodes) / Rating: TV-PG
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Closed Captioned
Season 7 Airdates: September 23, 1997 - May 19, 1998
DVD Release Date: August 7, 2007; Clear Keepcase with cardboard slipcover
Suggested Retail Price: $23.99; Three single-sided, dual-layered discs (DVD-9)

Buy Season 7 from Amazon.com / Buy The Complete Series Collection

No television series can keep its creative juices flowing at full strength forever. This would seem especially true for a situation comedy that relied on archetypes, conventions, and successful traditions. That aptly describes "Home Improvement", which definitely didn't reinvent the wheel in fusing Tim Allen's masculine brand of stand-up comedy with time-tested elements common to the format. So it was really inevitable, even for the 1990s' most popular family sitcom, to lose its luster at some point.

That point arrived in the 1997-98 season, when "Home Improvement" went from a great comedy to an okay one. In having revisited the show completely and chronologically over the past three years' worth of DVD releases,
it seems quite easy to establish the show's seventh year on television as the site of a downfall start that has in recent years become known as "jumping the shark."

Having devoted lots of attention to issues of marriage, parenting, workplace, and family over the course of the first six seasons' 150 episodes, "Home Improvement" opts to manufacture inorganic developments for its core characters in Season 7. Focal point Tim Taylor has a midlife crisis that is identified in the premiere and only occasionally resurfaces as an explanation behind the accident-prone paterfamilias' questionable judgment calls. The three teenaged Taylor boys are each taken in new directions, despite little in their pasts to suggest such dramatic turns. Eldest son Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan) becomes a dense soccer jock who begins experimenting with drugs while beginning to consider colleges. Middle child Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas, in his last full season) unleashes a sassy liberal conscience, which finds him abandoning organized religion and attacking his father's employer on environmental awareness. The strangest twist befalls youngest son Mark (Taran Noah Smith), who with the arrival of puberty, suddenly becomes a black-wearing Goth oddball with a quiet, sketchy new friend (Kaylan Romero).

Season 7 introduces a colorful new opening credits sequence (complete with a Tim Allen flower), which is a nice way of letting rerun viewers know if they should expect a good episode or merely an okay one. In Season 7, "Tool Time" hosts Tim Taylor and Al Borland (Richard Karn) venture outside of Binford's television studio more often than before, renovating an apartment of interest to both on more than one occasion.

Though the previous paragraph may make it sound like the "Home Improvement" universe has been turned upside-down for Season 7, that's not entirely the case. The rest of the regular cast remains largely in its reliable functional roles. Tim's supportive wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) maintains a status quo as her college schoolwork stays peripheral and she gets to turn her psychology studies into some briefly-seen counseling. For the most part, Jill stays in the background of Season 7, saddled with B-storylines and jokes about aging and her horrible cooking. When she does get to claim some limelight, it's typically either as not always rational foil to Tim's big ideas or, in two of the season's weakest episodes, a desirable woman who distantly brushes against the ugly face of infidelity.

Reporting for duty as always is Al Borland (Richard Karn), Tim's ever-flannelled sidekick and friend. Season 7 sees him rebounding from an off-camera split with his orthodontist near-wife Ilene of previous seasons. Explored more substantially is Al's new home, for he rents an apartment to which Tim is the new landlord. This setting gives "Tool Time" a few chances to leave its home base, which it does more frequently than before. Back again with the Binford crew is Heidi (Debbe Dunning), who in her fifth year on the show is upgraded to opening credits status and receives ever so slightly more to do than introduce the cable show's hosts and look pretty.

Rounding out the regulars is Wilson Wilson (Earl Hindman), the Taylors' learned but oh-so-quirky next-door neighbor. In addition to supplying his usual gifts (attentive ears, a curiously-shrouded face, and quote-supported wisdom), Wilson gets a recurring relative in his spacey 26-year-old niece Willow. In the role, Jefferson Airplane daughter China Kantner provides an untapped demographic, but her unique pacing and delivery don't fully mesh with her castmates and after 5 scattered episodes, she's dropped.

Armed with a bulb blaster, Tim is prepared to plant flower bulbs in the name of high-power gardening. Being sick enables Jill (Patricia Richardson) to explore mail order catalogs while blazing through pink tissues.

Recurring characters slow down in "Home Improvement"'s seventh season. We get one opportunity to check in with the mothers of each Tim and Jill (TV veterans Bonnie Bartlett and Polly Holliday, respectively). Appearing only slightly more are Tim's brother Marty (William O'Leary), who lets one of his young twin daughters stay with the Taylors for an episode, the Harry's Hardware crowd (Blake Clark, Jim Labriola), and repeat "Tool Time" guests K & B Construction (Mickey Jones, Casey Sander, and Gary McGurk) who turn up twice after two seasons away. Returning to fill the oft-recast perfunctory role of Jill's extrafamilial confidant is former child actress Tammy Lauren. She appears in two episodes, one less than Courtney Peldon, who continues to play Randy's girlfriend in a plot-serving way. In a glaring disregard for continuity, Brad gets engaged and nearly married, yet this serious new girlfriend (played by Maggie Lawson) is referenced but never seen again, a seemingly unnecessary way to either keep the guest star budget trim or to uphold continuity without recasting.

If the producers of "Home Improvement" were trying to cut down on the guest star budget (perhaps to accommodate the $750,000 Tim Allen earned per episode this season), they still let some relatively big names slip into the fold for single-shot appearances. Renowned comedians Dan Aykroyd and Rodney Dangerfield turn up separately in a "Soul Man" crossover and a Thanksgiving treat. Also, veteran, Oscar and Tony-winning actress Eileen Heckart gives her penultimate TV appearance, Tom Poston provides a third and final twist on his fun deadpan working man persona, and joining him in the standout Thanksgiving episode, Alex Rocco injects still more comic energy. "Dukes of Hazzard" star Tom Wopat guest-stars twice, playing a man who tempts Jill to cheat on Tim. Finally, late golfer Payne Stewart and NBA all-star Grant Hill appear as themselves in separate virtual reality sports segments of "Tool Time."

Siblings Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan) are upset to find themselves owning and wearing the same "stylish" shirt. Mark (Taran Noah Smith, right) only wears black throughout Season 7 and his best friend is the monosyllabic Ronny (Kaylan Romero). Their first episode together finds them looking their most normal (and dog-collar-less).

"Home Improvement" wasn't quite a mess in Season 7; it just was noticeably weaker than it was in its more inspired previous seasons. Among the year's 25 episodes are some good ones and were this a brand new series, I might find more to like about it. Alas, the writers' ideas for reinventions (affairs, drugs, and an enduring Goth phase) don't ring true to the characters, the new directions taken all feel wrong, and the comedy just comes across as lazy. Those laughing heartily in the audience track were probably doing so more out of having warmed to this TV family than to feeling genuinely exposed to clever hilarity. With some distance, it's easy to see that's what I was doing, as a regular Tuesday night viewer who still enjoyed the show.

In issuing The Complete Seventh Season on DVD next week, Buena Vista Home Entertainment follows its established 3-disc release method for sitcoms and this one in particular. This set arrives faster than its predecessors, probably to enable a Christmastime debut for "Home Improvement"'s final season (and perhaps a complete series collection). (UPDATE: That didn't happen; Season 8 will reach stores in time for Father's Day 2008.) It is again short on extras and, for the second time, disconcertingly erratic in the picture department though pleasantly low-priced. More on the shortcomings later, but first... episode synopses. I've marked the season's seven best episodes with a star (). Why seven and not ten? Because I'd otherwise have to lower my standards and single out mediocre or forgettable episodes.

The Taylors start the season with a vacation to Lake Michigan in "Quest for Fire." Randy stands up to his father and his father's boss (Charlie Robinson) in the environmentally-minded second episode. He may be wearing a Goal Brad Goal ZTB t-shirt, but Tim is not pleased with his eldest son's latest soccer field antics.

Disc 1

1. Quest for Fire (22:08) (Originally aired September 23, 1997)
The Taylors vacation at Lake Michigan, where Tim promises all a big surprise. Meanwhile, the boys adjust their personalities for the new season and "Tool Time" launches a barbecue with rocket power.

2. Clash of the Taylors (22:07) (Originally aired September 30, 1997)
Randy's newspaper article on Binford's pollution practices angers Tim.
Jill has difficulties with her first counseling patients, while Mark has a monosyllabic new friend named Ronny (Kaylan Romero).

3. Room at the Top (22:08) (Originally aired October 7, 1997)
Problems ensue when Jill changes her mind after asking the stubbled Tim to build her an office in the attic.

4. Pump You Up (22:07) (Originally aired October 14, 1997)
When a UNC scout takes interest in Brad's soccer abilities, he and Tim train vigorously. The boys from K & B Construction appear on "Tool Time" for a salute to fitness. Also, Mark paints his fingernails black and Randy and Lauren try to dodge an annoying couple.

"Home Improvement" goes black and white for Mark's macabre horror movie in Halloween episode "A Night to Dismember." "Jill's Passion" shows that the Taylor mom has the hots for Tom Wopat. Dan Aykroyd guest-stars in character as "Soul Man" protagonist Mike Weber on "Home Improvement" and "Tool Time."

5. A Night to Dismember (22:09) (Originally aired October 28, 1997)
Halloween once again finds the series at its best, though this time darker than before, as Mark makes a macabre horror film starring the entire family plus friends. Tim and Al race jack-o-lanterns on "Tool Time."

6. The Niece (22:19) (Originally aired November 4, 1997)
The Taylors throw Wilson a surprise birthday party, complete with a vintage Studebaker and the presence of his 20-something niece Willow (China Kantner).

7. Jill's Passion (21:58) (Originally aired November 11, 1997)
Jill dreams about kissing Ian (Tom Wopat, "The Dukes of Hazzard"), a man who asks her out at the gym.

8. Losing My Religion (22:07) (Originally aired November 18, 1997)
Randy volunteers at a hospice and decides he'll stop going to church. Dan Aykroyd guest stars as his "Soul Man" character, Episcopalian minister Mike Weber, for a piscina installation on "Tool Time."

Rodney Dangerfield joins the Taylors (sans Tim) for their candlelit Thanksgiving dinner. With matching green and red robes, Jill and her Mom (Polly Holliday) overcome their problems to enjoy Christmas together. Young people make Tim smile, as he teaches an auto class in "The Old College Try."

Disc 2

9. Thanksgiving (22:07) (Originally aired November 25, 1997)
The Taylors spend Thanksgiving in a box at the Lions game, where Tim blows out the power and the rest of the family meets Rodney Dangerfield.

10. The Dating Game (22:09) (Originally aired December 9, 1997)
To keep Al from always being around the house, Tim accompanies him to a singles bar, where he pretends he's not married.

11. Bright Christmas (22:25) (Originally aired December 16, 1997)
While Tim again competes in the neighborhood holiday lighting contest (this time trying to circumvent new regulations), Jill is worried that her mother (Polly Holliday) is dating too soon.

12. The Old College Try (22:06) (Originally aired January 6, 1998)
Tim teaches an auto class at a community college and suddenly prefers spending time with his students over his old friends.

Brad dates and gets engaged to "An Older Woman", college junior Samantha Hayes (Maggie Lawson). And she's never seen again. After being dealt an epic tenant lease agreement, Al forces Tim "The Landlord" Taylor to make repairs on his own. Tim enjoys reading a Winnie the Pooh book to his young niece Gracie (Kristen Hooper).

13. An Older Woman (22:07) (Originally aired January 20, 1998)
Brad begins dating a college girl three years his senior (guest Maggie Lawson) and before you know it, they're engaged.

14. Tim "The Landlord" Taylor (22:23) (Originally aired February 3, 1998)
After Al rents an apartment from Tim, quarrels, a mammoth lease, extensive background checks, and eviction threats ensue. Meanwhile, Brad and Randy inadvertently buy and wear the same shirt.

15. Say Goodnight, Gracie (22:06) (Originally aired February 10, 1998)
After spending time with his niece, Tim wants to have a daughter of his own. This episode is replete with Disney references, most notably delivering nods to Allen and Thomas' iconic voice work.

16. What a Drag (21:43) (Originally aired February 24, 1998)
Tim discovers marijuana hidden under the gazebo. He and Jill find out which of their sons is using it. Naturally, the PSA that aired with this episode is not included, lessening its "very special" nature.

17. Taking Jill for Granite (22:08) (Originally aired March 3, 1998)
Tim finally settles on a granite guy to makeover the kitchen counters, but his selection happens to be the guy that Jill dreamed about earlier in the season.

It's morning and Heidi's at Al's place wearing his flannel robe, leading Tim to suspect something's going on between his co-workers. On St. Patrick's Day weekend with their neighbor's niece in their care, Tim and Jill are "Desperately Seeking Willow." Teen Taylors Randy and Brad are both a part of the school newspaper in "The Write Stuff."

Disc 3

18. Futile Attraction (22:08) (Originally aired March 10, 1998)
Tim becomes obsessed with the unlikely idea that Al and Heidi have become romantically involved. At home, a sick Jill tests out mail order catalog products. On "Tool Time", golf champ Payne Stewart plays virtual golf with Tim and Al.

19. Desperately Seeking Willow (22:02) (Originally aired March 17, 1998)
While staying with the Taylors for the weekend, Wilson's niece Willow goes missing and the Taylors go searching for her, leading Tim and Jill to a nightclub.

20. The Write Stuff (22:08) (Originally aired March 31, 1998)
Advised to take on extracurricular activities, Brad joins the school newspaper staff and his lowbrow article bumps Randy's from the front page. Needless to say, sibling rivalry ensues. The B storyline finds Tim and Jill getting audited.

21. The Son Also Mooches (22:21) (Originally aired April 21, 1998)
Tim objects when his brother Jeff (Thom Sharp) uses their mother to pay off a loan and fund his latest business plan. Jill is reluctant to admit she needs eyeglasses.

Scully and Mulder of The X-Files are spoofed in Tim's nightmare, in which he plays trenchcoat-wearing ABC Taylor amidst foggy extraterrestrial intrigue. Nose-bandaged Tim and Randy are both surprised by the length of Jill's no night driving edict. Tim in outer space? The outlandish plot of "Tool-Thousand One: A Space Odyssey" points to the "Home Improvement" writers running out of ideas.

22. Believe It or Not (22:22) (Originally aired April 28, 1998)
Tim gossips and makes jokes about an alien encounter Wilson shares with him in confidence. In researching the subject, however, Tim becomes open-minded and experiences a nightmare in which he and Jill parody "The X-Files." Then-Pistons star Grant Hill appears on "Tool Time" for some "virtual" 1-on-1 with Al.

23. Rebel Without Night Driving Privileges (22:22) (Originally aired May 5, 1998)
Randy gets his driver's license, but when Tim and Jill won't let him drive at night, he objects and takes the car anyway. Tim gets bit by a rat on the "Tool Time" that introduces the woman (Megan Cavanagh) that will figure in Al's life next season.

24. Tool-Thousand-One: A Space Odyssey (21:57) (Originally aired May 12, 1998)
Tim trains for a long-term outer space adventure when NASA needs a Binford employee to join them on a mission. Back home, Jill organizes family photos. Meanwhile, Mark changes to a preppy look and back to black, both times over an unseen girl.

25. From Top to Bottom (22:24) (Originally aired May 19, 1998)
Jill badmouths Tim on a televised talk show. Tim decides on a color for his latest hot rod, which is finally finished. Or is it?

In one of the season's better gags, Tool Time unveils a series of videos for Christmastime, including this scene from the babies in toolbelts movie "Look Who's Caulking." Al tries to dribble by a very lifelike Grant Hill in what Tim tells him is virtual basketball.

VIDEO and AUDIO

As on Season 6, picture quality is mind-bafflingly erratic for a collection of big-budget, 10-year-old episodes. Some episodes look fine, as if a solid cable transmission of networks' broadcast feeds has gladly been upgraded to the higher resolution of DVD. Others look quite a bit worse, lacking sharpness and brilliance while possessing a soft, fuzzy, blurry, digital look not entirely unlike those Season 6 episodes afflicted by puzzling anomalies.
On these episodes, shots look badly out of focus, there is flickering of elements, and moiré effect seems inescapable. As luck would have it, some of the season's better episodes are among the affected. Those with troublesome visuals include the season premiere, "Room at the Top", "Thanksgiving", "Christmas", "Landlord", "Gracie", "Write Stuff", "Night Driving Privileges", "Tool-Thousand One", and the season finale. Beyond using different sources, I can't fathom what might account for the picture problems and there's nothing in runtimes or content to suggest that some of the episodes originate from syndicated prints.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack provides less to complain about. Not that it gives reason for celebration. The two-channel mix is perfectly competent and English subtitles are thankfully provided in addition to closed captions.

Tim Allen has a little chat with his Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear in the Season 7 blooper reel. A new season doesn't mean we're treated to a new Main Menu.

BONUS FEATURES

I've graciously decided to spare you of another rant
on the unfortunate shortage of bonus features. Once again, all we get is a blooper reel (7:53) for the season. It's an amusing collection of outtakes, though about half of them are culled from what was featured in the episodes' closing credits content.

I will mention that with all but the weakest season of "Home Improvement" now on DVD, it's really sad that Buena Vista has hardly provided fans of the show with new or archived supplements. You'd think with all the time needed to transfer these 10-hour seasons to DVD, create subtitles, and test quality control, it'd be easy enough to locate and supply old promos, video press kits, etc.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The menus employ the exact same design that has been recycled from Season 3 on, with each disc's Main Menu depicting an animated blueprint. Illustrating how little thought went into their design is the fact that the slight retooling given to the theme tune for Season 7 is not realized in the excerpt that accompanies the selection screens.

Packaging matches Season 6's pared-down appearance, with a slipcover-housed, clear standard-sized keepcase holding the three discs. Removing all discs and straining one's eyes a bit, one notices, on the reverse side of the cover art, a note from Bruce Ferber on the season's new character directions and an episode list. A four-page booklet advertises Disney's upcoming Tim Allen DVDs, the sitcom's other season sets, and additional new and forthcoming Buena Vista TV DVD releases. Gracing the spine yet again is Tim. It's too bad the original plan, which I imagine was to feature a different Taylor or one of their three principal cast friends (Wilson, Al, and Heidi) on the 8 seasons' spines, has long been abandoned.

Episodes are once again divided into 4-5 appropriate chapter stops. Disc 1 opens with previews for The Jungle Book: Platinum Edition, Underdog, The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, and Meet the Robinsons. The first page of the Sneak Peeks menu houses additional promos for Wild Hogs, Disney Blu-ray Disc, High School Musical: The Concert - Extreme Access Pass, and ABC Family.

Tim and Jill are displeased with their eldest son Brad. But this time it's not bad grades, school bus trouble, or detention. It's pot! Benny, Marty, Tim, Al, and Harry gather around a TV at the hardware store to watch Jill badmouth her husband.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

As is common for TV shows that don't get cancelled for ratings or cost considerations, "Home Improvement" began to slip up after several years of excellence. The seventh and penultimate season of this family sitcom definitely registers as its weakest yet, and things would only worsen from here.

Those who have already acquired Seasons 1-6 might consider it worthwhile to go ahead and complete the collection with this and the forthcoming final release. The low list price ensures you'll pay less per episode than you would to download today's shorter, lesser comedies for viewing on a tiny video iPod. Picture quality is strangely erratic and not often as good as it should be, but sound is adequate, and the bloopers offer a bit of diverting unaired material. Plus, there are a handful of memorable, entertaining episodes.

But with all the exciting DVDs coming out this week and the weeks ahead -- many of them, TV season sets -- this Complete Seventh Season shouldn't be a high priority for most, and shouldn't even be considered without already owning the plenty superior first six seasons. Still, those wanting to see the show's final season come to DVD in a timely fashion and with the prospect of long-overdue substantial new bonuses are encouraged to pick up this affordable set sometime soon.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com / Buy Complete Series Collection

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Home Improvement on DVD: Season 1 • Season 2 • Season 3 • Season 4 • Season 5 • Season 6 • Season 7 • Season 8 (Preorder)

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Reviewed August 1, 2007.