Written by: Susan Estelle Jansen (writer), Carmen Finestra, David McFadzean, & Matt Williams (series creators)
Directed by: John Pasquin
Starring: Tim Allen, Patricia Richardson, Richard Karn
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Well, although we all can't be as spooky as Al, we can carve some pretty good jack o'lanterns."
Make no mistake: Roseanne’s Lanford, Illinois was the premiere stop for Halloween throughout the 90s. However, if there was ever a sitcom clan that could possibly give the Conners a run for their money on October 31st, it was their ABC neighbors the Taylors from Home Improvement. If I’m being honest, I was mostly a casual viewer of this show, which is to say I watched it enough to remember being fucking traumatized by that one episode where they thought Jonathan Taylor Thomas had a terminal disease. Not cool, ABC—if I wanted to be bummed out, I would have watched CBS or some shit.
Anyway, suffice it to say that the Halloween episodes were a lot more fun, so much so that they became appointment viewing each year before making it into my annual October rotation alongside other 90s luminaries like Family Matters, Step by Step, and Boy Meets World. As much as I love to gorge on deranged, violent horror movies throughout October, I’ve got to carve out a little time for these saccharine reminders of a bygone era. In recent years especially, I’ve found myself marveling at both the cool set decorations and the utter wholesomeness of it all. In retrospect, Steve Urkel was too beautiful and pure for this world.
But I digress (again). Like most of its contemporaries, Home Improvement didn’t dive right into Halloween during its first second; rather, it wouldn’t be until season two that it became a (mostly) annual celebration with “The Haunting of Taylor House.” Even by sitcom standards, there’s not much of a plot for this episode: it’s Halloween, and the Taylors are hosting a party for oldest son Brad and his friends. There’s running gags about Jill’s unfortunate costume, plus the usual nonsense on the Tool Time set. Some drama emerges when Brad’s girlfriend Jennifer shows up without wearing their planned, matching outfits: he’s dressed (quite awfully) as Raggedy Andy, and she’s supposed to be Raggedy Ann. Instead, she shows up wearing biker gear and on the arm of a punk kid (Rider Strong!). It’s this plot that leads to the climactic moment shared by most ABC sitcoms of this era: the heart-to-heart chat scored by some super overbearing sentimental music. And like most of the exchanges on Home Improvement, it involves some pretty stale dad jokes about gender dynamics: Brad’s just gotta learn that women are a mystery and just accept that whatever he did was wrong. To be fair, Tim’s insistence that women underestimate just how dumb men are is pretty on point.
But while this might be the “plot” of the episode, it might as well be the damn prelude. You see, throughout the episode, we’ve seen and heard Tim tinkering down in the basement. He’s got something cooking down there, and he can’t wait to scare the hell out of his guests. A great sense of showmanship guides the episode: we hear strange noises, and see Randy and Mark’s reaction when they venture downstairs, but we’re left waiting to see it for ourselves until the end of the episode. It’s worth the wait, too: in true Toolman fashion, Tim goes a bit overboard by converting the basement into the “Catacombs of Terror,” a truly incredible homespun haunt featuring animatronics, cool lighting, a sea of fog, and few horrific surprises lurking in the shadows. In a somewhat cruel twist, it’s mostly used to terrorize Jennifer’s insolent date, who’s too cool for all of this—at least until he uncovers Al’s severed head, which sends him fleeing for the exit.
Basically, it’s fair to say you spend about 15 minutes wading through typical 90s sitcom stuff to get to vicariously experience an elaborate haunted house gag. Of course, your mileage may vary given your attachment to this series: I never quite latched on to the Taylors like I did the Conners, the Winslows, the Matthews, etc., so I’m mostly here for the holiday trimming. Thankfully, it absolutely delivers in this respect: even before we venture down to the Catacombs of Terror, there’s plenty of vintage decorations lurking the background, plus I dig the opening gag where Tim carves his Tool Time pumpkin with a well-timed explosive (a joke that would be recycled on Step by Step a couple of years later, oddly enough). What’s more, there’s plenty more where this comes from, as Home Improvement would go on to deliver six more Halloween episodes, each of which is quite worthwhile—especially if you just need to go back and recall a sweeter, more innocent time before you knew that Tim Allen is actually just kind of a tool.
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