'Last Man Standing' Boss on 'Bittersweet' Final Season and Origin of 'Home Improvement' Episode (Exclusive)

Last Man Standing
Patrick Wymore/Fox

The time has come for Last Man Standing to sign off, but it'll be wrapping up in a surreal time -- amid a pandemic, social and racial unrest and a heightened feeling of uncertainty. Though the current pandemic appeared to cement the upcoming ninth season as the last, it always felt like the half-hour sitcom, which follows Tim Allen's conservative-leaning Mike Baxter and his family, was ready to say goodbye.

"Coming into it, I felt like it was a very high likelihood that it would be the last season just because at this point, the factors that usually keep long-running shows on the air are less important now," executive producer and showrunner Kevin Abbott tells ET. "I was going to approach it as the last season regardless so that in the event that it was going to be the last season, I could aim toward a series finale that would feel like closure... It does allow all of us the chance to send the series out on the note that we want to."

When the series returns this Sunday, a significant amount of time opens the first episode, appropriately titled "Time Flies." It's the show's way of acknowledging the ongoing pandemic without having to live in the throes of it, as a handful of other shows have chosen to do. Instead, more than two years (and then some) have passed during the time jump and things are back to relative normalcy, though everything that's happened in that time has shifted Mike's outlook dramatically, which will be the pivot point for all the stories in season 9. 

"By moving beyond it, we're able to tell positive stories. We're going to get through this, but it doesn't mean we ignore everything that happened," Abbott explains. "All of the crises that are happening -- the pandemic, social justice movement, the economic downturn -- these are all things that happened and they changed people. They're going to change the characters."

Ahead of the final season, Abbott opens up about ending Last Man Standing after season 9, how the special Home Improvement episode came to be and what he hopes people take away from these last episodes.

ET: When did it become apparent that this would be the last season of Last Man Standing?

Kevin Abbott: Coming into it, I felt like it was a very high likelihood that it would be the last season just because at this point, the factors that usually keep long-running shows on the air are less important now. Syndication is not as big a concept. Streaming services, they reduce the need for multiple years of a show. And it's really expensive. Nine seasons in, we cost a lot to make. I had a feeling that this would be the last season. I certainly expressed to the network and the studio that... I was going to approach it as the last season regardless so that in the event that it was going to be the last season, I could aim toward a series finale that would feel like closure. If something had happened, I would leave enough of a window open that they could bring it back if they chose to. Because they were aware of that, I think that they talked about it internally, they arrived to the conclusion, yes, it probably will be the last season. So they said, "We want to approach it as the last season. This will be the last season." That's a really good thing. It does allow all of us the chance to send the series out on the note that we want to. The vast majority of the shows, unfortunately, don't know when they're going to to end. They get caught flat-footed. 

It's a blessing to know that this is it and these are the final episodes, whereas last time, you didn't get that chance.

Correct. When ABC canceled it after season 6, that was really hard because No. 1, we had a little bit of a weird thing at the end of that season. The final episode wasn't even supposed to be the final episode. It was this "Oh, man. That's the last show of the series?" It felt wrong. Knowing where the finish line is, it's really good. I talked about it with Tim, we talked about it internally and it's a blessing. This is a good thing. It's giving us the chance to say farewell in the way that we'd like to. Pandemic notwithstanding, it's a good thing. It allows us to appreciate what we have now, to spend this time going, "Yeah. We should be grateful for the people we work with and the chance to do what we love for as long as we've been able to do it." The mood is very positive, I would say.

Last Man Standing
Patrick Wymore/Fox

What did you want to accomplish creatively in this final year? Was there a mental checklist of what you wanted to do?

My goal for the end of the season would be that the audience feels closure, like we finished the tale. But at the same time, these characters are going to be moving forward. We're going to give them a sense of where these characters are going to go and what their lives will be like. Because we're a comedy, we will put a positive spin on that. It might be bittersweet. There might be a little bit of bittersweetness. In the "Dual Time" episode [that airs Jan. 7], we kind of deal with some of that, which is looking back on the things we love and having to move beyond. Missing those things, but then contemplating the next step and guarding ourselves and saying the next step could be even better. Inertia is a powerful force. The way things are, it's difficult to break out of our patterns, especially if we don't have problems with our pattern. But it can be invigorating. And that's what I want to leave our audience, with a sense of "We're going to miss these guys, but we feel so glad and appreciative that we have this time to spend with them."

You've decided to incorporate the pandemic into Last Man Standing. How has the pandemic changed and affected your approach to writing the show and also Mike's life priorities? It seems like there's been of a shift in terms of the way Mike is looking at his life. 

We always go into the season plotting out character arcs, what's going to happen to people and their journeys, if you would. Normally, those are the other characters. Mike is kind of the solid presence in everybody's life and interacting with their life. This season is going to be about Mike's journey. In part, it is what a lot of people are going through now. One of the things that we wanted to do with the time slide was to move beyond present circumstances. It's pretty depressing right now. I didn't want to tell depressing stories. People don't have to go to TV to find a depressing story. And the fact that we weren't premiering until January, I felt like a lot of shows are going to cover this territory. We'd be the sitcom equivalent of airline food jokes. By moving beyond it, we're able to tell positive stories. We're going to get through this, but it doesn't mean we ignore everything that happened. All of the crises that are happening -- the pandemic, social justice movement, the economic downturn -- these are all things that happened and they changed people. They're going to change the characters. One of the ways they changed Mike is he has become thoughtful. And he's become more time is not guaranteed to us. Nothing is promised to us. All these things that we've put off or said we'd do eventually become a little bit more urgent, become a little bit more maybe it's time to stop saying eventually. He's looking at the next chapter of his life. What does that mean for Mike? What's going to happen to Outdoor Man? What is going to happen to the important people in his life? Those are the things that we'll be dealing with in the season.

You mentioned the long time jump in the premiere. How much time has passed or are you leaving that open-ended?

We're leaving it a little vague. I can tell you that it is at least two years. We didn't want to go too far in the future because I didn't want jet packs on everybody's backs. But we wanted to go far enough that we felt confident that things would be under control, that the pandemic was not going to be a daily part of everybody's lives, so that we could, again, tell our story from a positive point of view. We are a little bit vague, but it's about two years is what I would say.

The second episode of the season is the Home Improvement installment, where Tim reprises his role as Tim Taylor. Whose idea was it to bring the character back?

We had broken the first seven episodes of the season. Fox came to us and said, "Can you come up with a big promotable idea for early on?" And I just hate those by the way. I'm not particularly good at those. In the world of our show, we tell small stories. We tell small, family-driven stories. Something big and promotable does not lend itself to the type of stories we tell. While I was complaining about this, my writers were thinking and [writer] Jon Haller was thinking about stunt casting. And I don't particularly love stunt casting because... you never come up with a big name, you know? We had a lot of the big names from Home Improvement on, but the one person we haven't had is Tim Taylor. I thought, wow, that was a great idea. This is great because I know I can get the actor. Tim was on board the second we pitched it to him. He was great about it. But there were more legal hurdles than I was expecting considering Disney owns the show. It was a fight, believe it or not. At the end of the day, [co-creators] Matt Williams and Carmen Finestra, they did Home Improvement, were very generous and very kind and allowed us to use the characters. We fought until... literally it was the day before table read; Disney did not give me permission to do it. I said, "Well, we're reading it anyway." Then they caved, so we were able to do it. Tim was like, "Oh, I've got to re-inhabit that character." With it being the final season, some of the themes we were hitting on really struck home in terms of missing the things you love and moving past them and what's that going to look like. For what started off as just a lark of an idea, it really has a nice, deeper resonance to it.

Was it surreal seeing Tim inhabiting Tim Taylor again?

Luckily, Tim had a box set of the old shows, so I asked him to let me watch some just to reacquaint myself with the characters because I wanted to honor what Matt and David [McFadzean] and Carmen did. I didn't want to take advantage of the situation. I wanted to make sure we were writing the characters correctly and that they sounded right, that we wouldn't do anything that would make them regret letting us do it at all. It was really fun for us. We had a really good time doing it. Tim, to his credit, was very protective of the character. He wanted to make sure that we did it right. My first instinct was, "He got divorced and his life went into a spiral after the cable show. Now, he's just a handyman." Tim's like, "No, no. He'd be doing well."

Last Man Standing
Michael Becker/Fox

There is also a nice callback to Wilson, which Home Improvement fans will enjoy.

There was a lovely underpinning to that of missing Wilson and the fact that he's gone, and that being a metaphor for missing the aspect of your life that gave you such joy and happiness. Tim was moved by that. It brought something to that performance because of it. It affected him.

Can you give us any idea of what Mike's final vlog might be about? Have you entertained that in the writers' room or discussed it?

We know generally what the final episode will be about. We have an idea, but there's a good chance that will change in the moment. The vlogs, sometimes they're about just fun things, sometimes they're about what's going on in the show. Sometimes they're about what Tim's going through, what I'm going through, what the writers are going through, something that's a little bit more personal. I imagine that final vlog, we'll get a lot of pressure on it to be heartfelt, really funny but have it resonate. I'm almost positive it will be the final scene in the show. We'll sign off with a vlog because I think the vlogs are our signature. The vlog will be the final scene in the show. I have an idea of what I want that to be. Kevin Hench writes most of the vlogs. He does a brilliant job on it. He's a lovely man with a wonderful heart and a great sense of humor, so I have no doubt that it's going to be everything we want it to be.

Since this is the final season -- though I imagine that the pandemic has complicated original plans -- can we expect familiar faces to drop by?

You kind of nailed it. Dropping by is difficult. We went into the season where I basically said, "Guys, we're going to have to do most of the series with just the people we have," because bringing in people, there are too many variables. We're very conscious of trying to be safe on the set and everything. Anytime you introduce another person, you're just running an extra risk. So, the edict is if it's a great story, yes, we'll bring somebody in. Otherwise, can we tell the story with our people? The hoops are already much more difficult to jump through in order to get any show shot. Adding in another thing is very, very difficult. But again, that being said, we have had a couple of guest people already. If the story's great or if it's Kaitlyn Dever, then we'll have them on.

Another question that's introduced is the idea that Mandy and her family may potentially move out of the house and close that chapter. Does that get answered more definitively?

We are doing episode 11 right now, and they're moving out. It's a fun episode. I don't want to tell you where they're moving to. What you're going to see, I think, is all of the characters were affected in different ways by these multiple crises and reacting in different ways. There are things that affect the choices that they make for their future, for the rest of their lives. What we hope to get out of the season, ultimately, is that we show the audience this is where these guys are headed. You'll find it satisfying that that's where we took these characters too. That's part of Mandy's journey.

What do you want viewers to know about that final season? What sorts of feelings or emotions can people expect to feel?

My goal with this season would be ultimately that I want to honor the work of everybody that's come before on the show and to send these characters out in a way that the audience feels surprised yet it makes total sense, and that they feel like they're going on with their lives, and they're going to be OK. I'm glad that we had the chance to spend the time with these characters because they're fascinating, interesting people. In the final episode, I want people to laugh, maybe cry a little bit. But at the end of the day, for them to go, "Wow, that was great. That's the right way to end the show."

Watch an exclusive clip from the final season premiere, only at ET, below.

Last Man Standing premieres Sunday, Jan. 3 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT on Fox, before returning to its normal time slot Friday, Jan. 7 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT. For more on the series, watch the video below.

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