The Most Unexpected Comeback of 2016: Jonathan Taylor Thomas

He's back and might not even know it.

Not Available Lead
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Not Available Lead

His sandy hair, piercing eyes, and sly smile more than likely plastered the walls of every girl (and guy) you knew growing up in the nineties. He charmed teen girls everywhere in films like Wild America or Man of the House. He was on the cover of Tiger Beat so often that you’d be forgiven to think he owned it. Jonathan Taylor Thomas was the epitome of the Teenage Dream—but then he disappeared. 

The actor got his first big break on Home Improvement, which debuted on ABC in September 1991 and quickly became a ratings juggernaut. The show focused on Tim Taylor (Tim Allen), his long-suffering wife (Patricia Richardson), and their three young boys. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, playing the witty middle child, was 10 years old when the show premiered. The runaway success of the show not only made Tim Allen a household name but it also spun JTT—as he affectionately became known—into a tween heartthrob. His adorable face began appearing on covers of teen magazines, such as Tiger Beat, Bop, Sixteen, and Teen Beat, and soon companies manufactured posters of him so girls could plaster their bedroom walls with his dreamy face and fantasize about making out with him. 

Despite all of the attention—and money—JTT got sick of the fame and sought out a normal life. He made his final appearance on Home Improvement in December 1998, and didn’t show up for the series finale in May 1999. “I wanted to go to school, to travel and have a bit of a break,” he told People in 2013. In that same interview, JTT said that he never took any of the fame that seriously. Even back in 1998, in an appearance on Conan O’Brien, JTT acknowledged that he never bought into his own hype, when O’Brien asked him, “Do you still go by JTT or are you over that now?” He sheepishly said: “I’m over that. I’ve always been over that.” After a prolonged, purposed absence, JTT faded away, much like the saccharine photo spreads he appeared in. In 2013, he told Yahoo he’d like to get back into acting, but in the 21st century we’ve really only seen JTT on Veronica Mars once and at a Home Improvement reunion hosted by Entertainment Weekly in 2011.

Until now. JTT made a surprising comeback this year, whether he realizes it or not. In February, during the premiere episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson, JTT appeared in Kim Kardashian’s bedroom, in the form of four posters. It’s the most intense scene in the first episode: Simpson, with a gun to his head, sitting in a 13-year-old’s bedroom, with Robert Kardashian trying to talk sense into him, all while surrounded by smiling posters of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Joey “Whoa” Lawrence. In an interview with Vanity Fair, the show’s production designer, Jeffrey Mossa, said those scenes were filmed in the actual Encino home the Kardashians lived in at the time. Mossa used a 1996 Barbara Walters interview with Robert Kardashian to re-create the bedroom, but the room did not have anything on the walls. “We wanted it to have a little more character and show a little bit more about him and his family,” Mossa said. The art department took it upon themselves to figure out what celebrities a teenage girl in June 1994 would crush on and came up with JTT and Joey (it should be noted JTT obviously has more posters than Joey). 

Nineties nostalgia fueled JTT’s cameo in O.J., as it did with his second, more subtle, appearance, in a March episode of Broad City. In “Philadelphia,” Ilana visits Abbi’s childhood home, located West of Philadelphia. Ilana walks into Abbi’s room and peals, “It’s the Holocaust Museum of Abbi Abrams!” Her room is littered with relics from the 1990s: a young Elijah Wood poster, a Will Smith one, a picture of David Schwimmer as Ross Geller, and a small, blurry poster of JTT. This scene is a microcosm of  our culture’s love affair with the decade and how many of those icons—Elijah, Will, JTT especially—still materialize on our movie and TV screens.

A month after Abbi revealed her love for JTT, the boy toy got referenced on the seventh episode of season two of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. During Jacqueline’s fund-raising party for First Americans for Turtle Island, Kimmy tries to strangle an army ranger guy (Sam Page from Mad Men) whom she met in a bar. He tells her to slow down, and she responds with: “I don’t have time to slow down. I’ve missed too much already: seven Olympics, Jonathan Taylor Thomas making the transition to adult movie star, I assume. Fifteen Christmases!” Kimmy is probably referencing how some former child stars get into porn, like A Christmas Story’sScott Schwartz, who made a good career out of using his dong. Kimmy, who was abducted in the ’90s, is forever stuck in that decade, but on a more symbolic level, she’s a constant reminder that the nineties won’t ever stop being relevant. Maybe next season JTT could make a cameo as himself, akin to fellow teen heartthrob Joshua Jackson appearing on this season and waxing poetic about Dawson’s Creek.

You may not think these blips are a big deal, but they matter—the details chosen by these writers, production designers, directors, and producers shape the TV worlds we immerse ourselves in. Even in 2016, JTT remains in our consciousness, and part of that is because he disappeared for so long, unlike a lot of child actors who continue to exceed their welcome (Mario Lopez, anyone?). JTT seems like a hovering ghost on those walls, a milk carton ad that’s been blown up into a poster. His reign happened at a time when if you placed a poster on your bedroom wall it meant you had chosen your team. TV producers who were college students or freshly post-grad in the ’90s are now grown up. How many of them — and us — sighed with heady nostalgia when the camera pulled back and revealed JTT posters on Kardashian’s wall? It was a Proustian moment that connected us back to our childhoods, flush with innocent memories. Many of us may not have been old enough to remember the O.J. slayings in real time, but we certainly remember the great family sitcoms of the era.

JTT was our friend and unrequited crush. He was an anodyne symbol of purity and love, and he epitomized our peaceful pre-9/11 world. He was intangible yet concurrently relatable. He was one of us, in the same way Abbi and Ilana are our 21st century #friendgoals. With Abbi inviting us into her personal space, we get a glimpse of our common interests—both past and present—and suddenly JTT is an indelible link between a character and a viewer. 

It’s unclear whether Taylor Thomas’ indirect TV appearances will have any impact on him throwing his hat back into the Hollywood ring, but it’s a reminder of what once was — and what could be again. While we continue to endlessly cycle through ’90s nostalgia, Taylor Thomas' MIA status makes us yearn for him even more, much like we did as hormone-fueled teens. JTT—I know you hate being called that, but if you’re reading this, it’s not too late to come back.

Latest in Pop Culture