By Tyler Austin
Over the course of its inaugural season, The Last Man On Earth proves to be not only one of the funniest network shows in years, but, far and away, one of the most original. It’s been an exercise in extreme premise exhausting/expanding, and, damn, if it hasn’t worked every step of the way. (Some SPOILERS ahead.)
The show began as the brainchild of unstoppable-comedy-genius-hit-machine duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who had the good sense to enlist Will Forte for the project. Forte has since been able to repeatedly take Last Man on Earth over the goal line into comedy touchdown territory. He’s a triple threat: writing, showrunning, and starring in the newly minted hit, his guiding hand crafted a pilot (and series) densely packed with laugh out loud physical jokes and cringe comedy (a certain extended Castaway ball friend joke is beyond brilliant).
The strength of the show falls entirely upon Forte’s creation and portrayal of the show’s ostensible protagonist Phil Miller. Phil is highly relatable, yet perfectly specific. He’s a guy you know, but he’s also someone you haven’t seen on TV before. His ability to create awkward situations when literally left to his own devices is unmatched (see: his brief attempt at wooing a local shop window mannequin). These shenanigans run thin as Phil is pushed to the brink of sanity (see: his particularly creative suicide attempt at the pilot’s end), but he’s pulled back from the edge with the discovery that someone else is now alive in Tucson. From here things will only continue to get more interesting. Coming to know and love Phil as our lovable loser and last bastion of humanity is one thing, but what happens when other people are thrown into the mix? Thankfully, Phil doesn’t disappoint—or rather, he does, over and over and over again, in the most entertaining of ways.
The question I’ve been asking myself over the course of the series is, “Would Phil’s character have worked in a world before the humanity-wiping virus?” Watching a man cope with extreme circumstances doesn’t necessarily make that man interesting under normal conditions. But just observing how Phil operates tethered to even the smallest number of people proves that yes, he is a great character through and through. His hopeless posturing, scheming, and ability to doom himself to the world’s most embarrassing situations would have been right at home on something like Curb Your Enthusiasm.
And like Curb before him, the greatness of this show doesn’t fall on its star’s performance alone. Surrounding him is a veritable Murderer’s Row of supporting cast members. Kristen Schaal, who now dominates Fox’s Sunday night (she also plays Louise on Bob’s Burgers), is Carol, a character so polar opposite of Phil that the last two people on Earth can barely stand to be in the same room. The depth of that irony could essentially be the show’s thesis, but it doesn’t stop there.
The next person to show up alive is Melissa, played by January Jones. Melissa is everything Phil imagined when putting up all those “Alive in Tucson” signs. She even technically made it to Tucson before Carol in a brutally hilarious twist of the knife for Phil, and she’s almost instantly disenchanted by his guileless attempts at guile. Watching Phil flail as he tries to convince Melissa his favorite movie is Shawshank Redemption is a spectacle among many.
The season revolves around Phil almost getting exactly what he wants, and then destroying it with his own stupidity and haplessness. Achieving his goal of sleeping (or rather, “procreating”) with Melissa ends after a prolonged celebration involving fireworks that brings to town the show’s most likable character, Todd. Mel Rodriguez, who’s been having quite the year with an extended guest run on Better Call Saul, shines. He’s sweet, earnest, and just a goshdarn delight. His and Melissa’s romantic subplot elevates the show above just cringe comedy; it gives it a really good heart.
The introduction of veteran awesome person Mary Steenburgen and newcomer Cleo Coleman quadruple the show’s capacity for social awkwardness, followed by Boris Kodjoe who, I can’t say for sure, but I think might just be the perfect human male. He’s everything that the other Last Men on Earth aren’t: handy, muscular, and no-nonsense. Unfortunately for our protagonist, his name is also Phil Miller, and so, after losing a heated battle of Jenga, our original Phil must go by his middle name “Tandy.” I also can’t say for sure, but this may be the funniest name ever.
The core question of the show is ultimately: what happens when a guy has all these plans and nothing goes the way he imagined? Structurally, it’s not much different from a Frasier dinner party gone awry. But starting with the “last man on Earth” premise has allowed for an entire series to be about one of human nature’s most Sisyphean tasks—trying to control the uncontrollable. At the center is the most complex character arc a sitcom has ever attempted. With each new survivor that straggles his or her way into Phil’s life, our lead loses his identity bit by bit, down to his very name. Phil started out as the last person on Earth and over the course of the series he becomes essentially marginalized. Watching Phil’s devolution has been a worthwhile descent into comedic madness and human despair.
Luckily, the show has itself a kind soul, and the season finale turned that up to the max. Carol and Phil earned getting to ride off into the sunset together in what was a vulnerable, raw nerve moment for both characters. But that’s not all we get before the season ends, as the camera pulls waaaay back for one last great reveal: Phil’s brother (Mr. Jason Sudeikis) happens to have been living his own story as the last man NOT on Earth. What a spectacular tease for a show that can truly go anywhere.
Tyler Austin is just a guy trying to watch a bunch of stuff. Seinfeld-ian superfan. Ask me something about the Titanic. It’ll be fun, I promise. @TyLAustin