Watching Fox’s wonderfully creative and ridiculously entertaining new series The Last Man on Earth, you can’t help but laugh (it’s a comedy — duh), but also be truly and utterly impressed.
I can’t remember the last time I watched a half-hour sitcom and thought, “I’ve never seen anything like this.” Sure, the idea that a virus or plague has wiped out the entire world and there’s one guy left has been explored in sci-fi dramas before. But a comedy? On a broadcast network?
Above and beyond all the joy I got from watching the first three episodes of The Last Man On Earth, it was the frame of mind the series put me in that was really memorable. I watched the first one and then simply paused it and tried to remember the last time I felt struck hard by such originality or witnessed such a significant deviation from the safe comedic norm of television.
There was Seinfeld’s meanness. The Simpsons, of course. And obviously South Park. There was The Thick of It in England. The lo-fi crassness and crazy fearlessness of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The genre-defining work of the British Office. The perfection of Curb Your Enthusiasm’s cringe comedy. And the whole-cloth genius of Louie.
Now, I don’t know where The Last Man on Earth will end up, since it’s barely out of the gate (and we know that many sublimely funny shows have sputtered badly at the start — 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, to name two — so every show’s path is different).
But there’s something perfect about this creation of Will Forte’s (Nebraska, Saturday Night Live). And the texture and vision that Chris Miller and Phil Lord (The Lego Movie) have given the series cannot be underestimated — The Last Man on Earth is a visual delight and a triumph of directing.
The concept is as simple as that. Phil Miller (Forte), “an average guy who loved his family and hated his job,” somehow survives, in the year 2020, a virus that wipes out the world (presumably), but certainly the United States, Mexico and Canada. How does Phil know this? He’s driven a sweet charter bus everywhere. Nobody is there. Everybody is dead. Or, in the world of The Last Man on Earth, not visible. It’s not like there’s been a zombie apocalypse with bodies and bloodshed, a la The Walking Dead. There’s just nobody left. As if everybody jumped on a space ship and took off, leaving Phil trying to lure anyone — hopefully a woman — back to his hometown of Tucson, Ariz.
“Alive in Tucson,” he states in writing. He puts photocopies of himself up everywhere, donning a ridiculously unkempt beard. He also lets people know that he’s nice and not dangerous.
Three elements make the pilot — and thus the entire series — take off immediately. First and foremost there’s Forte, who is the star of the show, thus in every frame of it. He gives Phil Miller a truly everyman believability. Phil’s no longer frightened. He’s been roaming everywhere just desperate to see someone. He’d probably hug an ax-murderer.
And Forte establishes that, in all the time he’s been wandering, he hasn’t given up hope. That’s essential to the series. Phil is not quitting life. He may not always be an optimist, but he’s not going to crumble. Every day he tries something else, and it usually involves stuff guys would do if given the chance: crash cars into each other, rigged with explosives; roll bowling balls into a collection of fish tanks; never stop at red lights (hell, sometimes just driving straight through the front doors of the grocery store); knocking elaborately stacked things over. And since Phil is the last person alive, he might as well drink all the best wine that he can find. Or any alcohol, for that matter.
I like that those involved touch on the notion of depression. And that a man in Phil’s condition might want to drink a lot to dull the pain. Or, say, float in a margarita pool. It’s 2020, and there are no rules. There’s only Phil. And time.
This is where Miller and Lord come in, creating a world where these stunts drive the narrative. Sometimes they play out in detail; others are quick cuts of destruction. The visual jokes come at us fast and furious: Phil has clearly culled some favorite (and really famous) paintings from our national museums, and he’s obviously been to the White House and taken a few things.
This is believable. This is what a person would do.
Again, with Forte in nearly every scene — talking to himself, talking to mannequins and such — it’s important that he be likable and funny — and he is all of that, tenfold. It’s also important that Miller and Lord give boredom its due — Phil is alone; time doesn’t matter. What’s it like to be alone and only hear your voice every day? Miller and Lord explore this with pitch-perfect touch, knowing when to speed things up or create a twist or when to let an elaborate and hilarious joke play out, or return, making us laugh every time (here I’m referencing Phil’s bathroom habits).
Are there big surprises in The Last Man on Earth? Of course there are — many of them. Do I need to spoil them for you? Clearly not. We all need to go on this walkabout of discovery that Phil is on. Subverting dystopian myths and circumventing last-man-alive tropes via comedy, Forte, Miller and Lord have given a good shake to television. The results are three wonderfully inspired and funny episodes to kick things off.
The Last Man on Earth is a like a strangely simple and perfect idea that was just sitting there, waiting to be exploited — but, of course, its obviousness after the fact is what makes it so precious now. Just when you thought you’d seen it all.
Here’s hoping we see a lot more episodes and they keep the wonder and the funny alive.