With the CW’s The 100, HBO’s The Leftovers, AMC’s The Walking Dead (and its spin-off Fear the Walking Dead) and a number of other recent shows, the end of the world is an increasingly popular universe in the current TV landscape. The Last Man on Earth—created by its star Will Forte (who acted as show runner in season one but will pass the torch for season two) and produced by the assured comedy duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie)—is a silly, and often cynical, look atthe apocalypse and the future of humanity. It also proves to be more heartfelt than any of the above shows and resonates deeper than its slapstick jokes would lead you to believe.
The bad news is that The Last Man on Earth doesn’t get better than its pilot episode (not meant to be a slam, the pilot episode is perhaps the best episode of television for the entire spring season). After an unspecified virus sweeps across the planet, everyone in the world has up and died except for Phil Miller (Forte), a loner who finds out post-apocalyptic life is even lonelier than his previous existence. After traversing the United States looking for other survivors, Phil returns to his hometown of Tuscon, AZ to live out his days in the ways that only a lonely slacker could: lighting things on fire, filling an inflatable pool with Tequila and sharing a drink with Gary and his other buddies (various sports balls with faces drawn on them). Hilarious, sincere and dark, the pilot episode is a triumph. But as the season progresses, Phil discovers he isn’t the last person on the planet (at the end of episode one, Kristen Schaal is introduced as Carol Pilbasian, Phil’s love interest) and is forced to actually coexist with other humans (Mel Rodiruguez, January Jones and Mary Steenburgen join the cast shortly hereafter) for, perhaps, the first time in his life.
The Last Man on Earth is successful in large part to Forte’s knack for visual comedy (explored with aplomb in Forte’s woefully underrated 2010 film MacGruber). From the very first episode, it becomes clear that Forte, his directors, the set decorators and costume designers are all working in tandem to fill every frame with comedy. After finding no other survivors, Phil decides to move into an upscale neighborhood in Tuscon and decorate it with some of his souvenirs from his cross country trip, including the U.S. Constitution, a dinosaur skull and a number of priceless paintings (including Monet’s “Water Lily Pond” and Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait” both of which are later “enhanced”). The broad jokes in The Last Man on Earth work really well, but the show’s direction and editing are in tune with the show’s comedic sensibilities. The show uses cinematic, wide-angle shots to emphasize Phil’s loneliness and wring every drop of comedy out of a scene or vignette (seeing a wide-angle shot of Phil bowling one car down a parking garage ramp towards ten others arranged like bowling pins, is one of the show’s best gags). And even in moments of intense darkness, the show’s visual storytelling elevates the material (including a sequence in episode seven—“She Drives Me Crazy”—wherein Phil drives a character out to the dessert with the intent of leaving them to die; it’s one of the show’s most memorable sequences, both for how darkly funny it is and for its expert craftsmanship).
Phil is a hard to love hero. He’s selfish, he’s crass and, above all, he’s often mean, never missing an opportunity to disparage his new partner Carol for being too quirky or not traditionally attractive (which becomes a bit bothersome as the show continues to assert Kristen Schaal is not the most gorgeous woman, despite the fact that she’s glowingly beautiful). It becomes evident by the third or fourth episode that Phil’s selfishness is going to be the theme for season one (and perhaps the entire series). In episode six entitled “Some Friggin’ Fat Dude” (the season’s low point), Phil’s selfishness and insistence on finding a “more beautiful” woman to have sex with switches from quirky to grating, as it appears the show is still on Phil’s side, enabling him in his horrendously selfish exploits. As stated, Phil Miller is a hard-to-love character. But he, and the show are also quite rewarding, and when Carol and the show itself begins to stand up against Phil’s misogyny and selfishness all of the gears in The Last Man on Earth begin turning and by episode nine (“The Do-Over”) the show begins to become as thematically rewarding as it is comedically satisfying. I don’t begrudge anyone quitting The Last Man on Earth during the season’s first half; its insistence on glorifying the male gaze can become tiresome and lasts a bit too long without any substantial recourse. But by season’s end, Phil’s attitude towards women, commitment and life has been largely subverted and, while Phil continues to work towards selflessness, the show itself becomes surprisingly genuine and revelatory.
Like Phil Miller, The Last Man on Earth has a few quirks and inconsistencies that make it a bit rough around the edges. But at its heart, it’s a hilarious comedy that has the best of intentions. And the end result is a mostly consistent freshman season that explores the end of the world by presenting the audience with a likable doofus who is forced to reconcile his selfish brand of compassion with that of a world that’s clinging to its last strain of humanity.
Season 1 of The Last Man on Earth is on DVD now and season 2 premieres tonight, September 20th.