Fox’s new comedy series The Last Man on Earth has a very basic premise: a virus has wiped out all of humanity except for Phil Miller, played by series creator/writer/star Will Forte (SNL, Nebraska), who travels across North America looking for other survivors, only to realize that he really is the last man on Earth.
The show is a tricky endeavor to pull off. First of all, you have to fight the initial perception that post-apocalyptic visual fiction has no business being a network sitcom or anything that doesn’t resemble epic drama. Of course popular culture is peppered with many examples of comedies with similar premises but, nowadays, the idea of post-apocalyptic fiction being so self-serious is so dominant that people might initially get confused by this whole approach. Secondly, there is the absence of a (clear) plot motivator. The show isn’t driven by the 4 Rs of post-apocalyptic plot. There is no attempt to research the cause of Armageddon in any way. The protagonist does not attempt to restore, recover parts of, or even rebuild civilization. He is just simply dealing with this new status quo. Lastly, how do you sustain such a premise across multiple episodes and possibly seasons? Will the show be a weekly one-man cast spectacular? Without a plot motivator, how will you keep the audience engaged in the day-to-day life of Phil Miller?
Alive in Tucson
The pilot starts simple enough with the basic premise playing out. In a hilarious sequence, Phil Miller naively calls out hello in various languages across obviously empty cities. After his cross-country trip, he goes back to his small home in Tucson, Arizona. With everyone gone, he realizes he might as well have some fun. He decides to relocate to a palatial mansion in a luxurious neighborhood. He adorns his new home with the trophies of his travels (mostly valuable museum items such as Michael Jordan’s jersey and priceless paintings). Lying in bed, he prays to God that he’ll be able to deal just fine without the rest of human race.
This begins a new chapter in Phil’s life where he practically lives out various fantasies that we only see on some YouTube channels. He grabs whatever he wants, eats whatever he can, and destroys stuff in awesomely stupid fashion. These scenes actually remind me of my favorite kid/teen movie hallmark: the part where the parents/authorities are gone and the kid parties all out with everything at his fingertips. Whether it’s gorging whip cream or crashing cars into each other, Phil Miller has clearly been inspired. Of course all this silly mayhem can be attributed to no other than young meta auteurs Phil Lord and Chris Miller (did Forte reference their names with the protagonist?). Only the guys behind such projects as Clone High, The Lego Movie, and 21 Jump Street could have pulled off these comedy setpieces. In fact, the destruction looks like it belongs on 22 Jump Street.
However, all this partying is not without its costs. 5 months later, the lack of running water in Phil’s mansion forces him to convert the swimming pool into a toilet. His upper class crib has become a dump site. Loneliness creeps back in as Phil copies Tom Hanks from Castaway by making new friends out of sporting equipment. He tells God that He “was right all along” and decides to commit suicide.
Just as he’s about to meet his maker, he stops the attempt as he sees smoke in the horizon. He rushes towards the location and sees a small campsite. There he sees a clothesline with a brassiere and smothers himself with it. This scene culminates the episode’s running gag of Phil’s mounting sexual frustration. Being the last man for years, it’s natural that he’s this horny and desperate. Suddenly, he hears a female voice and faints. One funny dream sequence later, Phil gets revived by the woman. They introduce themselves and says her name is Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal aka Louise Belcher from Bob’s Burgers) thus giving final confirmation that he isn’t the only survivor.
Overall, I thought this was one of the best comedy pilots I’ve ever seen. Logistics-wise alone, it’s a pretty huge feat. The production design is top-notch and the crew managed to film this whole thing with amazing crowd control, giving it that distinct desolate atmosphere. Much of the credit goes to Will Forte’s performance and writing. The man is an underrated comedy savant. A lesser comedian would have made this boring and immediately cancelled.
1. As a huge Alexandra Daddario fan, part of me really wanted that fantasy dream sequence to be true. Also, no one can sing the Ghostbusters theme as romantically as Will Forte.
2. Animals were nowhere to be seen throughout the pilot. Were they wiped out by the virus too?
3. The ending twist of another human appearing in the show only serves to highlight the “sustaining the premise” problem. While a great pilot, 22 minutes of just one guy dealing with being literally alone is too little to stretch across 13-22 episodes per season. This might motivate or force the showrunners to add more twists including expanding the show’s cast to keep the material fresh. That would, however, betray the show’s title. So far, Forte has managed to dance around that by using the gender definition of man instead of pertaining to the species. This recalls the limited title premise problem of How I Met Your Mother which ran too long as it nearly abandoned its main narrative duty to focus on the growing number of everyday problems troubling the protagonist’s friends.
Episode Grade: 4 out of 5 stars.
The Elephant in the Room
While Alive in Tucson is a satirical take on post-apocalyptic scenarios, The Elephant in the Room pokes fun at odd couple romantic comedies. The episode is composed of scenes highlighting the differences between Carol and Phil, namely their approach to their current predicament. While some romcoms only look at superficial conflicts such as difference in preference or habits, this episode displays the philosophical underpinning behind Carol and Phil’s actions. Carol wants to restore civilized order and repopulate the Earth. She continues to follow traffic laws and societal decorum even if unnecessary. Phil, on the other hand, has given up and no longer cares. He has no hope or intention of restoring civilization. He’s just a nihilist who wants to have fun until he dies a natural death.
This causes endless tension for the two until they reach a breakthrough: the search for fresh food. Carol offers Phil the chance to help her cultivate a fresh batch of tomatoes instead of relying on canned goods. Phil declines this offer and, realizing his craving, sneaks into her garden to eat every last tomato. Eventually, he feels remorse for his actions and makes it up to her by hilariously trying to set up an irrigation system for her garden. This results in Carol forgiving him and inviting him over for dinner. There, she tells him to propose to her so they can get married and begin repopulating the Earth. Phil accepts (since he’s horny anyway) and makes the proposal, thus ending the episode.
The episode puts any doubt of Schaal and Forte’s chemistry to rest. These two are absolutely great together and work well off each other. They make the reluctant odd couple friendship seem so natural.
Put together, these two episodes display the two distinct styles that will guide the show’s future episodes. The former is a down-to-earth nuanced take on life after humanity while the latter is an odd couple comedy about two people learning to cope with each other if they are to survive and rebuild the world one piece at a time. Future episodes will probably be a mix of both until further twists come along. Hopefully, these narrative turns do not undermine the simple resonant core that the show has established so far.
1. Having read the spoilers for the 3rd episode, I’m starting to get really worried for the show’s premise.
2. PREDICTIONS TIME: I predict that there are some domestic animals out there. There’s just gotta be. Also, there are survivors on other continents.
3. If I could give any advice to the showrunners, it would be this: Make the show a light comedy version of the acclaimed comic book series Y: The Last Man.
4. The burdens placed upon the shoulders of Carol and Phil in restoring civilization remind me of the underrated Mike Judge film Idiocracy. In the film, two people of average intelligence wake up in a future filled with morons. This automatically makes them the smartest people in the world giving them the heavy responsibility of putting humanity back on the path of progress even though they’re not the ideal choices for the job.
Episode Grade: 4 out of 5 stars.
Screencap courtesy of Fox.