The Last Man on Earth
is funny. That’s what matters. It makes me laugh. It’s maybe settled into a routine, into a more conventional rhythm than the first few episodes indicated, but from the writing to the acting Will Forte and his team know how to make this material funny. Let’s not bemoan what the show isn’t, but praise what it is.
It starts with Forte. His performance is simply fantastic. His Phil Miller has turned into a traditional sitcom character in an untraditional setting, but Forte never fails to deliver, from his façade of niceness failing to contain the anger and desperation within, to the odd linguistic quirks and wordplay humor. (The gag where Kristen Schaal’s Carol misunderstands Phil when he talks about hearing “that song all night long” is fine, goofy fun.) I’m sure there are other performers who could make the show work, but I can’t imagine anybody being better at this than Will Forte.
Phil’s cringe-worthy pettiness can be a drag sometimes. Again, we didn’t really need another comedy with a normal-ish guy with an uptight wife pining over a hot neighbor. At least the first of two episodes last night used that pettiness for constructive plot developments that gave us insight into the social dynamics of the now four-person strong Tucson settlement. Phil realizes once again how little respect he commands when he introduces a “grievance board”, where he uses his nonbinding power as President of the United States to try and institute a curfew on sex and the music his dream girl Melissa (January Jones) and her exceedingly pleasant and rotund boyfriend Todd (Mel Rodriguez) loudly play whenever they’re getting it on. (The Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drive Me Crazy” is an inspired audio prompt / running gag throughout the episode.) Melissa quickly asserts herself as the true leader of this group, voting down Phil’s measure and teaming with Carol to force Phil to clean up his noxious toilet pool. Phil, who we can infer from earlier clues was not quite a high-powered guy in the old world, has quickly lost the stature he enjoyed when he was entirely alone.
Forte’s skill shines again when Phil hilariously has a total breakdown while trying to clean his pool. Forte engages in the physical equivalent of the odd speech patterns and weird voices he’s so fond out, slipping and splashing in the stool-filled pool before sobbing unreservedly on the patio, all while wearing a hazmat suit. When Melissa apologizes, an act she did not need to do, the shit-coated Phil still doesn’t realize how horrible he’s been acting. He takes it as an opening to head down the predictable path of trying to murder Todd. Or, at least, abandon him hundreds of miles outside Tucson, which would essentially be murder by desert, however you slice it. Like the infamous Simpsons rake gag, the extended scene where Phil spends minutes going back and forth in his truck while deciding whether to abandon Todd, as a good-natured Todd stands there with a big, bemused smile on his face, becomes funnier the longer it goes on.
Like Jones and Schaal, Mel Rodriguez is a great addition to this cast. He was the best thing about the Mitch Hurwitz / Will Arnett misfire Running Wilde, and his trademark understated decency is a fantastic contrast to the insanity of Forte and Schaal. Straight men aren’t supposed to be this funny, but from his reaction to Phil repeatedly trying to abandon him, to his disbelief over having sex with Melissa, Rodriguez is as funny in his own subtle way as Forte’s over-the-top desperation.
Let’s take a moment to recognize the fantastic sight gag of Phil and Carol having a meal with a massive t-rex skull on the table between them before moving on to the second of last night’s episodes.
Fox again ran two episodes last night, which led to a weird pacing issue. The first ends with Phil, who couldn’t bring himself to leave Todd in the desert, trying to make amends with the group by finally cleaning out his toilet pool. He seems to regret his bad behavior. The next episode immediately begins with Phil annoyed by how much everybody likes Todd again. He’s so annoyed he breaks a sculpture Todd made of the four last humans, cleanly breaking off the Phil figure, which Carol and Melissa agree is an improvement. The way the show seemingly resets itself between episodes feels like Bewitched or some other ancient sitcom from the days before serialization started to creep into TV comedy.
Angry again at Todd’s relationship with Melissa and his own low standing within the group, Phil winds up venting to his old sports ball pals at the bar. While he’s there he encounters a show changing event as huge as Carol’s first appearance—a living, breathing, milk-producing cow. Instead of Phil getting the praise he expected for providing meat, he’s embarrassed once again when the rest decide to keep the cow for milk, with Todd’s childhood summers at a dairy farm providing him the experience needed to handle anything involving dairy. And of course Phil lies about being lactose intolerant, so he can’t even enjoy the milk until he sneaks into Todd’s backyard in the middle of the night.
This sets up perhaps the most conventional episode of the whole series so far. Phil makes it look like the cow ran away so he can find it and seem like a hero, but Melissa sees through that ploy and knows Phil took it to begin with. But then the cow REALLY disappears, freaking Phil out, until Todd (of course) finds it. This is simple and outlandish enough to be the plot of a Disney Channel sitcom. And then Todd tells an exasperated Phil that he’ll let Phil take the credit for finding the cow, because if Phil hadn’t put up signs throughout America Todd never would’ve gone to Tucson and found this amazing new life with Melissa.
Narratively this was the weakest episode yet, but it still made me laugh a lot. Carol’s repeated jabs at Phil for not letting her move into his house were all smartly written, and the final turnabout for Phil at the end, where Carol moves the cow into her bedroom, knowing that means it’ll never be able to get back downstairs and thus forcing Phil to let Carol move in, cleverly ties the episode’s main story together with the closest thing it had to a B plot.
After that first hour I thought that Last Man on Earth could be a genuinely special show, something weird and unique that we discussed for years to follow. There’s still room for it to explore that extra bit of depth that the pilot tapped into, but even if it never again strives to surpass its conventional sitcom rhythms it could easily remain one of the funniest comedies on TV.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games and comedy sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.