Phil Miller seemed likable to us in the past because he lived in a void. For most of that first episode he was literally the last man on Earth, and even as he lost his mind and created a weird mutant reflection of society we were still on his side. We felt sorry for him and we understood why he would create friends out of athletic equipment or hit on a mannequin. And even when the show introduced a second character, it was Kristen Schaal playing a classic Kristen Schaal type, somebody annoying enough to justify almost any rudeness from Phil. The show’s made Phil look deranged or callous but it’s always been presented in ways that made it hard for us to judge him.
This week’s The Last Man on Earth had no problem making Phil look like a cad and a creep. Phil’s awkwardness around the newly arrived Melissa Shart (btw: that is not a good joke) might’ve felt more like a traditional sitcom development than what the show has done so far, but Will Forte played every painful moment with a flop sweat-soaked grace. His attempts to flirt with Melissa right in front of Carol were shameless, cringe-inducing callbacks to the inadequacies of Michael Scott and David Brent. The episode even makes the mundane act of shaving seem a bit creepy. (Yes, Phil is now beardless.)
January Jones is widely considered to be a beautiful woman. What makes her sudden appearance in Tucson especially vexing for Phil is that her character Melissa isn’t just good looking but also much more laidback than Schaal’s Carol. She tells jokes and drinks beer and is basically presented as “normal” in a way that Carol isn’t. Since Phil and Carol’s marriage is just a technicality so they can start repopulating the planet, Phil doesn’t even try to hide his interest in Melissa. And despite befriending Carol and paying lip service to that marriage, Melissa doesn’t wait too long to tell Phil that she’s desperate for sex.
As annoying as Carol can be, she’s the show’s most sympathetic character. She’s trying so hard to keep society alive, to maintain decorum even when her “husband” is obviously hitting on a complete stranger. When Phil realizes he has a shot with Melissa, he immediately goes to Carol to tell her their marriage isn’t real and won’t keep him from Melissa, only to find Carol making an elaborate decoration to commemorate their wedding. (We learn this episode that Carol was trained by a police sketch artist to crank out quality drawings as quickly as possible, which leads to an incredibly dark joke about the Green River Killer.) It might be crazy to preserve old social constructs in a world with three survivors, but it keeps Carol from becoming even crazier, and there’s something charming and sweet about it.
There are a lot of good jokes in this episode. (I’m not a big fan of referential humor, but I will never refuse a good KD Lang reference.) Forte and Schaal are still spectacular, and Jones shows more life than she gets to show on Mad Men (and almost made me forget her legendarily awful SNL hosting gig). This is kind of a disappointing episode, though. Despite the barren setting it feels too formulaic, like a standard, hackneyed sitcom plot grafted onto a show that’s been smarter and more ambitious. It basically takes a roundabout way to get to the sitcom default of an awkward man ignoring his uptight wife while fawning over a traditionally hot blonde woman. Perhaps the creators thought the post-apocalyptic setting would be enough to cast that cliché in a new light, but it doesn’t. Hopefully the show can get back to surprising us and stop looking for story pointers from the last 60 years of sitcom history.