In a world of zombies and nuclear wastelands, The Last Man on Earth is a very different kind of apocalypse. It’s also one of the most compelling.
FOX’s Will Forte-led sitcom, which debuted to mostly positive reviews in 2015, started with the setup contained in the title: Forte’s Phil Miller believes he’s the last human left alive after a killer virus wipes out virtually all of humanity. So, he raids museums and the White House for tchotchkes to decorate the mansion he’s squatting in, and fills his days lounging in a margarita-filled kiddie pool and consuming an unhealthy amount of porn. Eventually, Phil comes to realize there are a handful of additional survivors, and since then The Last Man on Earth has become much more crowded.
It’s an apocalypse story unlike any other, with no persistent threat waiting in the wings, as you find on pretty much everything from The Walking Dead to The 100. Here, the end of the world means the end of rules and social decorum. There is no law, but there are also no new resources. There will never be any new movies made, or any new beers bottled, or any new yams canned. Think Zombieland without the zombies. Which, weirdly, works really well. You can take whatever you want, do whatever you want, and go wherever you want. But having the world at your fingertips can only keep you entertained so long, and all anyone wants in the end is companionship and love, right?
So, just as the gags about margarita pools and procreating to save the human race began to wear thin, the series evolved into something far more nuanced and compelling than Will Forte’s Adventures in Loneliness and Beard-Growing. As Season Three comes to an end, The Last Man on Earth features a full-fledged ensemble, including supporting players Kristen Schaal, January Jones, Mel Rodriguez, Cleopatra Coleman and Mary Steenburgen. It’s also found clever ways to tackle real issues and put a horrifying spin on them in a world without connectivity and convenience. At one point, Phil (who sometimes goes by his middle name, Tandy) and Carol (Kristen Schaal) were separated and, without cellular communication impossible, spent episodes searching for one another. Then, there’s the death of (the other) Phil: A major storyline at the end of Season Two found Phil (Boris Kodjoe) with a case of appendicitis. When there are no doctors, a typical outpatient surgery can quickly turn deadly, and does. The Last Man on Earth has never been afraid to dabble in dark humor, and that turn was one of the darkest.
Season Three has only amped up the potential threats: Lewis (Kenneth Choi) spends a good chunk of the season trying to teach himself how to fly a plane, thanks to a simulator. But his first real flight lasts only seconds, before ending in a fiery crash back to Earth. Gail (Mary Steenburgen) spends several episodes trapped in an elevator, almost dying from the stray bullet wound she suffers when she tries to shoot herself out. Then there’s the lingering excitement and dread over Carol and Erica’s (Cleopatra Coleman) pregnancies, which promise the first babies born into this post-plague world. Without any doctors to help if something goes wrong, though, there’s been a sense of quiet horror surrounding their motherly bliss for much of the season.
Season Three also introduces a surprisingly nuanced and somewhat terrifying story of mental illness, as Melissa’s (January Jones) behavior becomes increasingly erratic—finally coalescing when she shoots and kills a stranger (played by her old Mad Men pal Jon Hamm, in one of the best cameos of the year) over a misunderstanding. From there, Melissa veers from catatonic to confused, unstable and cruel. It reaches a point where the gang, unsure what else to do, literally locks her in her room like a prisoner. It’s a horrifying twist, but much like The Walking Dead’s own deadly take on mental illness in the post-apocalypse—we still can’t look at the flowers without thinking of it—it shows how quickly things can escalate in a world where there is no infrastructure to deal with those who need specialized treatment. Of course, this is all juxtaposed with the weirdness of Phil roaming the streets in a man-sized T-Rex costume to search for Melissa when she goes missing. Even when the other characters realize that Melissa needs to take medication for her condition, it’s a matter of trial and error—one that leaves her disconnected from reality—to figure out the proper dosage and get her back on her feet. It’s certainly not your typical sitcom subplot.
What stands out is the idea that everyone might be more than a little damaged by living in a world that is essentially dead, as this broken family comes together to try and find a way to survive. There is no “straight man” in The Last Man on Earth, and that’s what makes it so compelling. It’s an exploration of how the end of the world would affect a person—and then it just keeps going. Gail copes with wine, Carol copes by crafting her own fantasy world from knitted sweaters and scrapbooks, and Tandy deals with the world by being the kid in the proverbial candy store. They scavenge the country, eventually setting up camp in a half-finished hipster office building that runs on solar power. It’s a real-life Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, with indoor swing sets and brightly colored furniture, which makes the mundane all the more surreal.
That idea reaches its zenith in the episode “Name 20 Picnics… Now!” in which most of the group joins together to throw a party featuring every holiday that Jasper (Keith L. Williams), a preteen boy they rescue earlier in the season, has missed since the apocalypse. In a sense, it’s the group trying to recapture a piece of the world they’ve lost, by throwing everything from Christmas to Arbor Day into a blender. But it ends prematurely, with a hilarious, drunken argument between Tandy and Todd (Mel Rodriguez): Not even manufactured holiday normalcy can survive the challenges of this new reality.
In the season’s penultimate episode, the narrative jumps forward a full six months, and things are looking up for the group, with Todd and Melissa tying the knot. It’s been a long journey, but they’ve found some modicum of happiness in one another. And that’s the core of The Last Man on Earth: the tireless battle to build new lives in a world where life has ended. With the series sitting on the bubble at FOX, and no news on a Season Four renewal, it’s only fitting the season finale arrives with an air of uncertainty—much like life itself for the last men (and women) on Earth.
The season finale of The Last Man on Earth airs Sunday, May 7 at 9 p.m. on FOX.
Trent Moore is an award-winning journalist and professional geek. You can read more of his stuff at Syfy Wire, and keep up with all his shenanigans @trentlmoore.