It’s surprising that The Last Man on Earth is on a network. Granted this is Fox, which gave us Get a Life and Arrested Development and The Pitts and The Tick, at least briefly. Fox is no stranger to airing weird, groundbreaking comedy, and even gave the first two of those shows I just mentioned multiple seasons. Still, even within the annals of weird cult Fox sitcoms, The Last Man on Earth is weird. It feels like something that should be on FX or Adult Swim instead of Fox, although it probably takes the resources of a broadcast network to get Will Forte and the guys behind The Lego Movie to commit to a television series.
Forte is the only actor on screen for the first 18 or so minutes of the show’s first episode, alone in an empty world where a mysterious virus has wiped the slate clean. There aren’t even bodies to sully the ghost town charm of an abandoned Tucson. He’s not just alone—there’s barely any indication that he’s ever been anything but alone.
When movies try this gimmick they cast people like Tom Hanks and Robert Redford, iconic and beloved movie stars who can literally carry a film through their charisma and acting ability. Forte is a fantastic writer and performer, one of my all-time favorite SNL cast members, and had a major role in last year’s Best Picture nominee Nebraska, but in the infinite realm of possible universes there isn’t a single one in which he could ever be as big a star as Redford or Hanks. Fox aired a sitcom where the very first episode featured the ninth or tenth best remembered SNL actor of the last decade occasionally talking to himself for twenty minutes. That could’ve hit Turn-On “cancelled after the first commercial break” territory, but the chance paid off—the show is brilliant.
The first episode begins with Forte’s character Phil Miller cruising through the country in a massive tour bus, searching for any sign of life. As he crosses each state off the map he comes to the realization that he truly is alone. After settling into a suburban stucco mansion in Tucson, he tries to stay sane while fully enjoying the freedom of a lawless, solitary world. He repeatedly uses a gun to shoot out windows and open doors, and the joke becomes funnier every time. He loots museums and the White House, hurls bowling balls through a pyramid of aquariums, wears a suit of armor to test the power of a tennis ball serving machine, and creates the margarita-filled kiddie pool that every frat house in the country probably set up yesterday morning. The gleeful anarchy of these scenes is infectious, but it’s steadied by Forte’s demeanor—he never acts goofy or silly, remaining determined and serious despite increasingly ridiculous behavior.
Early on he watches Hanks in Castaway and mocks the idea that he’d ever talk to a ball. Jump forward a few months to Phil having an elaborate conversation with a few dozen balls at his local bar. (Good news, Sananda Maitreya fans: there’s a great Terrence Trent D’Arby joke in this scene.) “Anything goes” can only go so far, and when the suicidally depressed Phil hits rock bottom The Last Man on Earth becomes surprisingly poignant. Eventually the sitcom pilot that stars a single, not particularly popular actor fully explores its dystopian setting, plumbing the depths of loneliness that anybody would fall into if they were deprived of all human contact.
And then the show turns its title on its head, and reveals that although Phil might be the last man alive, he isn’t the last person.
Kristen Schaal is an ideal choice to play a woman who is so annoying that she could immediately alienate literally the only other person alive. Her name is Carol, she’s a hard-ass for (incorrect) grammar, and she’s clearly a far more orderly and rule-oriented person than Phil. She believes it’s God’s will that she and Phil repopulate the Earth, but he can barely stand talking to her. Her insistence on maintaining social constructs like traffic laws and the sanctity of the handicapped parking space isn’t as crazy as it might seem, though. If preserving those links to the living world help her deal with the horror she’s no doubt experienced, who are we to judge her for it?
The second episode introduces the conflict between Phil and Carol, and although their personalities will no doubt clash many times from here, tensions are largely smoothed out by the end of the half-hour. Perhaps the show will focus on their attempts to have children and rebuild society. Perhaps more survivors will be revealed. Perhaps the mystery of the virus and what happened to the bodies and the animals will take center stage and The Last Man on Earth will turn into some kind of sci-fi conspiracy comedy. (Avoid IMDB and casting news if you don’t want to catch any possible spoilers.) Whatever happens, Forte and Schaal are a fantastic duo, and the differences between their characters are both significant and believable enough to drive any number of storylines.
On SNL Forte was known for an intellectual silliness, with sketches that hinged on a specific absurd concept that was rarely explicitly set up for the audience. (A lesser SNL comedian would’ve called Tim Calhoun something prosaic and overly descriptive, like the Perennially Nervous Political Candidate.) The concept is obvious with The Last Man on Earth—just read the title—but these first two episodes tell us nothing else about how this world came to be. The show drops us (and Forte) into a dead world that looks as pristine as a movie set and gives us no clues as to what happened. It’s possible they’re building a mystery, and if the show wants to head in a Lost-style direction, I’d be fine with that. It doesn’t need to, though. It’s a comedy—we don’t need answers. We don’t need to see why everybody is dead, or why there are apparently no more animals or insects anywhere. The setup, which is ripped right out of the Fortean Times, works perfectly as an engine for Fortean absurdity. If it can continue to run the full spectrum of emotions, from joy to dread to rage to sorrow, it could become an all-time classic.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. Follow him on Twitter @grmartin.