The Last Man on Earth Review: "Dead Man Walking" (2.03)

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<i>The Last Man on Earth</i> Review: "Dead Man Walking" (2.03)

It’s settled: The Last Man on Earth is better without the full Tucson crew.

Last night’s episode was notably weaker than the first two of the season. The return of the whole group took time away from Phil and Carol and also brought back the kind of forced awkwardness common to more typical sitcoms. Just like Phil’s constant attempts to sleep with Melissa last year dragged the show down a bit into traditional sitcom territory, Carol’s lie last night felt like something from a lesser and more hidebound show. It’s fine if Last Man on Earth aspires to nothing more than tweaking sitcom clichés, to recontextualizing Three’s Company subplots into a post-apocalyptic setting. And it feels wrong to pin the show’s faults on characters played by such fine performers as January Jones, Mel Rodriguez and Boris Kodjoe. But if that was the extent of the show’s ambition, we probably wouldn’t be writing about it every week. The Last Man on Earth can be one of the most daring comedies in network history when it wants to be, so it’s a little disappointing to see it settle for the overly familiar.

Last week Phil and Carol decided to seek out the group at their new digs in Malibu, and Carol accidentally killed new addition Gordon (Will Ferrell). After seeing the group tearfully eulogize him despite acknowledging he was a mean, racist, misogynistic drunk, Carol thinks the trick to making them accept Phil again is convincing them that he’s dead. Carol’s attempts to do so are funny, and in her commitment to her increasingly complicated and absurd lie we see that she truly is a perfect match for Phil. The story she makes up about his death is literally unbelievable: she was doing a handstand on the railing overlooking the Grand Canyon because it was on her bucket list, started to slip and Phil saved her by sacrificing himself. The level of detail in her story, and her series of increasingly detailed and zoomed in drawings of Phil’s dead body at the bottom of the canyon, are supposed to remove any doubt from the group about Phil’s death, but it’s so specific and so ridiculous that Melissa can pretty much tell that Carol is lying.

Meanwhile Boris Kodjoe (instead of calling him “the other Phil” or calling Will Forte’s character Tandy, we’re going to call Boris Kodjoe by his real name) is instantly smitten with Carol again, which fills his current lover Erica with anger and jealousy. Carol uses her mourning as an excuse to reject Boris Kodjoe’s advances, but he doesn’t give up, going so far to break up with Erica to reconnect with Carol. And meanwhile Gail, who was Gordon’s lover, is angry at Carol for triggering his heart attack. So even without Phil Carol quickly starts to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable among the group. She moves up the timeline on the plan to reintroduce Phil, who’s been hanging out alone with his sports balls, taking a few swings off the pitching machine inside his RV.

Of course the group hasn’t forgiven Phil for everything he did last season. When Carol asks them to talk about their memories of Phil, they’re all negative. And justifiably so: he did lie to all of them. He did try to murder Todd and want to kill Boris Kodjoe. He constantly tried to have sex with every woman left alive except Carol.

It’s Carol’s love for Phil that makes everybody start to change their minds. Carol tells them that Phil has changed, that he’s genuinely embarrassed and apologetic about his actions, and that his willingness to come to Malibu, to rejoin a group that despises him, solely to make Carol happy, is proof. And just as they’re about to tell Carol Phil can return, he bursts in with a gun and takes them all hostage.

Like the last-second appearance and death of Will Ferrell last week, the closing minutes salvage this episode. Phil maniacally waves the gun around while thoughtfully and sincerely apologizing to everybody. He’s sweet and articulate and seems genuine even as he regularly threatens to shoot anybody who doesn’t keep their hands up in the air. It’s another audacious scene in a show known for them, with the lead character desperately and sincerely pleading for forgiveness while also threatening to murder the people he wants to forgive him.

Even though the gun isn’t loaded, Phil’s plan still works. He gets to stick around in Malibu. Only he’s locked up in the stocks like it’s the Middle Ages, held prisoner and openly scorned by Carol’s friends.

The problem with this episode is that, other than a few specific moments, the comedy didn’t quite work up until Phil burst in with that gun. Todd singing Jim Croce badly at Gordon’s funeral was funny. Carol’s story of Phil’s death and the sight gag of Phil running a pitching machine in his RV were both funny. The rest of the first 20 or so minutes felt like a retread of much of last season, only with Carol taking Phil’s place. The thought that we’re supposed to laugh over somebody who looks like Boris Kodjoe breaking up with Erica to hit on Carol is a big sour note. This was shaping up to be perhaps the most disappointing episode of the show until those tense final moments when Phil made his violent return.

Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.