The Surprising Comedic Boldness of The Last Man on Earth

Comedy Features The Last Man on Earth

Few of us really knew what to expect from the idea of a post-apocalyptic comedy on network TV. The concept of Will Forte as the titular “last man” in the world, wandering around and being a drunken vagrant, sounds more like something that would be found on Comedy Central or FX than FOX, and yet the Sunday night premiere of The Last Man on Earth has already silenced a lot of potential detractors. What FOX delivered was a surprisingly thoughtful, brave, half-hour pilot episode, followed by a second episode that came much closer to establishing an idea of what to expect from the show moving forward. It was a smart move to both deliver on the show’s title while simultaneously jumping straight into the plot.

If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, you can stop reading right now, but suffice to say, Forte may be the last man on Earth, but we already know he’s not the last person left on Earth. As it turns out, Kristen Schaal, in the form of “Carol Pilbasian,” also survived the apocalypse. What we’re left with is something amounting to the ur-romantic comedy: An odd-couple scenario where two people distinctly unsuited for one another have literally no other choices.

Going into the show with absolutely no information, this actually wasn’t something I was certain of before I started viewing, which made for an interesting progression of realization. I turned on the premiere out of curiosity and a fondness for Forte, an actor who can sell uncomfortable absurdity as well as anyone alive. I had no idea Schaal was even a part of the series, but I surmised that other actors would need to be imported sooner rather than later. Still, it was a bold choice to let almost the entire pilot play out before Forte finally meets her in the closing moments. The pilot’s uncommon restraint allowed us to gain a much better sense of how Forte’s character, Phil Miller, spent two years of aimless isolation, and how little he accomplished. This is immediately thrust into stark contrast by the arrival of Carol, whose goal-oriented worldview immediately throws Phil for a loop.

Before we go diving deeper into these characters, however, I’d like to stop for a moment and consider what this series has revealed so far about the world that Phil and Carol are living in, and the differences between a “dramatic” apocalypse and a comedic one, as exists on The Last Man on Earth. Very little time is spent on suggesting what happened or how the planet went to hell—there is exactly one mention of “the virus” that is presumably responsible for everything that happened. But really, that’s just a throwaway line, and the thing that stands out is how untouched the world of these characters really is. Let us not forget, this is meant to be taking place in 2021 for whatever reason—perhaps so Phil can flash back to events we’ll recognize?

Regardless, Phil and Carol are living in the rarely seen “comic post-apocalypse,” and although there’s certainly a degree of morbid humor one can have with that idea, it can’t exactly be dour and depressing all the time. And so, The Last Man on Earth has given us one of the weirder wastelands to ever be featured in the genre, a world where all the humans haven’t so much died but simply disappeared. It’s less like the apocalypse and more like one of the half-dozen Twilight Zone episodes where someone wakes up or stumbles into an empty town where the people have all disappeared.

Think about it—the perfectly unspoiled and pristine grocery and hardware stores that Phil raids haven’t been touched from their pre-apocalypse days, which tells us that the calamity must have happened extremely swiftly. But if everyone died en masse, where are all the bodies? Obviously there would be no time to bury them if people dropped dead without even enough time to raid the grocery store. In fact, we never see a single human body or even an animal (living or dead) in the first two episodes of The Last Man on Earth. It’s as if the “virus” caused them to crumble immediately into dust, swept away by the wind. Likewise, the world seems to show no sign of a disaster. There are no destroyed buildings. The roads aren’t full of abandoned cars. Even the water system still works fine two years later, provided you have a roll of duct tape to hold its new connections together. Never have the challenges of surviving the wasteland seemed so humdrum, and that lack of imminent peril goes a long way toward explaining Phil’s blasé reaction to it all. I mean honestly: Why bother with grand ambitions when your immediate needs are met?

Carol represents the opposite school of thinking, possessing a strong sense of purpose and determination that pushes her forward with general thoughts of “improvement,” “rebuilding” and even “repopulation,” although I’d love to know how she thinks the genetic diversity of two people is going to be sufficient for that one.

Ultimately, though, I couldn’t help be struck by one opinion, and perhaps not the one that the writer or director intended, and it’s this: Carol is a far stranger, perhaps more dangerous person than the laconic Phil. One might say that Phil’s post-apocalypse life is a tad depressing and lacking in hope for the future, but Carol’s delusions of grandeur are much more frightening, as is her personality. This is, after all, the person who immediately pulled a gun and almost shot Phil after specifically driving all the way across country specifically searching for him and following his signs.

Say what you will of Phil’s pool full of feces, but he’s at least come to grips over time with the realities of what it means to live in the end times and the meaningless of man’s law in particular. Honestly, when is a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull ever going to benefit human society again in his situation? Even if he somehow met another group of survivors and began building an agrarian utopia, how many centuries would have to pass before that T-Rex skull becomes anything other than the inspiring bauble it is sitting on top of Phil’s dining room table? It’s impossible to have “stolen” it—the very act of theft implies ownership, and a fossil can hardly be owned by anyone in a world without any living beings.

Carol, though, disagrees, and in doing so she displays a frighteningly stubborn degree of attachment to the past. On one level this is a positive because it motivates the hard labor necessary for survival, but Carol quickly takes it far, far past the point of applicability. This is a woman who still stops at stop signs and demands that others respect handicap parking spots during the apocalypse. Thank god she never ran into a still-functioning traffic light stuck in “red” while on her way to Tucson, or she would have starved to death in her car, unable to proceed forward.

Suffice to say, Phil and Carol are two people who each could use a nudge in the direction of the other, but Carol—despite being presented as the “high-functioning” one of the two—has much farther to go if she wants to reach a happy medium of coping with their new existence. Even in the comedic apocalypse, no one can live without admitting some of the fundamental truths about his or her own state of being. The old world is gone, and if you want to build a new one in its place, you’ll have to start fresh, not cling to the rules that once protected civilization and decency. It’s time to create some new rules that actually apply to the setting at hand—and as Phil observes, parking spaces are hardly the place to start in terms of ranking the areas of need.

All in all, though, The Last Man on Earth’s premiere made for a genuinely surprising hour of network television. Can it keep any degree of momentum simply feeding off the interplay between Forte and Schaal, or will it immediately shoehorn in a cast of supporting characters to transform the show into a post-apocalyptic Friends? For the sake of the viewers, we’ll be hoping for the former.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor and enjoys a good (post) apocalypse, but is waiting for the roving mutants to show up. You can follow him on Twitter.

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