TV Rewind: The Last Man on Earth Was Zany, Macabre, Unique—and We Need More of It

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TV Rewind: <i>The Last Man on Earth</i> Was Zany, Macabre, Unique&#8212;and We Need More of It

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! As the pandemic continues to halt television production for new and returning shows, the Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below with one of our vault favorites:

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Somewhere near the midpoint of what turned out to be the final episode of FOX’s since-canceled The Last Man on Earth, Will Forte’s character, Phil “Tandy” Miller, lays out a shockingly sober sentiment to anyone who followed the series through its 67 episodes. His message is plainspoken, for once: His group of post-apocalyptic survivors can’t just keep idling and cavorting their way through life as they have through four seasons—a point that rings particularly true in our current moment.

“There’s an expiration date on the way we’ve been living,” he tells them. “And that date has passed.”

It’s a harsh, unexpected dose of reality. From day one, the characters of The Last Man on Earth have approached their own personal apocalypse—this one from some sort of deadly super-virus to which only a handful of people are immune—with the jovial, blasé attitudes of people who have never really felt the loss of their world with any kind of profundity. They lounge in kiddie pools filled with margaritas, drunk off their asses. They use automatic rifles as household tools, and fill their homes with priceless, defiled sculptures. They drive a B-2 stealth bomber down to the grocery store to pick up plentiful canned goods, which are all still miraculously sitting on the shelf despite the whole nation apparently having descended into panic (and then death) some time in the recent past. Rarely has the issue of “survival” even been a primary concern. And really, what else could we expect? The show is a comedy, after all. This isn’t The Walking Dead.

But as Tandy lays out the tough truth, it becomes clear that a little bit of that carefree attitude is finally being stripped away, to be replaced by maturity. It’s a brilliantly metatextual moment; an admission of the formulaic nature of the show’s seasons—arrive in a new location, use up resources, trash the place, depart—that promises its characters will, once and for all, begin to grow and change. It felt very much like the beginning of a next phase for The Last Man on Earth.

… and then a veritable army of mysterious masked assailants appeared all around the group, propelling them into a season- (and series-) ending cliffhanger, as certain death looms large.

The Last Man on Earth was axed as part of a wave of cancellations that also included the likes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Expanse. The latter two shows received the lion’s share of the attention and think pieces at the time (Brooklyn Nine-Nine was subsequently saved by NBC, while Amazon picked up The Expanse), and understandably so—Last Man was always more of an acquired taste. Its oddity was both its primary draw and most limiting factor, but there’s one thing that’s certain: It was the only show of its kind on TV, and for that reason alone, losing it is a shame.

To be sure, Last Man was never going to be an easy sell for either networks or audiences. Its brilliant pilot episode was like some kind of avant garde comedy one-man show that must have had plenty of viewers scratching their heads. In a half hour almost entirely without dialogue, it introduced us to poor Tandy as he traveled a nation seemingly bereft of a single survivor, running roughshod over the dignity of the old world. His character was a pathological liar, a man both despicable and uniquely pathetic, but somehow sympathetic despite it all. He embodied the banality of the average person, as well as the cruelty of a random universe—of all the people who could have been immune to the disease, it wasn’t someone who strove to rebuild the world, or at least felt some responsibility to steward what was left of it. Instead, it was just some idiot like Tandy.

Of course, Will Forte, brilliant though he may be, couldn’t remain the literal last man forever. And so, the show’s web of incredible comedy character actors began to grow—first via key player Kristen Schaal, and then via a slow trickle to create the show’s core group—January Jones, Mel Rodriguez, Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman. Each of those souls, miraculously spared the fate that had claimed 99.99% of the population, brought their own equally hilarious sense of disrespect to what would be an impossibly dire and grim setting in any other piece of fiction.

It was that brand of gallows humor that made The Last Man on Earth tick. I loved its macabre running jokes, exemplified by its tendency to introduce a famous actor, only to kill them within seconds of first appearing on screen. Will Ferrell, Jon Hamm and Jack Black were all among the friendly faces who met their fates this way. It was a world where no one ever batted an eye or seemed perturbed by the grisly shuffling of a mortal coil. Instead, they just opened the next bottle of wine. (Editor’s Note: Feels accurate to our general national response to COVID-19).

And that, of course, is what made Tandy’s monologue in the final episode, “Cancun, Baby!” so fascinating. It’s difficult to tell exactly what we were meant to take away from it. For his part, Will Forte revealed in August of 2018 how that cliffhanger would have paid off in a potential fifth (and final) season, adding that “we would have found something that would have been fitting for the audience” regarding a more planned series finale.

I’d like to see Last Man get the ending that it deserved, rather than the one we were forced to infer. But more than that, I want to see The Last Man on Earth truly reach the place that the ending of Season 4 suggested it one day could. The show’s irreverence has made me laugh time and time again, but I’m just as interested in seeing a version of Last Man where the some aspect of the free ride these characters have enjoyed finally comes to an end. Food and gas have finally run scarce. Electricity has gone from an expectation to a luxury. To see the group actually struggle in the face of the apocalypse could open up an entirely new vein of comedy and give a new lease on life to the premise. All they need is the opportunity to explore some new ideas.

I’m still hopeful that somehow the story of The Last Man on Earth doesn’t ultimately end where it has. TV’s strangest, most unique comedy was just on the verge of taking a major step forward. And so, I ask with all sincerity: Will someone please save The Last Man on Earth?

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(This article originally published in May of 2018 and has been updated as a TV Rewind)


Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer. You can follow him on Twitter.

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