Note: This post discusses the first episode of FOX’s Last Man on Earth in detail. Read with caution.
What if the only thing worse than being the last person on Earth is being one of the last two people on Earth — and you hate the other one?
From the Midas-like hands of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller — the comedic writing and directing duo responsible for injecting life into seemingly doomed-by-concept projects like the wonderful sitcom-turned-movie reboot 21 Jump Street and the based-on-a-corporate-toy The Lego Movie — have struck gold again with an idea that, on paper, sounds not only boring but downright awful.
That idea: A virus has killed everyone on the planet except (it seems) one dude. That dude is Phil Miller (guess where his name comes from), who is played by Will Forte.
Phil lives in Tucson and has traveled around the country, spray-painting his whereabouts everywhere with the straightforward tag “ALIVE IN TUCSON.” Then it’s back to Arizona to move into a nearby mansion to play racquetball in the foyer and to build the tallest Jenga tower the world has ever seen.
If you require details about the virus, you’re watching the wrong show. The Last Man on Earth joyfully ignores such trivialities. The past is a waste of screen time when we could instead be watching Phil carve a hole in a diving board to convert his pool into the largest toilet known to man (or at least to Phil).
He’s got as much time on his hands as he does Twinkies (i.e. an endless supply). It takes about two years, but he learns the shocking truth. Life’s solo activities — be they bowling (with pins and bowling balls or with stocked aquariums and a hundred bowling balls at once), turning luxury cars into bombs, soaking in a salt-rimmed kiddie pool filled to the brim with margaritas, and even masturbating endlessly — get old.
It turns out Castaway nailed it, he discovers, as his entourage of sports ball-based friends expands. Even without the constrictions of society, aloneness has boundaries.
So finally, it’s time to end his life while his Spalding and Rawlings brethren mournfully bear witness. He plans to die as he’s lived since the virus — drunk and destructive. But as he chugs his scotch and manically drives his SUV toward a rock, he sees it: smoke on the horizon (i.e. The potential that another person might be alive. And, maybe, there’s a reason to keep on living).
After a messy introduction involving pants wetting, a potential wet dream, bra sniffing and pistol pointing, he meets Carol (Kristen Schaal), who considers herself to be the last woman on Earth. And she knows what needs to be done: grow a garden of tomatoes and repopulate the Earth — after they get married, of course.
Within a day, Phil is weary — “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think I need space,” he confides to a particularly smiley tennis ball — as his solitary life is upended by a person that couldn’t be more different from him if she were a piece of sporting equipment.
While Forte is aggressively entertaining doing whatever strikes him in his own world, his chemistry with Schaal is comedic gold.
Since the show doesn’t take itself particularly seriously, they’re allowed to hate each other with glee. While tension exists, it’s played for laughs as Carol attempts to re-civilize Phil, whose pre-repopulation focus wasn’t on a wedding, just a good testicle-washing.
The biggest question isn’t “Will they or won’t they?” It’s “Is there anyone else still alive?”
One of the show’s biggest strengths is its most obvious one: You’ve never seen anything like this before.
Sure, apocalyptic shows aren’t new. If fact, they’re growing stale. But this one is a unique breed — it’s unconcerned with the why and instead focused on the who.
It trades endless zombies for endless pornographic magazines, and also explores our own fantasies. After all, who hasn’t read a book like Z for Zachariah and dreamed of being the last person on Earth, if only for a day or two? Running through grocery stores, exploring a world without consequence, running every stop sign. Sure, not everyone would use a gun instead of keys (sorry, Phil), nor would everyone lock lips with a mannequin, but it’s a dream we’ve all had at one time or another.
As they did with The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, Lord and Miller explore that fantasy right up to its limit — and then a little further.
The show seems an enormous risk, mainly because it isn’t like other shows on television, and networks like formulas that have been proven to draw audiences. But that uncertainty, in the able hands of Lord and Miller, is the very reason for its success.
Unfortunately, networks are obsessed with being safe. We probably won’t see many more shows like this, but if network television is interested in remaining more populated than Phil’s Earth, we should.
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