The apocalypse, whenever it arrives, whatever form it takes—plague, natural disaster, global warming, peak oil, nuclear war, Armageddon—seems sure to be dramatic. In our imaginations and in our fictions, anyway, the end of the world is not some mellow event. There’s panic and shortages and corpses, there’s zombies and violence and radiation poisoning, there’s chaos and cannibals and an end to air travel. But what happens after all of that? After the mass extinction and the collapse of authority and the redistribution of extremely scarce resources? The Last Man on Earth, Fox’s very good and also slightly puzzling new comedy—yes comedy—has an unexpected answer, as much for a sitcom as for a show about the end of the world. What comes after the apocalypse is excruciating loneliness and boredom.
Will Forte stars as Phil Miller—not that there is anyone left on the planet to call him by that name. The year is 2022, it’s two years after “the virus,” and Phil is trundling around the country in an RV futilely looking for other survivors. For a guy who survived the death of, presumably, everyone he knows and loves, Phil has a remarkably unruffled, positive attitude. He’s pretty confident God will deliver him some company eventually—preferably female—and until then he returns to his home in Tucson, Arizona, moves into a McMansion, hangs up some plundered Van Goghs, and entertains himself by drinking $10,000 bottles of wine, watching Castaway and scoffing at the idea he’ll ever need a Wilson, and giving himself Twinkie fingers.
But solitary confinement, even when the whole planet is your jail cell, will drive a person crazy. As time goes on, and Phil realizes God is not delivering him a partner, he gets depressed. Five months after returning to Tucson, he is a drunk, wiping his nose on an original copy of the Constitution, bathing in a kiddie pool of margaritas, talking to a menagerie of anthropomorphized sporting goods, and crushing on a mannequin. Just as he is planning to kill himself—“Sorry for giving up,” he tells a football, a golf ball, a tennis ball, and a half-dozen of his other closest pals —he sees a sign of life and Last Man on Earth takes a sharp turn toward its high-concept heart: an exhaustive exploration of the hoary put down, “I wouldn’t date you if you were the last man/woman on Earth.”
For a show that includes the annihilation of the human race, utter hopelessness, and suicide in its first 20 minutes, Last Man on Earth has a remarkably light touch. Apocalypse narratives have become such a genre unto themselves that there is comedy in tweaking the expected conventions, and the excellent script does this with precision. As Phil bombs around America, the streets are not jammed with abandoned cars and rotting corpses. He has a gun, but he uses it exclusively to shoot out the glass doors so he can go shopping. Phil doesn’t even have a resource problem. When you’re the only guy on Earth, there’s enough gas and canned food to last a lifetime.
Last Man on Earth works subtly and seamlessly as a critique of a certain kind of contemporary shiftlessness. Forte’s Phil is a regular Joe, spacey but not stupid, who finds himself in a situation both nightmarish and fantastical. He may not be having sex, but he’s got no rules, no obligations, no limits. His material needs are entirely taken care of. He can spend his days however he pleases, and he pleases to spend them like an overgrown child, wandering around in his undies, numbing himself with alcohol, purposeless—which at least he, unlike so many extraordinarily lucky people living in our pre-apocalyptic age, has a good reason for. He’s the last man on Earth, what’s our excuse?
But even being the last man on earth is not an excuse for backsliding into slobbery, according to Carol (Kristen Schaal), the woman who stops Phil from committing suicide. Innumerable classic sitcoms could be set in a post-apocalyptic world for all that their characters interact with strangers. As long as Gilligan and his pals have their island and the Friends have Central Perk, it wouldn’t really matter if the rest of humanity were done for. But if the Friends were holed up in Central Perk forever and they could barely stand each other? That’s Phil and Carol. Unlike Phil, Carol hasn’t given up on order, on life, on growing tomatoes, but she maintains her positivity through rigidity. She demands that Phil pause for stop signs. She won’t let him park in handicapped spots. She thinks God has put them together to repopulate the world, but she finds Phil as lazy, gross, and infuriating as he finds her uptight, unreasonable, and aggravating.
The show makes some desultory efforts to suggest that Phil might be almost as flawed as Carol, but it’s half-hearted. Forte’s Phil is an Everyman. Schaal is a weirdo. That’s not an insult: Off-kilter and bizarre are two of Schaal’s particular comedic skills, and they are the central joke of the show. Phil imagines his loneliness is over, only to discover, perhaps, that there is company worse than loneliness. All of this adds up to a new front in the “likability” debate. Carol is a female character the audience is supposed to find aggravating for laughs. Worse, they are supposed to find her unattractive for laughs: Phil first imagines that the new woman in his life looks like Alexandra Daddario, best known as Woody Harrelson’s much younger, oft-topless mistress in True Detective, only to wake up from this fantasy and be confronted by Schaal. It’s hard to see how the punchline of this joke is anything other than Schaal’s appearance. Yet, at the same time, Schaal is not burdened by having to be the “likable” one. That tedious onus is all on Forte.
Last Man on Earth, either exceptionally bravely or exceptionally foolishly, has given itself two premises you don’t often associate with laughter: the end of the world and a loveless long-term relationship. Watching the first three episodes of the show—all that was made available to critics—I kept thinking both, “they’re really pulling this off” and “how are they going to keep pulling this off??” Last Man on Earth is well-made, polished, odd, surprisingly funny. And yet it is a comedy fundamentally based on a double whammy of misery. It could just be the last of its kind.