Last Man on Earth, Will Forte, Kristen Schaal, January Jones: Why the show really should be a story of female friendship.

The Last Man on Earth Would Have Been Better as a Story About Female Friendship

The Last Man on Earth Would Have Been Better as a Story About Female Friendship

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Slate's Culture Blog
May 4 2015 4:08 PM

The Last Man on Earth Would Have Been Better as a Story About Female Friendship

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Kristen Schaal and January Jones as Carol and Melissa.

Fox

With its bold and divisive first season coming to a close Sunday night, The Last Man on Earth set its two main characters on the path for something of a re-boot in Season 2. It was probably time for us to leave Tucson, even if the new Phil Miller (Boris Kodjoe) hadn’t forcibly dragged our erstwhile Phil, now Tandy, to the edge of the desert. The pleasant surprise, for Tandy anyway, was that he was joined on his journey out of town by Carol (Kristen Schaal), who started out as the wife he never wanted. As happens on TV, of course, once Carol had moved on to New Phil, our Phil realized he really did have feelings for her. (Note: For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to call Will Forte’s character “Phil” and Kodjoe’s character “New Phil,” even though the show’s commitment to spending the last two episodes calling Phil “Tandy” was one of the season’s most delightful recurrences.) Ultimately, Carol decided she’d rather be with Phil, the kind of guy who’d drive someone out to the desert only to change his mind about leaving him there for dead, rather than someone who’d actually go through with it. Look, in post-Apocalyptic Arizona, our choices are limited.

It was a bit odd to see things end on a note of sweet, reticent romance after a season’s worth of Phil’s single-minded and frequently off-putting obsession with sex. From the moment January Jones showed up at the end of Episode 3, the series became pretty much exclusively about Phil seeking, scheming, scamming, and otherwise yearning for sex, first with Melissa, and later, upon the arrival of Gail (Mary Steenburgen) and Erica (Cleopatra Coleman), with basically anyone who wasn’t Carol.

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In a way, I admired the show’s dedication to an uncomfortable premise: that a man like Phil, imperfect as he was going into whatever end-times event swept the world bare, had been so warped by all his time alone that the idea of re-socialization turned him into a sex-crazed idiot. The way the show remained as funny as it did kept things afloat for a middle chunk of episodes that played like a repeat loop of a Loony Tunes cartoon, with Phil as its goofy-eyed Pepé Le Pew. The forward momentum of the finale almost felt like an acknowledgment of that midseason stagnation. Phil realizing he had feelings for Carol was inevitable from the first episode, and Forte and Schaal have played the push/pull of their characters’ relationship quite well. (Forte’s delivering of the moon song that gave the finale its episode title was bizarrely moving.)

But if Phil and Carol have indeed left Tucson for good, it means that the show has surrendered what could have been a far more interesting angle than the Phil-Carol romance: the friendship between Carol and Melissa. Melissa’s arrival could have signaled more than just another option for Phil, and in those first few episodes, as Melissa went from blithely ignoring Phil’s clumsy come-ons to actively rolling her eyes at them, it was her relationship with Carol that held the most promise. What was it like for the two of them to figure out their own compatibility? But even in their refreshingly non-adversarial closeness, the show kept them just shy of establishing a real relationship. By the finale, they still only really existed to frustrate Phil.

This is where the show’s stubborn insistence on telling the story through Phil’s warped POV felt most frustrating. What were Carol and Melissa to each other irrespective of Phil? What were Melissa’s own idiosyncratic ways of coping with post-Apocalyptic Tucson? With each successive new character, we learned less and less about them, independent of their value to Phil. Gail and Erica were nearly cartoonish in how they were presented as a kind of sex oasis; a mirage in the desert where Phil, after having struck out with Melissa, might still end up getting some action. Of course, the biological imperatives of life after the end of the world gave this kind of single-mindedness a thin veneer of altruism, but the show was always quick to point out that re-populating the world was a secondary priority to Phil, who only wanted sex. The blending of the primal and the ridiculous gave Last Man on Earth its unique comic energy, but it also ended up boxing its characters in. By the time we got to New Phil’s arrival, Phil had devolved into kill-or-be-killed.

Phil began the series with a desperate sense of lunacy, with all the freedom in the universe but no human connections. But as the show proceeded to give him human connections, that limitless universe of his kept shrinking. This was actually an incredibly strong vision for a comedy series—to essentially restrict its field of vision as the season goes on—and I respect Forte, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller for staying true to it. But the “s/he’s out of my league” romantic trope has gotten so much play over the years that the show would have been smart to shift its focus to the central female friendship as the season wore on—especially as Phil’s character stagnated. If there’s any show that could mine offbeat humor from the question of how you build a relationship as the last two women on Earth, this is surely the one.