High concept sitcoms don’t usually work because often the writing and characterization are too dependent on whatever weird or constricting twist the show boasts – there are some notable exceptions (3rd Rock from the Sun and Ugly Betty come to mind), but more often than not, these kinds of shows end up feeling like novelties. The Last Man on Earth could’ve easily been a one-note show: a guy survives an offscreen plague that wipes out all of humanity leaving him all alone, but SNL alumnus Will Forte (who wrote the premier episode) is a wonderful lead, and he tells a hilarious but dark tale of survival.
So, it’s November 2019, and a virus has killed everyone on earth, with the exception of Phil Miller (Forte). The show opens with Phil driving through the country in a bus, plaintively call from the bus’s PA system hoping to find another survivor. With a map spread out in front of him, Phil x’s out each state, before running out of states to explore. He seems to accept this dispiriting fact with equanimity, but lets out an anguished yell when it hits him: he’s all alone.
Like practically every “lone survivor tale,” Phil settles into a huge mansion and kits the place out with priceless works of art, the Oval Office’s eagle rug, and reclines in a kiddie pool filled with margarita. Obvious comparisons to Tom Hanks’ Cast Away pop up, and The Last Man on Earth plays with these similarities – instead of just a solitary volleyball to Phil company, he has a crowd of balls, all with Sharpee faces. All of this is played with a straight-faced, and Forte’s script manages an incredible balance between indie movie quirkiness and dark poignancy. It’s commendable that Forte isn’t worried about going too dark – Phil’s Richie Rich existence quickly becomes soul-crushing when loneliness settles in and he becomes despondent and suicidal.
The premier episode was paired with the second episode that quickly changes the direction of the show by teaming Phil up with a fellow survivor, Carol Pilbasian (a very winning Kristen Schaal). While Phil is no longer entertaining thoughts of ending it all, he quickly finds his sole companion to be a major pill – unlike Phil, Carol hasn’t hit bottom yet, so she still insists on maintaining the same rules and conventions that made sense when there still was a society. In Phil’s logic, things like stop signs, traffic lights, and handicapped parking spaces no longer have meaning; Carol hasn’t gotten to that point yet, and holds on to some semblance of civilization in the face of the unimaginably daunting prospect of being the only two people left on earth. Adhering to these conventions means that things haven’t reached their worse – we’re not sure who’s right – is Phil simply fatalistic and has given up, or is Carol just delusional?
The second episode – written by Andy Bobrow – gives the brilliant Forte and equally talented comic foil to spar with. Despite being the only people left on earth, Carol and Phil don’t fall into each others arms – in fact, they don’t really like each other. Carol’s fastidiousness doesn’t mesh well with Phil’s alarming slovenliness, and the responsibility of repopulating the world doesn’t really sit well with either of them (but Carol’s willing because she’s nothing if not dutiful and responsible). And while I’m happy seeing Schaal in anything really (she’s one of those comediennes that would be funny doing anything), her addition does replace some of the poignancy and pain of the premier episode. And Bobrow makes a sometimes unwise choice of making Phil come off as kind of a jackass when relating to Carol, who at times, is written as a bit of a shrew – hopefully, as the show progresses, the two disparate personalities will somehow find a working rhythm.
It will be interesting to see just how the show moves forward – a concept like being the last man on earth is a limiting one, that has a shortish shelf life. I don’t see The Last Man on Earth playing for a decade like The Big Bang Theory, but for now, it’s clearly one of the most original and exciting shows on television.