Step aside, Walking Dead, there’s a new apocalypse on Sunday nights. This past Sunday, Fox’s The Last Man On Earth premiered with two back-to-back episodes, bringing high concept, post-apocalyptic comedy to the single-camera format. The result is perhaps the funniest, most original comedy series currently on network television. Created by Will Forte (SNL) alongside Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the guys behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street (2012), The Last Man On Earth delivers just the right amount of satire, pop familiarity, and irony you’d expect from those responsible for “Everything Is Awesome” and MacGruber.
Forte stars as Phil Miller, the last man on earth after an unspecified plague has wiped out humanity. Instead of predictably fighting for survival, the first half of the pilot has Phil scouring the country in search of other survivors, amassing junk food, booze, and some of the most famous artwork and artifacts he finds along the way. When he arrives back in his hometown of Tucson, he moves into a McMansion he’s decorated with all manner of Americana he’s collected–from the actual Declaration of Independence, famous works of art, and the carpet from the Oval Office to game-worn Michael Jordan jerseys and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Months pass and he fills his spare time drinking heavily, blowing up cars, literally destroying things, and amassing grand and disgusting messes.
In the funniest sequence of the pilot, Phil watches the film Cast Away, condemning it for its inaccuracy in depicting solitude as something that would lead a man to befriend a volleyball. Later in the episode, he greets a bar full of friends who just happen to be a variety of balls with faces drawn on.
As he slips into lonely despair, ready to take his own life, Phil discovers he is in fact not alone. Kristen Schaal (30 Rock) plays Carol Pibasian, who is perhaps the last woman on earth. Two episodes in and the title of the show remains intact. Phil is indeed the last “man” on the planet, but he is certainly not alone.
The darkness of the post-apocalyptic genre, especially with last man scenarios like I Am Legend or The Omega Man, usually present the world as bleak and unrelenting. Where darkness usually prevails in the genre, The Last Man on Earth creates a world of excess, where scarcity gives way to the plentiful and the struggles of the last survivors feel fruitless and petty. This is where the series shines as great satire of the American way. In the end, alone, with nothing but the excess of the American dream of wealth and materialism, emptiness will inevitably prevail.
This sounds bleak, but the writers handle it with grace–light with a heavy side of knowing laughter as the irony slowly unravels. Once Schaal enters, the freewheeling survival of Phil gives way to a nagging sense of responsibility and expectations. Imagine being stuck on earth with someone who is essentially your complete opposite, someone you would never be drawn to under ordinary circumstances. That’s precisely where these two characters stand. While I would have liked to see the show go on a few more episodes before introducing Schaal, I think she and Forte play off each other perfectly, and look forward to seeing where their relationship leads.
The Last Man On Earth was originally pitched to cable and subscription companies. The show really feels more like a cable series. That bodes well for a network like Fox. With the bulk of original programming these days coming from everywhere but network television, it’s rare for a network like Fox to take a chance on such a high concept comedy. I’m glad they did, though I do wonder how the show would have played out in a less-restrained atmosphere like Netflix. Either way, it’s nice to be able to visit an end of the world that doesn’t feel like a soul-sucking, humanity-devolving nightmare and just have a few laughs.