Will Forte is The Last Man on Earth, which premiered last night. His Phil Miller is supposed to be an ordinary guy who has, for reasons yet unknown, survived a “virus” that wiped out everyone — or so he and we thought until the end of the first of the two back-to-back episodes Fox used to launch the series.
There was time well-spent establishing the premise, and filling in Phil’s character. Two years into sole-survivor mode, Phil has reach a mid-way point between devil-may-care and suicidal despair. On the one hand, he likes driving vehicles into abandoned stores, filching priceless paintings from museums to hang in the empty houses he occupies, and generally busting things up. On the other, he’s very lonely, horny, and going a little nuts talking to himself.
These opening scenes were often beautifully thought-through and filmed by creator Forte and producer-collaborators Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie; the 21 Jump Street movies). The eerie uninhabited atmosphere of The Last Man on Earth lends itself to a kind of visual slapstick that frequently works like silent-movie comedy.
With his big, limpid eyes and baleful gaze, Forte makes for a marvelous last-man. Here again, the silent-film-comedy aspect of this show is inspired. Its best scenes were ones that framed Forte against a wide-open space — the desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona; the echoing halls of a shopping mall — as he engaged in various ridiculousnesses (smashing glass with bowling balls; flattening beer cans with a steamroller).
At its best, the show mingles comedy with a hopelessness that makes its fantasy premise feel crunchingly realistic. At first, Phil mixing ingredients for a margarita in super-large quantities to fill an inflatable kiddie-pool in which he can cool off while getting pass-out drunk is yet another clever sight gag. But then Last Man goes a bit deeper, showing us the fundamental depression that’s compelling Phil to numb himself in this manner.
Just as I was getting a bit bored with watching Phil destroy or desecrate some item of value, the show introduced another human: Carol, played by the superb, rubber-faced Kristen Schaal.
Here are my reservations about The Last Man on Earth: One is the busting-things-up physical comedy, which I find tedious upon endless repetition. The other is Schaal’s character. She was introduced in a telling way: Phil has passed out, and fantasizes that a conventionally attractive woman is trying to revive him, holding him tight. When he wakes from this, he sees Carol, and screams. She’s literally not the girl of his dreams — you’re supposed to laugh because Carol isn’t the pin-up girl (or mannequin) Phil was pining for. More than that: Carol proves to be an uptight rule-follower, or to put it another way — a nag. She wants him to clean up after himself. She insists he use proper grammar. (To her, a dangling participle is as naughty as Phil pulling down his pants to let something else dangle in front of her.) Carol wants to repopulate the earth with Phil, but will do so only if they marry (a set-up which, in sitcom coding, means she’s a drag, a traditionalist holding back comic anarchy), and goes so far as to make him propose to her on bended knee.
Carol is, in short, a figure to be ridiculed, created by men as a woman designed to have the audience find foolish. Because Schaal is such a good performer, Carol frequently rises above this characterization, but it suggests a level of boys-being-boys humor that could get tiresome quickly as Last Man on Earth proceeds.
In short, I’m not completely sold on The Last Man on Earth as an ongoing enterprise, and I wonder how long audiences are going to stick with it. (Long enough, probably, to see announced-cast member January Jones show up, at which point I’d guess my female-character-theory will be put to the test again.)
At the same time, I admire Last Man’s spirit of adventurousness, and hope the show can make good on what is a far bigger conceptual challenge than most sitcoms ever attempt.
The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Fox.