With each episode, The Last Man on Earth becomes less original, less funny —less the groundbreaker its most ardent supporters initially proclaimed it to be.
This week’s installment moved the show closer than ever to conventional sitcom material. In last week’s final moments, we saw that Will Forte’s Phil and Kristen Schaal’s Carol had been joined in the survivor category by January Jones. This week, we learned that Jones’s Melissa Shart is indeed a charmer, and gee, guess what? Phil would rather be with someone who looks like January Jones than someone who looks like Kristen Schaal. Doesn’t this suggest a certain retrograde attitude on the part of those behind the scenes? By this I mean: a willingness to go with that trite comedy idea, Guys Really Dig Babes.
In an effort to be even more conventional, Phil shaved his beard: Talk about a symbol for where the show is heading. While the half-hour used the occasion to make some amusing jokes at Phil’s expense (comparing his smooth face to Quentin Tarantino and KD Lang), it also demonstrated a more fundamental flaw, a certain betrayal of what the pilot episode set up as the premise of this series.
Phil, you’ll recall, was first glimpsed as a smart, sardonic, despairing man who was roaming the country a lonely, sexually bereft, anarchic spirit. The slapstick sight gags of him destroying things for the heck of it, stealing priceless paintings from museums for his private pleasure were sometimes funny but —and this was the show’s best idea — the gestures of a smart guy who saw past society’s now-outmoded rules.
In the space of a couple of weeks, however, The Last Man on Earth has reduced that Phil to a different Phil: A guy who is compelled to remain true to a sham marriage (in the sense that he never loved Carol and allowed her to browbeat him into it) and become a henpecked husband who lusts after a more conventionally attractive woman.
This new, inferior Phil becomes more of a doofus with each scene. He practically drools over Melissa. He hits his finger with a hammer. Look, I like Will Forte and his performance a lot. Schaal is terrific. Jones has always been underrated on Mad Men, and she’s charming here. It’s not the acting that’s the problem.
Where Last Man’s pilot kept you wondering what would happen next, this week’s episode was a succession of reactions you could see coming a mile away. Melissa tells Phil she is “horny, so horny,” which sends him speeding over to Carol’s house to break up — but once his wife makes a nice, sentimental gesture of her faith in their marriage, he’s too much of a nice guy to explode their union the way he used to explode beer cans with a steamroller.
Which is what the Phil of the pilot would have done. For a guy who is the last man on earth, all bets should be off. The show promised us a new craziness. More and more, it’s giving us the same old sitcom gags.
The Last Man on Earth airs Sundays at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.