Not With a Bang, But With a Whimper: ‘Last Man on Earth’, Episodes 1 and 2

[Please welcome new Awards Daily TV contributor Nandini Balial as she takes a look at the season premiere of FOX’s latest sitcom Last Man on Earth.]

Well, the gentlemen behind The LEGO Movie didn’t waste any time getting their next project off the ground. Their newest creation, however, can’t find a way to fill the hours, day, weeks and months which have yet to arrive. Writers-directors-former animators Phil Lord and Chris Miller, along with Will Forte, have introduced us to Phil Miller, a below-average 41-year-old temp who, much to his increasing despair, has survived a catastrophic virus in the year 2020. Sadly, it seems like his survival is singular.

Phil has criss-crossed the nation in a massive tour bus, driving into and out of malls, toted precious art, Oscars, the Oval Office rug (don’t let Frank Underwood catch you!) and Hugh Hefner’s pyjamas, to Tucson, Arizona. The first ten minutes of the show are virtually dialogue-free, and given the scenario the show felt like an agreeable, 21st century slacker human version of Wall-E. Forte’s actions, eyes and beard are our only clues as to his mindset. It feels right, then, when we see one of SNL’s best graduates of the last decade fire a bullet at a grocery store’s doors, simply because he can. And why wouldn’t he?

One of the pilot’s victories is its gentle invitation to see the world through Phil’s eyes. The audience’s RSVP is willing and positive: Of course you’d bowl in the middle of the street. Of course you’d pile every single, ahem, men’s interest magazine into your grocery cart. It would only make sense to push a car down a hill to crash it into another car, then rejoice at the explosion. And, because of Forte’s eclectic background as a performer (he’s sung improvised nonsensical ditties with Demetri Martin; MacGruber on SNL; a weary yet affectionate son to a senile father in “Nebraska”), we’re even more receptive to the release of bowling balls, via a reversing pick-up truck, against piles of filled aquariums, or wearing a suit of armor while tennis balls careen at him from an automated dispenser.

I mentioned the show’s prop design because I think half the humor lives in the physical ephemera of life after near-total annihilation. Aside from the nonchalant thefts of works by Monet and Rembrandt, Phil has taken to wiping his beer-dripping face with the Constitution. We’re witness to a crazed mind gluing Jenga blocks into the ceiling of a two-story house and naming the balls of a dozen different sports to serve as people. “Last Man on Earth” would not be as funny without its props.

But no amount of amusing shenanigans can take the place of actual human interaction. Or sex. Phil’s desperation becomes so unbearable that he prepares to kill himself. (“I’d like to apologize to Tom Hanks and the entire crew of ‘Cast Away’. They really nailed it.”) He slams the brakes, literally, when he spies smoke in the distance. The show’s excellent writing is thrown into relief when we learn someone else is on Earth too. Her name is Carol Pilbasian (a winning Kristen Schaal), and she loves correct grammar, rules, and she and Phil could not be less suited to dating, much less confronting the truth of their purpose.

I must single out Schaal’s performance because her appearance in Phil’s life means that, suddenly, the lack of rules cannot be a rule. Heretofore abandoned laws, conventions and traditions mean something to Carol, even if society itself has perished. And the man with whom she’s meant to repopulate the Earth has to abide by those rules. That Carol refers to intimacy with another remnant of the human race as “repopulation” is enough of a deterrent to Phil.

This is where the show becomes reflexive and reflective. How does a woman counter the needs of a man hungry for sex and companionship? She wants to clean up, she wants to grow healthy food, she wants to change you. And what does a man do to pervert the efforts of a good woman? He does not cooperate, he is resistant to change, he enjoys juvenile destruction of rules and mores. Phil and Carol are no less bound by stereotypical relationship norms than the rest of us. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing them both hit each other’s brick wall. The only difference is, these are the only brick walls available to them. Phil may not understand Carol’s belief system, but if he’s going to get laid he has to marry the girl. And she believes in the proposal, so he proposes. She accepts. Onward, wedding plans!

5 comments

  1. Avatar
    noah 7 years ago

    some slacker wiping his face with the constitution? that does not seem to be so much what a person would do as much as what a writer would do
    #cancellastmanonearth

    1. Avatar
      Craig Kennedy 7 years ago

      I don’t know. Are we asking for documentary reality in our sitcom characters now?

      1. Avatar
        Nandini Balial 7 years ago

        The prop jokes are more a reflection of the situation, not the inclinations of the writers’ room. I think a dozen other gags could’ve been lazy visual jokes, but Phil Miller is at the end of his rope. I think it’s quite interesting that he tries to seem a tad more respectful of all the art when Carol asks how he came to obtain everything. “Sorry, Rembrandt!”

  2. Avatar
    Megan McLachlan 7 years ago

    I actually loved this show! Can’t wait to watch more of it.

    1. Avatar
      Nandini Balial 6 years ago

      Hey Megan: how have you been feeling about the show thus far? I’m still a fan – nice to see a network comedy that doesn’t have the same jokes week to week (ahem, “Modern Family”, “Big Bang Theory”).

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