Ray Mickshaw/FOX
By James Poniewozik
May 1, 2015

I can’t remember the last debut season of a show that had the great-to-awful-to-pretty-good quality arc of The Last Man on Earth. It began as something absolutely stunning, an art film that somehow snuck onto network TV, a bittersweet comedy of loneliness. It was the first act of WALL*E reimagined with a sad bro. Phil Miller (Will Forte) was modern American humanity reduced to its last crude expression after a plague, living out his days in an endless, bored succession of slapstick pranks, recklessly consuming to the end, trying to amuse himself back to life.

Then Phil met Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal). The plot thickened, but also curdled. At first, it seemed like a productive pairing: just as Phil reacted to the apocalypse by letting go–of rules, hygiene, order–Carol dealt with it by clinging to them. So that’s what this was going to be: a comedy about what makes a society, whether laws and manners matter even when there’s no one to enforce them.

Or it would just be a sex comedy, which was what LMoE turned into. Desperate for companionship–OK, desperate to get laid–Phil hastily agreed to marry Carol even though she grated on him, then instantly regretted it when they found a newer, hotter neighbor, Melissa (January Jones). Suddenly, this unique TV experiment was one more dude-centric comedy, where the main joke was that Phil was the only penis in town, yet could never have the hot woman.

It’s not that LMoE took Phil’s side–it showed him as a lying heel scheming for a do-over–but it all became unpleasant. The show bottomed out for a while, as Todd (Mel Rodriguez) showed up and paired off with Melissa, and the joke seemed to become: The fat guy’s with the hot chick! What’s wrong with this picture?

It was tough to stick with LMoE through this middle phase, but if you did, you saw it change again. Erica and Gail (Cleopatra Coleman and Mary Steenburgen), two hot-to-trot survivors, turned up in Tucson–followed quickly by a second Phil Miller (Boris Kodjoe), nicer, slicker and, above all, way, way hotter.

In one deft move, the show’s viewpoint flipped, as the community’s women went as bug-eyed over New Phil as he had over Melissa. A show that seemed to be all about ratifying every male-gaze joke every sitcom had ever made was now about Phil and Todd as humanity’s runners-up, feeling every bit as judged and objectified as, well, every woman in a sex comedy ever.

LMoE was still very different from its beginnings. But now it imagined the postapocalypse as a kind of ultimate dating show, with its women as much the pursuers as the pursued. So many stories imagine the end of the world as a struggle for survival, but biology being what it is, why wouldn’t it be just as much a struggle for sex?

Last Man on Earth is still not as amazing it it promised to be at its beginning (nor does the title make much sense anymore). It’s developed–maybe inevitably–into something more familiar. But it’s rebounded from its worst point. What’s more, I’m not sure if it could have become what it is without having gone through that off-putting stretch: we needed to spend time with Phil as a self-absorbed ass in order for the series’ gender-reversal shift to work. (That asked a lot of patience; I think Sonia Saraiya is right that this is a show that would have been better served by binge-watching.)

As it approaches its season finale (May 3), maybe the most interesting thing about Last Man on Earth is the level of faith it’s asked of the viewer: it invited us to watch without knowing exactly what kind of show it was, then changed itself week by week without warning. I loved the show, then I hated it for a while, and for all I know, I may hate it again a half hour from now. And I have no idea what it will be next season.

I can only say I’m glad I stuck around to see its current iteration: a comedy of Darwinism, with Phil Miller suddenly floundering at the bottom of the gene pool. That’s enough, at least, to make me want to come back and see how he and this curious show evolve.

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