In December, I placed the pilot episode of Fox’s The Last Man on Earth at number two on my list of the year’s best television episodes; if you’re only counting scripted episodes, it was the best of the year, beaten only by Stephen Colbert’s interview with Joe Biden. It acknowledged two things at once. There was the show’s imaginative beginning, which positioned Will Forte’s character as the notional “last man on Earth” after an unnamed plague before giving him a companion; and then there was the show’s somewhat uneven follow-through, during which new ideas sometimes enriched the show and sometimes felt like wild meanderings. Once there were—what, five? Six?—Last People on Earth, the show felt a bit desperate. Any plot crisis, after all, could be solved by the introduction of a new survivor.
Sunday night’s episode put my doubts to rest, and cements The Last Man on Earth‘s status as among the most imaginative, and best, shows on television—comedy or drama. Indeed, this comedy moved me more than any of the prestige dramas that air opposite it on Sunday-night cable lineups have done so far.
Where we left off before the long winter hiatus, our little band of survivors was waiting to see whether an emergency surgery performed on Boris Kodjoe’s character would work. It was a troubling way to head into a months’-long break, and one the show seems uninterested in resolving. Sunday night’s episode focused entirely on the fate of a character played by Jason Sudeikis, the astronaut brother of Forte’s protagonist. Plunging back down to an Earth that has long since stopped providing him any signs of life, Sudeikis manages to enjoy the comforts of an abandoned ship, planning to head to shore eventually, before realizing that it’s hardly been abandoned at all. The ship’s occupant (Mark Boone Junior) is perfectly content staying at sea forever: The land is where the disease lies.
For a season and a half, The Last Man on Earth has largely withheld from us precisely what befell those who preceded our last man. Now we have seen a glimpse of the future, or the alternative present, that the show envisions; in biohazard suits, the episodes’ only two men visit one of many makeshift mass graves: A field of bodies laid out in white bags on pavement, a scene depicting humanity’s failed response to pandemic. “One time, I saw a bag of bones wearing a bikini,” Boone Junior tells Sudeikis. Sudeikis, having been in outer space for the whole crisis, expresses sympathy, but Boone Junior doesn’t care. “The sight of a bikini still does it for me, skin or no.”
What other show could be this weird—either in the jokes it tells (Sudeikis goes on to say he’s “more of a skin guy”), or in its storytelling? On Sunday night, The Last Man on Earth completely rejected its entire premise. The only sight of our protagonist was a version of him as a child. A kid version of Forte’s character was played by recent Oscar-night standout Jacob Tremblay, urging his brother to survive the plunge back to earth using a potty mouth and childish insults.
It’s hard to say how long The Last Man on Earth can keep up this streak. Just about every time a loyal viewer becomes convinced the show has said everything it had to say, it show doles out a wild new angle. But while it’s introduced new character dynamics before, it’s never done anything quite so moving as the revelation of just how the earth came to be so depopulated. The shots of a desolate field of the lost put into relief the desperation of the comic characters we’ve been watching for a year and a half. They’re not on Gilligan’s Island. They’ve escaped a situation dark enough that the only way art can respond, without becoming bleak beyond the point of no return, is to tell a joke. In this case, it remains a good—and surprising—one.