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Last year, when Fox released a trailer for Will Forte’s comedy The Last Man on Earth–which is about exactly what it says–I wasn’t sure how that premise could hold down a TV series, but I wanted to see more. Having seen the double-length March 1 premiere and one episode after that, I’m still not sure how the premise can sustain a series. And I still want to see more, so consider me sold.
It’s 2020. Everybody is dead from a virus. Everybody, that is, except Phil Miller (Forte), who for two years has been driving cross-country, in a scavenged tour bus, looking for signs of human life. We find him, scraggly-bearded, crossing off states one by one until he returns to Arizona, where he spray paints “Alive in Tucson” on a road sign and repairs to an abandoned mansion that he’s made his home. (There are no corpses, skeletons or signs of unrest left behind by the plague: we’re talking comedy apocalypse here, folks.)
The first half-hour of the premiere feels less like a comedy series than a well-made Funny or Die video, riffing endlessly on the idea of what a dude might do, in a world with no humans and no rules, to keep himself alive, entertained and sane. He brings home a collection of art treasures and the Oval Office rug. He goes bowling in a parking lot, using lamps as pins. He has long, rambling talks with God. (“Apologies for all of the recent masturbation. But that’s kind of on you.”) Inspired by the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, he makes him self a posse of friends by drawing faces on balls.
It’s a funny stretch, heavy on audacious sight gags. (You might expect that from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, of The Lego Movie.) But what sells it is the understatement. Forte (who also created and writes the show) is dry and a little melancholy as Phil; there’s something almost Bill Murray-esque about his performance. The pacing of the pilot–directed by Lord and Miller–is deliberate, like a short film, with lots of lovely still-life shots to accentuate Phil’s solitude, and the soundtrack makes good use of wistful Kinks classics (“Apeman” and “Shangri-La”). You don’t usually use “beautiful” to describe a sitcom pilot, but this is one beautiful postapocalypse.
The show, as it begins, is kind of a parody of the bachelor fantasy life. There is nobody to make Phil clean up (bereft of running water, he’s reassigned one pool at his mansion as a toilet) or follow rules. He can loot porn mags and $10,000 bottles of wine. The world is his man cave.
And it’s driving him crazy. Months pass, and Phil, despairing of finding another person, decides to kill himself. And here–though information about the show and its casting has been in the press for a while–is where we must enter the spoiler zone (click the link at the top of this review if you don’t care about surprises):
Phil is discovered. He’s the last man on Earth–so far as he knows–but there’s a woman, Carol (Kristen Schaal), who’s discovered him via his spray-painted sign. They’re not exactly soulmates. Where Phil is laid-back, Carol is driven, pushy and determined to improve their lot. (Schaal, who’s specialized in comically intense characters–most recently the voice of the delightfully shouty Louise on Bob’s Burgers–is true to form here.) She moves to the neighborhood, plants a garden, and declares that it’s her and Phil’s job to repopulate the Earth–and therefore, that they need to get married.
The second half of the premiere is shakier, mostly because Carol skates so close to a shrill, bossy, buzzkill stereotype. But the following Sunday’s episode catches its balance again as Phil and Carol try to figure out whether the entire planet is big enough for the both of them. Phil, after all, is no prize himself, and the episode plays up how the weirdness of each of them can be off-putting, even as they also, weirdly, complement each other. And then that episode ends with another terrific twist which I will not spoil even within a spoiler.
Needless to say, I have no clue where all this is going, even with a giant tour bus and all the canned beans in the world. But it’s taking a chance, and in an era when NBC is shipping the likes of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt off to Netflix, it’s good to see a broadcast network taking a chance; even better one that’s strange, funny and surprising enough that I want to take a chance on it.
My recommendation comes with a caveat: there is no roadmap for this kind of show, and it could easily fall apart quickly. But I will say this for The Last Man on Earth: it does not seem like the sort of thing that would be a primetime network sitcom. And that’s precisely why it should be one.