The Last Man on Earth’s pilot opens with a lovingly shot montage of the United States, set to the whimsical music of Mark Mothersbaugh, that reveals itself as a comic set-up with more than one hilarious payoff. The mixture of genuinely felt emotion and exuberant absurdist humor, common to the work of creator/star Will Forte and producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, quickly sets the tone for the whole program, whose first night suddenly and excitedly suggested far more than the initial advertising campaign promised.
Themes and Variations on the Obvious Joke
That campaign implied the show’s premise took the title at face value and would depict the misadventures of one single character: Phil Miller (Forte), a good-natured, 40 year-old temp with no special intellect or prowess, who turns out to be the sole survivor after a virus destroys the human species. Watching one person doing whatever the heck they’re able to with no one else around is the sort of idea that at first elicits plenty of laughs but could grow boring and repetitive fast. Indeed, the pilot covers all the obvious ground one could expect, with Phil amassing the finer things in life and living outlandish fantasies, such as blowing up cars and bathing in a pool of margaritas.
However, the talent involved in The Last Man on Earth is not the sort with whom “boring and repetitive” are associated. Lord and Miller have time and again proven their ability to put new spins on the most popular and/or hackneyed formulae, and Forte, who excelled both on Saturday Night Live and in Nebraska, expertly mixes humor with pathos. His Phil Miller is outrageously, vulgarly funny, as when he pours Cheez Whiz into a $10,000 bottle of wine to see how it will taste, but also conveys what someone who found himself the last person on earth would feel. Phil confronts the solitude through prayer, losing himself in memories of his family, and inventing “companions” with whom he can hang out at bars (which provides the most delightful scene in the pilot) but ultimately has to face a sad, overpowering meaninglessness. People are what make life worth living, he declares in that aforementioned delightful scene, so if there is no one to do anything for, there is no reason to live. Forte captures the moment Phil makes this suicidal decision with a strangely lovely clarity.
The Twist and the Promise
The pilot ends with Phil joyously discovering that someone else survived. The show’s title is still true because he remains the last MAN on earth. But who he finds is neither a new society along the lines of Brian K. Vaughan nor the supermodel figure of his dreams, but Carol Pilbasian, played by the always wonderful Kristen Schaal. Obsessed with proper grammar, gardening, and adhering to social rules and customs like stop signs and handicapped parking spots, Carol drives Phil to flabbergasted near-insanity. That being said, her determination to hold on to the hallmarks of civilization and potentially reignite the species eventually worms its way into Phil’s uncouth beard, and by the end of the second episode he, with varying degrees of reluctance, infuses himself with new reasons to live and initiatives for breaking out of his hedonism.
How long Schaal will stay on The Last Man on Earth is unknown, but her appearance promises intriguing directions for the program. Far from being the Will Forte one-man show, it could potentially become a sitcom rife with unusual conflicts, as Phil Miller might leave his Tucson home base and encounter more people (in all likelihood more women, in adherence to the title) whose philosophies clash with his, but with whom he must get along to make the best of a depopulated world, for people ARE what make life worth living.
In the end, how months without electricity, water, and maintenance leave a sun-baked Southwestern city a little too intact doesn’t matter. Neither does how Phil is fueling his multiple gas-guzzling cars, or other tiny logistical details. The Last Man on Earth is a show bubbling with great comedy and a deep love for humanity that could explode into many good directions.
Photographs from IMDB, The New York Times, and Salon.