The Strawberry Criterion: The Last Man on Earth

The Last Man on Earth, whose first season finale aired two Sundays previous, on FOX, theoretically could be–and arguably should be–sued for false advertising, for the high concept bait-and-switch it perpetrates at its own expense. In its excellent pilot, Will Forte (of the flawless MacGruber) plays Phil Miller, seemingly the last living survivor of a vaguely hinted-at apocalypse. The show’s opening sequences follow Phil as he crisscrosses the deserted US in a luxury winnebago, tagging billboard after billboard with the clever oxymoron “Alive in Tucson.” His hope is that, if there’s anyone left to read his message, they will heed it and track him down and help abate his solitude, which is formidable. Unsurprisingly, Phil is quite lonely, in fact suicidally so, and much of the pilot’s heartening potential arises from seeing how his everyman’s psychology combats spectacular loneliness. Back in Tucson, Phil lives in unobserved squalor, in a cavernous McMansion without power or plumbing, but he does so surrounded by priceless art; Picassos overlook the kiddie pool he has filled with tequila, Monets the emptied swimming pool in which he shits. He crashes Ferraris, seduces department store mannequins, and, taking a cue from Tom Hanks in Castaway, befriends a group of sports balls. When Phil finally decides to kill himself, by crashing his pickup head-on into a boulder, he makes sure all the balls are there to see him off. The overall effect is a fresh-feeling kind of bittersweet. Forget the future of the human race: you want Phil to survive so you can keep hanging out with him. Yet what stops him from killing himself is neither hope for salvation nor fear of obliteration. It’s a woman. Her name is Carol.

For most of its first thirty minutes, until Carol appears and forces the show into more familiar, odd-couple territory, The Last Man on Earth presents itself as a half-hour comedy completely unconcerned with concerns of half-hour comedies. Relatively minimal mind is paid to jokes, or plot, or overt conflict, and while these choices should have registered as simply refreshing, they feel almost revolutionary given the blighted sitcom wasteland through which viewers must now trudge. (RIP Mulaney.) The Last Man on Earth could have spent a lot more time exploring these internal struggles, the implications of what it means to be the very last person on earth of any gender, not just the last man. Considering that the average Netflix user watches two hours of streaming TV per day, this would have been a forgivable indulgence, one that would have shored the audience’s allegiance to Phil during his later villainization. Instead Carol shows up two hours too early into what could have been a chill hang, like a female Buzz Killington intent on correcting everyone’s grammar. Your night never truly recovers.

tumblr_nkgal21CU81tq1dn2o1_500

The night isn’t altogether lost, though. Carol turns out to be a pretty fun person in her own right, pure of heart and devoted to maintaining the customs of a collapsed civilization despite Phil’s absolute abandonment of them. She’s a foil through and through, perhaps too easily conceived in that respect, but Schaal and Forte do have, as all great sitcom couples must, true chemistry as an onscreen pair. Again, the show easily could have allotted more episodes to establishing the parameters of their relationship, the concessions each would make, in an endearingly traditional way, to forge a functional partnership. Phil’s and Carol’s issues do end up falling too closely within the hackneyed framework of the domineering wife/emasculated husband, but because of the wider implications of the conceit, Carol’s antics are made forgivable, almost enlightened. She isn’t withholding sex to keep Phil from playing golf, she’s trying to save the last vestiges of culture and decorum. If sensate human beings will watch three seasons of The Mindy Project, ten episodes of Phil & Carol would have been a godsend. But.

Enter January Jones. (Does television criticism know a scarier sentence?) Minutes after Phil’s and Carol’s wedding–Carol is, of course, saving herself for marriage–January Jones’s Melissa materializes, and she is, of course, everything that Carol is not. Phil promptly devolves into a dog in heat, consumed to an infuriating degree, maybe not unforgivably, with sleeping with Melissa. He convinces Carol to let him, in the interests of avoiding future incest (“Do you want our babies to have sex with each other?”), but seconds before their tryst, another man appears, Todd. Melissa predictably falls for shlubby, lovable Todd, who Phil predictably tries to leave in the desert, before his conscience gets the better of him. Regardless, it’s not the best moment for Phil’s character. Enter two more women, played by Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman respectively, who Phil is then consumed with seducing. Then enter the second Phil Miller, a handsome, statuesque factotum, who actually ends up seducing every woman on the show. If this all sounds like too much too soon, that’s because it is. Ironically, the original Phil Miller (who is, hilariously, forced to go by his middle name “Tandy”) isn’t much of a people person, and each character that is introduced seems to lower our estimation of him by exponentially increasing degrees. By the time he is stripped of the Presidency of the United States and left, by the new Phil Miller, to starve to death on the side of the road, it’s a choice of action that one could argue is in the best interests of the show. That shouldn’t happen. Your protagonist’s death should, as a rule, inspire more grief than King Joffrey’s.

the_last_man_on_earth___beans_by_jdelgado-d8lic90

Of The Last Man on Earth’s many issues, the least forgivable may be that it briskly and fundamentally forsakes its premise; a show about One of the Last Men on Earth is, on its face and in practice, a much less compelling enterprise. To follow a borderline sociopath through an end times comedy of errors could have been gleeful, vicious fun, but that can’t happen when the audience has already been endeared to that sociopath, been shown that he’s capable of great selflessness, sadness, and complexity. In its finale, the show smartly attempts to rationalize Phil’s ludicrous behavior and reset itself for its next season, with a considerably smaller cast on its way to a new city. While it may seem brave for a sitcom, after a single season, to leave most of its cast to a life offscreen, it’s a damning failure that none of those characters will be missed, or likely even remembered. Hopefully, The Last Man on Earth can avoid a similar end.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 3.75 out 5 Strawberries