There have been many stories about post-apocalypses, but they're usually action-packed ways to examine an irreversibly altered civilisation (I Am Legend), or sombre human sci-fi dramas (The Quiet Earth). Fox's THE LAST MAN ON EARTH is an outright comedy, about a man called Phil Miller (Will Forte) who's the lone survivor of an unspecified event that's resulted in the disappearance of every other person on the planet—or at least the U.S, which Phil's toured in his desperate search for companionship.
It would be hard to create a TV show that completely lived up to the bleak title, as I can't think of a single other post-apocalypse story that didn't eventually introduce other survivors—mainly because drama is conflict, and conflict needs opposition. And indeed, this show only spent its first episode examining the effects of a middle-aged man being left to his own devices for months. Or has it been years? Phil moved into a mansion, hoarded priceless paintings stolen from museum, cut a circle into a pool's diving board to use as makeshift toilet, bathed in alcohol, and constructed the worlds tallest Jenga tower.
There's a hilarious sense of realism about how Phil spends his time, desperately trying to keep boredom at bay, while slowly losing his own sense of decorum in a world where the rules of society don't matter now. He can do what he wants, when he wants, and that's quite a destructive thing for a single man. We see he's regressed into the ultimate teenage slob with money to burn and time to waste, essentially.
The second episode, "The Elephant in the Room", inevitably gave Phil an unexpected companion, but it wasn't the drop-dead gorgeous beauty he's been fantasising about meeting—it's plain Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), a dowdy woman who can't let go of societal rules, and quickly angers Phil with her pointless need to exist as if everything's normal (obeying traffic signs, making an effort to fix broken things, tending a garden). They're a brilliantly mismatched couple, and yet there are signs of compromise and grudging acceptance of each other's foibles and perspectives on the situation. I don't know if Carol's going to be a continuing part of the show until the end, or if Phil's going to meeting a selection of other survivors who shine a light on his own dysfunctions, but for now I'm happy to see this post-modern Adam & Eve bicker.
The Last Man on Earth is very much a product of Saturday Night Live alumni Will Forte, who also wrote the first part of this pilot. I can't say he's someone I've always loved watching, because I've only really seen him in the notorious box-office flop MacGruber, but he made a good impression here. I loved his hirsute appearance and zero-effort clothing, which often makes him look like a startled owl. Schaal's better-known to me, as a supporting player on the brilliant Flight of the Conchords, and she acquitted herself well, playing this strait-laced killjoy with just the right mix of irritation and sympathy.
Overall, the big question with The Last Man on Earth is how long the show can go without the premise exhausting itself. Acclaimed comedy directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (21 Jump Street, The LEGO Movie) originally conceived this as a feature-film, after all; but I think there are plenty of zany situations to be mined from the idea of a man indulging his every whim and irresponsible fantasy, just to fill the days and weeks. And Fox appear to have given this the budget it requires, with some beautifully empty vistas.
Will there ever be an explanation for why everyone vanished? Or why there are no rotting bodies left behind? I doubt it, but that's okay. The show is clearly not about that stuff. It hasn't even explained what Phil's back-story is (yet). I just hope Phil's existential torture keeps finding amusing outlets, and the show doesn't fall into a comedy rut. At a relatively brief thirteen episodes (for this first season at least), that shouldn't happen, and I'm interested to see where Phil's empty life goes next.
written by Will Forte (1.1) & Andy Bobrow (1.2) • directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller • 1 March 2015 • Fox