Why You Should Watch The Last Man on Earth
It’s the Smart Comedy Disguised as a Dumb Comedy
[WARNING – this article may contain spoilers]
Season 2 of FOX’s The Last Man on Earth premiered this past Sunday. It didn’t seem to get the promotional push and fanfare I believe it deserves. In fact, despite the critical acclaim it received for its first season (including four Emmy nominations), I’ve encountered an equal number of admirers and detractors of the show. The main criticism that I hear is that Will Forte’s Phil Miller (aka “Tandy”) is a selfish, whiny jerk, while Kristen Schaal’s Carol is a shrill, control freak. I think on the surface both characters inhabit those outlines. However, when digging deeper, the show constantly challenges and subverts those lazy caricatures.
The show is the collaborative creation of Will Forte joining forces with Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the creators behind The Lego Movie and the remakes of the 21 Jump Street franchise. All three of those films are smarter than a lot of folks realize. Lord and Miller are brilliant at taking standard, sometimes lazy, comedic tropes (underachieving male, uptight female, overweight nerd, clueless jock) and subtly revealing complexities to those characters.
The premise of The Last Man on Earth could be reduced to a sophomoric punchline: “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last person on earth!” or better yet, “I wouldn’t have sex with you if you were the last person on earth!” For Phil and Carol, both are put in that unlikely scenario and asked to make the best of it. The show is actually about the absurd insights into how someone handles being alone and then not alone. It’s the comedic take on the same scenario that The Walking Dead takes very seriously.
The audience only gets brief hints and glimpses of what each character may have been like prior to the apocalypse. Some viewers automatically assume that Phil’s self-absorption or Carol’s incessant need for structure is how they conducted their lives when there was still civilization. But the show is crafty at blurring the motivations and character traits. Sure, we suspect that Phil’s life prior to the virus outbreak wasn’t all champagne and caviar, but did he always view murder as a means for getting his way? Or has despair and loneliness driven him to such extremes? Phil is the one who helped bring the group together by creating signs that directed everyone to Tuscan, Arizona. So when his way of thinking is challenged, naturally a sense of entitlement comes out and an adult temper tantrum ensues. Does Carol’s current penchant for law and order stem from being an overzealous control freak? Or is that how Carol attempts to preserve some degree of civilization and cope with the trauma and tragedy that has befallen humanity? If the structure of a civilized society were still in place, would we see a different side of Carol? We may never know for sure, but the argument puts to rest that Carol is simply a shrill buzzkill toward Phil.
What surprises me most about the show isn’t its cleverness, but how the introduction of each new character created an amusing chain reaction among the ever growing group. Take January Jones’ Melissa Shart (yes, that’s her last name). She shows up early in season 1, pretty much right after Phil begrudgingly agrees to marry Carol (primary motive for the nuptial being sex). Melissa is smart, kind, and attractive. And her appearance drives Phil mad, especially since she does not take to his extremely forced and awkward charm (if charm is the right word for it). In fact, when another person on earth appears, Mel Rodriguez’s Todd, Phil feels threatened by his kindness and decency and mocks him for his overweight appearance. When Melissa and Todd end up together, attracted to each other’s kindness and decency, it drives Phil insane.
And that’s what a lot of people don’t like about the show, but I love about The Last Man on Earth. The set-ups are designed to test, challenge, and reveal more about Phil Miller. I actually run hot and cold with Will Forte’s weird, pathetic type of humor. He was never my favorite SNL member, and often I felt he tried a little to hard to bring about laughs. But that labored, attention seeking behavior is perfect for Phil Miller and perfect for a show about the The Last Man on Earth trying to matter to others. It can often be a challenge to root for “Tandy”, but just when I’m about to give up on him, Phil demonstrates a moment or small gesture that indicates deep, deep within, there is goodness.
Similar to The Lego Movie and even 21 Jump Street, The Last Man on Earth can be enjoyed simply as a harmless, standard piece of traditional comedy sitcom on a major network. Or, just like The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, viewers will be rewarded with depth and complexity to the characters and topics if they are willing to actively engage with the show. Last Man on Earth may come across as a shallow and lazy comedy, but in truth it is anything but shallow, lazy, or dumb.
Last Man on Earth airs on Sunday evenings on FOX.
This article originally appeared on shrink tank.com