This past Sunday Fox premiered the first episode of The Last Man on Earth, its new comedy from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the guys behind The Lego Movie, 22 Jump Street, and pretty much every other funny movie of the past few years, to no small amount of early hype and a fair amount of skepticism. Making a feature length film starring only one person is a challenge, making a full season of 30-minute episodes is unheard of. With the two part premier episode “Alive in Tucson”, The Last Man on Earth makes a convincing case for its position as one of the most unique comedies of the spring.
The Plot: Two years after a virus wipes out virtually all of humanity, Phil Miller (Will Forte) returns home to Tucson after a cross-country search for any signs of life. Moving into a mansion tricked out with priceless historical artifacts and art, Phil relishes his rule-free life, giddily drinking and blowing up cars. But as his isolation and loneliness set in, trashing supermarkets and dipping in his margarita pool lose their fun, and Phil sinks deeper into depression. At Phil contemplates ending his life, he happens upon a campsite of Carol Pilbasian (Kristen Schaal), former hot sauce factory manager and the last woman on earth. Phil’s joy is short-lived, however, as he discovers that the only woman on earth might also be the most annoying woman on earth. Still adhering to pre-apocalypse laws, Carol looks down on the slovenly Phil and tries to add some civility back to his life, despite his loud and frequent objections. While Phil is happy to live out his solitary life free of people, Carol sees a greater purpose for the two: repopulating the planet.
Look, if you’re going to make a sitcom with a cast of one, you could do a lot worse than casting Will Forte. Uninhibited by the objections of others and the laws of man, Forte is given free reign to reach out with his weirdness, and the results are some of the biggest laughs of the episode. In the absence of any (sentient) character with whom to share snappy sitcom dialogue, the emphasis is primarily shifted to physical humor and sharp editing. Forte, complete with hobo beard and an increasingly disheveled appearance, has a solid presence that help the gags stick the landing. Recurring jokes, such as Forte entering buildings by casually shooting open a window, are elevated by the nonchalance matter-of-fact manner in which Phil Miller does so. Deliberate, well-orchestrated physical comedy isn’t always a focal point of modern comedies, much less TV comedy, so it’s presence here is very welcome. The show’s best dialogue so far comes from Phil’s conversations with God and the Cast Away-inspired gang of balls with draw-on faces Phil confides in at a bar. The sustained, frequently weird one-sided conversations Phil has with his ball friends are great comedy moments, but also tease out the lonely humanity of the last living man and it’s this humanity that really anchors the episode.
As it turns out, humanity is what this notably human-sparse show seems to be about. Kristen Schaal (of Flight of the Conchords, Bob’s Burgers, and far too many other great things for me to list here) brings in that humanity in part two “The Elephant in the Room”, with a character both subtly and explicitly annoying. Carol’s hard to like at her introduction. Twisting Phil’s sentences into occasional nonsense so that they don’t end in propositions and stopping at every stop sign on abandoned streets, Carol is the last beacon of civilization, and the last person with whom Phil (or really anyone) wants to spend the rest of his life. Introduced late in the episode, Carol doesn’t get nearly as many opportunities to be funny, but she provides the contrast and reference point through which to view Phil and his increasingly dirty and pantsless existence. Admittedly, the show eschews some of the biggest laughs of solo Phil’s antics when it begins building the groundwork for Phil and Carol’s relationship, but the introduction allows for the vocal sparring at which the two comedians excel, but more importantly, it builds the essential element of sitcom: character.
As mentioned above, a solo sitcom is unheard of, because it is a genre that depends on an ensemble of characters for mileage. The engine that powers any sitcom and lends some comedy to the proceeding situations is the relationship between the characters and the viewer’s connection to them. The ensemble allows varied and distinct relationships to develop between characters (Parks and Rec being a recent example of excellent execution of this principal); so placing narrative weight on two characters force the writers to get creative. We have yet to see if other survivors will arrive in Tucson, but should the show keep its cast to two and get the chance to grow, the way the show delves into developing interpersonal relationships and the humor derived from it could be unlike anything else on TV.
The snag in this episode is its length. Combining the first two episodes, the premier felt a little overlong at times and had far more false endings than is typical in a sitcom. The show runs out of steam a bit at 40 minutes, and despite this run-time it still feels like they’re somehow shoving too much plot into the pilot, but hopefully these issues get ironed out in the transition back to 30-minute episodes. I’m also hoping the show finds its balance between the visual gags of part 1 and the dialogue-heavy humor of part 2
The Last Man on Earth has a distinct concept and a cast more than capable of pulling it off. With leaner episodes and scripts as funny as what’s on display in “Alive in Tucson”, things could look bright for this virus-obliterated apocalypse.
Find the first episode on VOD and Hulu.