Pilot Review: THE LAST MAN ON EARTH

A perfect vehicle for Will Forte’s idiosyncratic charm, The Last Man on Earth is the kind of gonzo comedy network television desperately needs.

That’s a $10,000 bottle of wine, by the way.
Goes great with the Spaghetti-Os.

–Phil

Phil Lord and Chris Miller have quickly become one of the more consistent writer/producer duos in the industry: from beloved cult series Clone High, to Cloudy With a Chance of MeatballsHow I Met Your MotherThe LEGO Movie and the new Jump Street films, whatever they touch is guaranteed to be funny. Their best work pushes the boundaries of comedy — not in terms of content or crassness, but in form. LEGO up-ended the “Hero’s Journey” narrative to brilliant results, while 22 Jump Street utilized the prodigious talents of its cast to make a successful sequel while making a clever statement about sequels. But even with their off-beat filmography, The Last Man on Earth is their boldest, strangest effort yet.

It is 2020, one year after a virus has almost entirely wiped out humanity. “Almost,” because one lonely man, Phil Miller (get it?), was apparently immune; the opening sequence of the pilot shows him driving an RV around the country, marking big Xs through every state on his map each time his search for another human soul comes up empty. He returns to Tuscon, Arizona, where he moves into an abandoned mansion with all the new decorations he’s pilfered on his travels: famous paintings on the walls, Michael Jordan’s jersey in his closet, a T-Rex skull on his dining room table. There’s no running water, so he uses the swimming pool as his toilet. The kiddie pool, on the other hand, he fills with margarita mix.

It’s an aimless life; Phil drinks heavily, awkwardly flirts with a department store mannequin, goes bowling with aquarium tanks, and puts on medieval armor so he can take direct shots from a strike machine. In short, everything a dude would do if he was the only dude left on the planet, and pants are definitely optional. He tries to talk to God, and when that’s no longer enough, he creates an entire family of goofy-grin sports balls; taking a cue from Tom Hanks, a volleyball named Gary is now his best friend. He’s at the very edge of his sanity and at the very end of his rope, and is about to go through with an elaborate suicide attempt when he spots something on the horizon, flipping his world another 180 degrees. (Spoilers ahead, but come on.)

That something is a goofy Kristen Schaal (The Daily Show, Flight of the Conchords) as Carol, a Prius-driving grammar pedant who is determined to follow the laws she’s known all her life, even when they no longer apply. For Phil, his yearlong dream — to come across a woman — quickly turns into a nightmare, as she insists he stop at stop signs, park in assigned spaces, and inexplicably pronounces “Jenga” as “Yenga.” She immediately gets on him for his slovenly lifestyle, admonishing him for wasted time he could have spent fixing things like running water. As if that’s something he could do. But she also knows their role is to kick-start humanity’s re-population, which she’s game to do…if she and Phil get officially married first.

Both Schaal and Forte have found ideal roles for their quirky comic rhythms, and carom off each other like she’s the exasperated mother and he’s her lazy teenage son who has a way-too-large collection of adult magazines. But it’s Forte (who also has a writing credit on the pilot) who really shines; I thought his recurring character on 30 Rock was too over-the-top, but he dials things back just enough here to make Phil appealing and relatable — heck, we even share the same birthday, June 17th!

It’s here that I’ll get into my only complaint: when the first ads for the series debuted, we saw Will Forte’s character in the immediate aftermath of humanity’s near-extinction, including him memorably singing the national anthem inside an empty Dodger Stadium. That’s what got me excited about the series. But at the beginning of the premiere, we’ve already zoomed past all of that; Forte’s beard resembles a mangy muskrat, and all of his “regular guy” personality is already gone. The biggest question about The Last Man on Earth is how it can sustain itself over the course of a full length series; I’m concerned it might be playing its biggest card too soon. It would have been truly audacious and risky to treat its early episodes almost like a silent film, covering Phil’s adventures in the first year of the post-apocalypse, making the surprise addition to the cast that much more exciting. What if “Alive in Tuscon” was episode four? Or six? If anyone could pull that off, it’s Lord & Miller. But instead, the show is already gliding onto a more predictable story track.

Nevertheless, the episodes bounce along to their own beat; near as many laughs come from the timing of the cuts as from the gags themselves. You get the sense the pilot, in particular, was cut down from a much longer version, but the storytelling is fantastically economical: even without using that trailer I linked to above as prologue, we know everything we need to about our characters in just a few shots, and a few glances. In the ever-shifting landscape of network television, some channels are aiming for high concept, low execution (hello, NBC’s The Slap!), while others dig deeper into their demographically-defined bunkers (everything on CBS). But there’s nothing anywhere, not even on cable, with potential like The Last Man on Earth. How long can it continue before the need for narrative momentum turns it into a different series? No idea (though this casting announcement, if you’re curious, might give us a glimpse), but I’m strapped in for the ride. You should be, too.

Grade: B+

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