People are praising Last Man on Earth, and for good reason. It’s one of the funniest and most original comedy series to show up on TV in some time. But what makes the new Will Forte vehicle, Phil Lord/Chris Miller show so significant is its fearless ability to go to some incredibly sad, dark, and thoughtful places within that comedy. Any show that transitions from an extended fantasy bowling scene to a suicide attempt in one episode suggests it is unafraid to go to extremes, and go where most other network comedies never would dare.
Not that this is a question of network vs cable, because a show like Last Man on Earth would be just as unlikely to show up on any cable channel. We’ve seen comedy shows unafraid to go dark, take Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Eastbound & Down as good examples. But neither of those cynical series would ever go to the emotional depths that this series hits in its first few episodes, or approach such ideas with such earnestness. Even more cerebral series such as Louie or Curb Your Enthusiasm have never been as silly or vulgar as this series has already dared to be in its first two episodes. The closest thing we have may be a cartoon like South Park.
Last Man on Earth is in some ways a very first-world, privileged view of the apocalypse. For one thing, our hero declares himself the last man on Earth after only searching America (I looked but I didn’t even see Mexico or Canada on that map of his). And Phil Miller’s apocalypse is clean and organized. There are no dead bodies or looting of any kind, except when Phil shoots up a store as a way of entering the building, or drives his car into a supermarket to get a closer parking spot. He has access to every house, car, museum and store left in America, plenty of food and ways to occupy his time. In a way, it’s like those idyllic moments in Dawn of the Dead when they actually enjoy their time in the mall. Usually we see the apocalypse on-screen representing the most pessimistic view of human nature, filled with violence, and surrounding our characters with chaos.
In Last Man on Earth there is no chaos and the characters have more than enough physical resources, at least for the time being. The show is uninterested in dealing with the fight for food, shelter and survival and more interested in exploring the more existential question of humanity, companionship, and societal structures when brought to their barest essentials. That’s pretty ambitious for a show which on the surface seems to portray a giant outrageous adolescent male fantasy.
The show is uninterested in dealing with the fight for resources and survival and more interested in exploring the more existential question of humanity, companionship, and societal structures when brought to their barest essentials.
Usually when comics comment on “social conventions” they are pointing out problems with them or pressures they face. One just has to watch Seinfeld to know they spend nearly every episode addressing whether a “societal norm” is worth the hassle. The theme of being pressured to conform to these conventions by people on the outside judging them, is ever-present in sitcoms and stand up sets. But what Last Man on Earth does so brilliantly is boil it down even further to the most basic question of all. Even without people to dictate or judge, are any of these societal conventions simply good for humanity? Is there purpose to any of our societal structures? Usually science fiction looks at society as the problem they have to solve. But in this apocalyptic near future series, the real question might be, is society necessary in order to save humanity?
“Last Man on Earth” airs on Sundays at 10pm on FOX. Watch the first episode and get more information at fox.com. Below, the images of Phil Miller’s rebuke of societal norms– lying in his margarita pool, shopping at the supermarket, enjoying twinkie fingers, figuring out the toilet doesn’t work, and vandalizing a Welcome to Utah sign.