I've expressed my enthusiasm for FOX's new Sunday comedy “Last Man on Earth” in a number of different tweets and the responses tend to fall into a common mixed emotion that I'd describe as “excited skepticism.”
It can be boiled down to, “It looks funny… But does it work as a series?”
On the eve of the Sunday, March 1 premiere of “Last Man on Earth,” my own answer can now take one of two forms:
The first: I've seen three episodes — or, rather, I've seen the hour-long block that will air on Sunday, plus an additional half-hour — and “Last Man on Earth” works rather wonderfully for that duration, which is really all I can ask from a network TV show when I review it. I've reviewed comedies based on both more episodes and fewer episodes and while I can't say that I know that the 50th episode of “Last Man on Earth” will be funny, I also couldn't say that the 50th episode of “Fresh Off the Boat” would be funny, but I reviewed that off of three episodes as well and it has continued to be funny now for three subsequent episodes as well. TV shows are only funny until they're not, no matter how high the concept, and given how hard it is to hit the ground running with a sitcom, I'm not going to criticize a series that's this immediately and successfully inspired just because I don't know what Season 20 looks like.
The second: Go ahead and try telling Phil Lord and Chris Miller that you think the project they're working on is either a silly idea or an idea that seems better designed for a five-minute short than for long-form storytelling. At this point, the “21 Jump Street” and “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and “The Lego Movie” directors ought to have earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to successful elongation of premises that seem merely one-joke, but ultimately yield many more.
Lord & Miller's direction of the opening “Last Man on Earth” hour is a textbook lesson in precision comic timing and humorous use of physical space for the small screen. The Mark Mothersbaugh score and clockwork editing and a lively soundtrack make this one of the most formally successful network comedy pilots, or comedy pilots of any sort, in recent years and I hope that many of these formal and technical aspects are remembered come Emmy time.
But don't get the impression that construction of “Last Man on Earth” supersedes its heart, which comes largely courtesy of series creator and star Will Forte, who wrote the opening installments — Emily Spivey wrote the March 8 episode, with Jason Woliner directing — and gives a performance which follows his “Nebraska” work in underlining just how versatile he can be, even within the same projects.
More after the break, but that's probably enough of a review without saying anything more, eh?
The plot of “The Last Man on Earth” is pretty simply summed up in the title of “The Last Man on Earth,” which is pretty convenient.
Will Forte plays Phil Miller — Chris Lord was taken? — the last man on Earth in the aftermath of some sort of apocalyptic event that has left the planet entirely depopulated, including animals. Whatever the event was, there are no bodies and the disrepair is negligible. If you were all Revelations-inclined, you might wonder if Phil Miller has been Left Behind, but that Nicolas Cage move led me to believe that when the Rapture comes, many people will be left behind and also there will be plane and car crashes and stuff.
This apocalyptic vision is closer to the early moments of “28 Days Later,” minus the zombies, in that Phil Miller is the lone occupant of a barren, empty world. In early moments we see him searching the country, but mostly he's occupying his time as best he can and in ways that are similar to the ways many of us would fill time once we mostly passed through the phase of sadness and grief and moved into the phrase of stir-crazy loneliness.
The inspired sense of isolated anarchy that Forte and Lord & Miller generate is one version of “The Last Man on Earth” at its finest. While Forte sometimes chatters with God or inanimate friends, the story unfolds as a series of silent cinema jokes with an expert sense of ever-escalating punchlines. It's never enough to introduce one time-killing diversion — say “parking lot bowling” — without finding the two or three next levels the diversion can and would be taken to if you found yourself in a world without limitations and with nobody around to get in your way and judge you. There are little gems of unfurling comic set-pieces, with Lord & Miller reveling in introducing chaos into tableaus of serenity or soundscapes of peace. These realizations of the fruits of the idle mind are reminders that Lord & Miller come from an animation world in which any idea can be realized.
This extends into the production design as well. I suspect you could spend an extra hour watching “The Last Man on Earth” pausing your DVR and visually unpacking the layers of accumulated detritus, filth and salvaged memorabilia that fill Phil's suburban Tucson mini-mansion.
The first time I watched “The Last Man on Earth,” I was taking notes on the things that made me laugh.
The second time I watched “The Last Man on Earth,” I laughed a lot, but I found myself taken by the way that the stillness in the landscape and the stillness in one side of Forte's performance also accentuate a sadness and humanity. Forte's line readings make the most of every word, but he pulls mirth and misery in the same breath. And his eyes are equally expressive of lachrymosity and lunacy. I feel like making Buster Keaton comparisons are too easy, but they're also too on-point to resist. “Nebraska” made use of similar Forte attributes, recognizing how much he can conceal in seeming calmness. Will Forte can romance a mannequin and make it funny, pathetic, creepy and normal. I think Forte is doing many of the same things Louis C.K. is doing on “Louie,” only with perhaps more zaniness, and I'd hope to see them going head-to-head for Emmys next year.
You've gotten that I'm strongly recommending “The Last Man on Earth” and I'll simply end by telling you that it premieres Sunday, March 1 on FOX.
But before I go, I have include a line or two of spoilers.
[STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO REMAIN UNSPOILED: The “Last Man on Earth” producers want certain things to remain unsullied and that's fine, though said things have been reported either during pilot season last year or at TCA Press Tour. I'm not going to tell you when or in what capacity Kristen Schaal appears, but it seems pointlessly disingenuous to review a show I really like without giving some praise to an element of the show that I find to be deserving of praise. Actually, it seems verging on cruel, because this post isn't a promo for “Last Man on Earth.” It's a review and Kristen Schaal's performance, driven as always by her expressive voice, but also showcasing a vulnerability I don't think I've ever seen from her before, is a major piece of my confidence in the sustainability of the premise. Is she in flashbacks? Is she a hallucination? Is she the voice of a talking wiffleball? I'm not going to say. But she's great.]
“The Last Man on Earth” premieres at 9 p.m. on Sunday, March 1 and goes to its regular 9:30 Sunday time period on March 8.