For the longest time, The Last Man on Earth felt like two shows competing for supremacy under the same title. Show A was an alternately melancholy and absurd comedy about how the few survivors of a global pandemic deal with the end of the world as they knew it, while Show B was a more conventional hang-out comedy that just happened to be set in a post-apocalyptic world. Last Man started off as Show A, but almost immediately turned into Show B, with occasional Show A episodes feeling both delightful and frustrating, because they represented how great the series could be if it ever stopped telling stories about how annoying Will Forte’s Phil (aka Tandy) was to everyone else in their small group.
Show A is the more difficult one to pull off logistically (it often involves big outdoor set pieces designed to show the alien emptiness of the world) and tonally (since it tends to be dark bordering on suicidal), so I can’t exactly blame Forte and the rest of the creative team for leaning towards Show B most of the time. But the gap in quality eventually became so huge — and the mortifying predictability of Phil’s gaffes too much to sit through at times — that I soon learned to tune out the Show B episodes within a few minutes and accept them as the cost of periodically getting to watch Show A. Show B got better — especially once all its stories stopped being about Phil’s attempts to have sex with the beautiful Melissa (January Jones) as he realized that he actually loved his new wife Carol (Kristen Schaal) rather than feeling annoyed to be stuck with her — but the quality gap was still too wide to ignore.
This season, though — and particularly over the last month or so — Last Man has figured out a way to be both shows at the same time.
Ironically for a season where the group is now living in a San Jose office building with self-sustaining water and power, and thus get to again enjoy toilets that flush and lights that turn on, it’s been the show’s darkest overall season so far, making the alienation and anxiety of the characters’ strange new lives a constant source of material, rather than an occasional breather from an excruciating half-hour of Tandy failing to read the room.
The season began with a Mad Men in-joke, as Melissa shot and killed another survivor played by Jon Hamm, and ever since we’ve watched her unravel mentally, to the point where she’s dressing as Andy from her beloved Shawshank Redemption(*) and walking around with a baby doll strapped to her belly to represent the child that all the men in the group are now too scared to help her have.
(*) I didn’t know that I needed January Jones doing Shawshank cosplay in my life, but apparently I did — especially if it goes hand-in-hand with Mel Rodriguez’s delightful impression of Morgan Freeman as Red.
Melissa’s mental descent has been the most stark, but season 3 has dived headfirst into the sadness of it all, as the survivors have each grappled with the realization that this is what the world is like now and there’s no going back. That’s always been a topic on some level, but usually downplayed in favor of Tandy making an ass of himself. Now, though, Forte and the other writers have dialed Tandy back to the level of the annoying loved one the others — even group newcomer Lewis (Kenneth Choi) — just accept because he’s part of the family, which has allowed more room for the complicated emotional reality of it all. (It helps that the motives behind his annoying behavior have been much more pure of late; a well-meaning idiot is much easier to take week after week than a selfish one.)
Last month’s “The Open-Ended Nature of Unwitnessed Deaths” — where Tandy forcibly took Lewis on a road trip to Seattle in search of the husband Lewis believes is dead, then went back to Tuscon in search of closure for his presumed dead brother Mike — was either the series’ best episode ever or its best since the pilot. The grief went hand in hand with the comedy — it helps that Tandy’s wearing exaggerated fake eyebrows these days while his real ones grow back following a Mike prank in season 2, which makes him a walking sight gag no matter what else is happening in a scene — and rather than seeming to contradict each other, the show’s two halves are now making each other better.
The next episode, “Whitney Houston, We Have a Problem” (it airs, like usual — give or take a football-related delay — Sunday at 9:30 on Fox) picks up on a pair of cliffhangers from the previous episode: Melissa has apparently run away, while Gail (Mary Steenburgen) is trapped in an elevator in another part of the office park, with no power and no one in the group even aware of her location. As has been the case of late, it’s part cartoon (Phil spends much of the episode wearing a dinosaur suit, just because), part horror story, and part solo act, with the always wonderful Steenburgen getting a particularly strong spotlight as Gail tries to figure her way out of a situation that would be routinely solved pre-virus and now feels like an inescapable death trap.
Forte’s love of uncomfortable humor means there’s likely to be an episode soon, or even a whole streak of them, that leave me cringing as I wish for the good old days when Phil was living up to the show’s title and just finding bizarre ways to make his lonely life more bearable. For the moment, though, my hope-watching has paid off beautifully, with a show that seems to have finally figured out how to more consistently live up to the vast potential of its premise and all the talent involved.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org