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.