‘Last Man On Earth’ Isn’t The Show We Thought It’d Be, But It’s Still Pretty Friggin’ Good

The pilot episode of Last Man on Earth covers a lot of ground. Literally. The first shot is of Phil Miller, our bearded hero played by Will Forte who’s survived the mysterious “virus,” driving a dust-covered bus past a “You Are Now Leaving Arizona” sign. He’s on his way to Idaho… where he finds no other humans. Then Washington, Minnesota, Illinois, Utah. Nothing. Eventually every state in the country has an “X” through it on Phil’s map. He’s all alone, which is what I thought the comedy was going to be about, at least for the first season. Phil traveling around the country, doing all the things that everyone wants to do — like take home a dinosaur skull — but can’t, because apparently swimming in a margarita kiddie pool isn’t “socially acceptable.” But in the closing seconds of the series premiere, Phil finds a pair of underwear that belongs to Carol, who followed his “Alive in Tucson” signs to the desert.

Phil and Carol set up shop in Arizona, where they soon meet other survivors, including portly Todd (Mel Rodriguez), drunken Gail (Mary Steenburgen), sweet Erica (Cleopatra Coleman), alpha male Phil (Boris Kodjoe), and quietly sarcastic Melissa (January Jones). Gradually, the show began to defy expectations again. It became less about the boredom of living through the apocalypse (Phil’s friends pre-Carol are a gaggle of sports balls) and more about the joy, and occasional frustration, of communities. Then Last Man on Earth throws us another narrative curveball by introducing Phil’s brother, Mike (Jason Sudeikis), the last man off Earth. He’s an astronaut stuck in outer space, kept company only by his research worms. You think talking to a volleyball is sad? Try having a conversation with a dumb worm. Mike was Major Tom without a ground control — there’s nothing he can do, except attempt to return to Earth in a landing capsule. His descent is paralleled with Gail struggling to save the other Phil, whose appendix burst. Mike succeeds; Gail fails. Only one Phil remains.

From that point on, Last Man on Earth became as much a drama as a comedy. For everything good that happened, like Mike’s safe return to Earth, something equally horrible occurred, like Mike being held captive by a man named Pat (Mark Boone Junior). Only a rip in his hazmat suit saves Mike’s life. Phil and company give the other Phil a Viking funeral; his coffin washes back ashore. Phil comes around to having a baby with Carol; he finds out he’s sterile. Phil and Mike reunite (and sing a surprisingly touching duet to “Falling Slowly” from Once on repeat); Mike contracts the virus and starts coughing up blood. His death all but certain, and not wanting to infect his new friends or Erica and Carol’s unborn children, a quarantined Mike leaves the group in the middle of the night. That’s where the season two finale, which airs this Sunday, begins.

Last Man on Earth doesn’t pack its scripts with setup-punchline jokes (except for obviously terrible wordplay, like “You’re gonna be a godfather, too.” “I guess that’s better than being a Godfather III, boom.”) The humor can be dark, muted, melancholic, but the show’s that much better for it. The tone can turn from slapstick to tragedy in the blink of an eye, and both feel right (it’s also why, unlike most comedies, where you’d assume a big name like Jason Sudeikis, who plays Mike, will be fine, on this show, you’re not so sure). The characters, too, are now more well defined: Carol isn’t as much of a stick in the mud as she used to be, and Phil’s sweaty desperation to please everyone, though mostly himself, becomes heartbreaking when he’s frantically trying to save his brother. Forte’s Emmy nomination for acting was well deserved.

But the thing that’s impressed me the most about season two is how it’s a completely different show than I thought it was going to be. After the pilot, there’s very little motion — the gang seems content to stay in a single street in a single town in a single state, even though they could, conceivably, go anywhere in the entire world. Obviously, a part of this is behind-the-scenes budgetary concerns (I imagine the pilot cost at least twice as much as a normal episode), but the sedentariness works well in the context of the show. Phil, Carol, Gail, Todd, Erica, Melissa — they’re afraid of themselves, of being alone again (especially Gail, who sleeps with a doll that looks like her former-lover Gordon, played by Will Ferrell, and agrees to a polyamorous relationship with Melissa and Todd). It’s why they continue to live together, despite having little in common. Last Man on Earth could have stayed with Phil’s solo adventures around the world, and it might have been memorable. But it slowly became about the last people on Earth, and that’s been even better.