The best thing about Fox’s The Last Man On Earth is its dishonesty. More specifically, it has thus far shown us an aggressive willingness to turn familiar tropes incisive criticism of its titular character, something that feels very, very, very unexpected, and you can tell just how unexpected it is by the way that I italicized that last ‘very.’
But let’s start a bit earlier – after an apocalyptic plague wipes out humanity, there is only Will Forte’s Phil Miller, crisscrossing the country in a Winnebago as he hunts for any other survivors. He finds none. He paints his location on billboards hoping that somebody will come to visit him in Tucson, but nobody does, until finally, out of a sort of lonely madness, he prepares to kill himself. It was predictable then that it was only in his depression’s deepest depths would he run across Kristen Schaal’s Carol, a woman who had seen his billboards and had come to Arizona looking for him.
He is thankful to have found somebody – anybody – but is quickly put off by some of Carol’s more tedious behaviors, including correcting grammar, adhering to a long-gone framework of law, and, perhaps most importantly, insisting upon marriage before executing her plan to repopulate the planet.
The Last Man On Earth necessarily strays into dark territory. The entire population is gone and what we’re seeing here is a sort of comic survival. Fortunately it’s not the sort of grimy nightmare that The Walking Dead happily wallows – “JUST LOOK AT ALL OF OUR SUFFERING!” might as well be that show’s tagline – but rather, one wherein using the neighbor’s pool as a horrific outdoor toilet is part of the day-to-day.
Phil agree’s to Carol’s marriage demands, because honestly, why not? They’re the last two people on earth, something that remains true long enough for the ceremony and a few formal attempts at Earth’s repopulation. Then January Jones’s Melissa Shart shows up. (That last name makes for a grand total of one joke, and if you’re put off by it, please remember that these are characters we know to be using a swimming pool for a toilet.)
I praised this show’s dishonesty and with Melissa’s arrival makes that dishonesty more transparent: Phil isn’t just the last man on earth; he’s the worst man on earth. Early concern trolling worried that this show might end up being all of the same “Women are such a drag!” jokes that television has routinely served up over its long history. Was Kristen Schaal (who now has three bonkers characters on television: Bob’s Burgers‘ Louise, Gravity Falls‘ Mabel, and now Carol) really just going to be a shrew wife dragging down the man she forced to marry her? In a word: no. Phil longs for Melissa and makes pathetic attempts to arrange their three-person society in such a way as to make sure that he gets everything he wants from it. His privileged expectations go exactly nowhere as Carol and Melissa remain practical and friendly and, most importantly, honest. And even on the occasions that they acknowledge his wants – they agree to occasionally share Phil sexually, if only so that future generations will be able to minimize incest – they control this plan with boundaries and the expectations. Phil then is being managed by Carol and Melissa. He is essentially an unlikably whiny child stuck in a man’s body and they both know it.
Before the sexual arrangement can be triggered though, Todd shows up. Carol longs for him immediately if for no other reason than he isn’t Phil. And as before, Phil tries manipulating his way through to getting what he wants, repeatedly setting Todd up for failure in front of Melissa including pointed efforts to note that Todd is overweight. Everybody knows and nobody cares. Phil’s bullying goes nowhere and he eventually concedes that he’s gone off the deep-end, apologizing at length to Melissa for his behavior before playing what he imagines to be his trump card: a confession to Melissa that he is in love with her. Phil imagines that this is going to go over like gangbusters, as he’s had his moment of enlightenment, which is surely all that Melissa really expected him to have. Except that his confession doesn’t go over like gangbusters. Melissa shuts it down and Phil retreats again.
This then isn’t a show about women ruining men – this is a show about a man’s expectations for how the world will work getting him nothing that he wants. This stands in violation of so much television that we have seen. It’s a welcome change to our media’s usual approach.
Which is why I’m having no problem imagining its cancellation. Even though ratings have been ticking upward, is network television really the sort of place where something like The Last Man On Earth can survive? Ideally yes. Realistically no.
Watch it then while you can.