Phil Miller might be the last man you’d expect to be the last man on earth. He’s no doomsday prepper; he’s no action hero. Just your average middle-aged white guy who likes Star Wars, Twinkies, and sex. With his bushy beard and paunch, hoodie and baggy khaki shorts, Phil looks like a grizzled slacker Jesus. We meet him in 2020, crisscrossing the country in a motor home searching for signs of life in the aftermath of a pandemic. He finds none, and so he retires, as many snowbirds in their twilight do, to Arizona, where he moves into an abandoned McMansion with a host of cultural treasures he’s purloined during his travels. Van Gogh’s Irises. King Tut’s sarcophagus. An Oscar or two. He kills time bowling, drinking, grocery “shopping” in his underwear, critiquing Tom Hanks’ survival strategies in Cast Away, pining for female companionship, and drinking some more. And then a lot. Until the day comes when he decides to give up and kill himself.
The Last Man on Earth is the ultimate Gen-X dystopian fantasy, but with a sober twist that makes it more like that Twilight Zone episode about Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse, tailored to a hyper-relational social-media age. Hooray! Phony, rotten civilization has finally fallen away! We can play with our toys and talk about pop culture and just hang out and chill…except everyone’s dead. Womp-womp!
Downer, huh? Except it’s not. The Last Man on Earth is a comedy, and possibly one of the season’s best new shows. (Fox supplied only two episodes for review, hence the “possibly” hedge.) Will Forte, the show’s creator and star, gifted at character-oriented comedy and poignancy (see: his eight seasons on SNL; his revelatory big-screen turn in Nebraska), keeps Phil light, grounded, affecting. The images are breakdown poetic, the pacing is brisk, the tone is gritty-sweet. There’s a great scene when Phil engages a mannequin with romantic banter and convinces himself of having a genuine moment of human connection until a gag shatters the illusion. The direction by Phil’s namesakes, Phil Lord and Chris Miller (The LEGO Movie creators), the performance by Forte, and the timing are just perfect. “You win,” Phil sighs to the heavens. “You win.” It’s hilarious and heartbreaking all at once.
The first two episodes demonstrate huge imagination for entertaining scenarios that express Phil’s existential struggle. There are things we can’t discuss here for spoiler reasons, things that take the show deeper, that beg reflection on the point and value of societal rules and norms. If Team Forte can sustain the ingenuity, surprises, and craftsmanship, The Last Man on Earth, a profoundly funny comedy about the least funny of things—loneliness—might live long and prosper. A–