Fox's Weird Loners aren't quite weird or lonely enough
Plus, thoughts on 'The Last Man on Earth'
- TV Show
Weird Loners is a great title for a show that none of us wan,t but many of us actually need. I speak of the sadly single. The bachelors, the bachelorettes, the divorced, the separated, the widows and the widowers, the lonely-hearts and the broken-hearted. Anyone that walks around like that Paul Simon line: “Losing love is like a window in your heart. Everybody sees you’ve been blown apart. Everybody sees the wind blow.” Anyone for whom a there’s-someone-for-everyone, don’t-give-up-on-true-love, you’ll-love-again-you-lovable-loser! rom-com or pop song is a trigger that makes you want to kick the shit out of a Redbox, or punch the stereo in your car, or throw a carton of coconut milk at your home entertainment system. (I’m trying to eat healthier these days.)
Personally, repping the widower contingent, I yearn for a show that can express the quality of weirdness and loneliness I feel as a weird loner. Something wise, something sincere, something emotional but not sentimental, something funny—because man, I need the laughs.
When the pilot for Weird Loners showed up on my doorstep, I thought God was either answering a very small prayer (yes! A sitcom just for me!) or just being mean. But if you’re expecting a funny comedy about lovelorn, pal-challenged oddballs, ratchet down your expectations: Part of the problem with Weird Loners is that it doesn’t have the guts to give us nuts worthy of the title. There are flickers of reality in them, but they’re mostly pale shimmers of old Friends and other TV people.
Of the four leads, two are familiar, archly brewed rom-com archetypes in pretty Hollywood packaging. Caryn (Ugly Betty’s Becki Newton, still searching for a vehicle for her talents) is an attractive dental hygienist searching for a Mr. Perfect that can give her never-ending passion. Stosh (Happy Endings’ Zachary Knighton) is a wily, well-dressed, womanizing pig, a real Barney. Neither are alienated souls hurting for companionship; both are an attitude adjustment away from true love. Both actors are good, though, and it’s nice to see Knighton play something other than a nice guy for a change.
The other two characters come closer to living up to the branding, but their formulations of strangeness are either conventional or chaotic. Eric (Nate Torrence of Hello, Ladies) is Stosh’s cousin. He’s a cheerfully dim man-child who’s lived at home all his life, plays with puppets, and works on a bridge as a toll collector. So thisclose to being a troll. He’s grieving the death of his parents, and the second episode gives a story that allows him to play up his loneliness to an extreme, then fall into a zany scenario to assuage the ache. This is the (bitter)sweet-spot where the show should live. But so far, the extremes it gives Eric are cliché (he’s the scary-smothering new friend/roommate!), and the zany it gives him is just silly. Torrence can play the tones; give him some quality sheet music.
And then there’s Zara, played by Meera Rohit Kumbhani. Forgive me if go on about Zara. She’s a wry, flighty, emotionally detached painter who decided long ago that she no longer loved her boyfriend—but is only getting around to moving out on him as the series begins. (Artists. So lazy!) By the second episode, she’s a Buddhist, or an ironic Buddhist, or something Buddhist. She’s a supporting character in the sense that she’s used to support other characters—she facilitates catharsis for Eric’s grief by pretending to channel his dead dad. But I can’t figure out if she likes these people or is suffering them or both, just as I can’t figure out if Zara wears her glib quirkiness as a badge of pride or a shield to protect herself. With her wonderfully large eyes that seem to want to constantly roll and her deadpan sarcasm, Kumbhani recalls the Bill Murray school of can’t-be-bothered comedy. Or not. I can’t figure out Zara. Maybe I love Zara. So. Weird!
The premiere brings them all together as neighbors in contrived but amusing ways, except for the one that’s creepy and something of a miscalculation: Stosh responds to a smoke alarm going off in Caryn’s apartment while she’s making dinner, then forces more of his help on her, then starts helping himself to her. She doesn’t exactly say no, but her yes isn’t clear, either. Maybe this is just what happens when hot people chop vegetables together. Did I mention the meal they’re making is for the guy she’s agreed to marry, a “good guy” divorced dentist? So we don’t like either of these hideous twits by the time this scene finishes. (Spoiler alert: Everyone’s still a weird loner by the end.)
Weird Loners suggests the ribald single life comedy of New Girl with a dash of acerbic Seinfeldishness. It could have some punch and prick to it, but it feels pulled and sanded off. You can hear the studio notes in the subtext: Make ‘em weird and lonely, but not too weird and lonely. Bonding the gang into a band of sadsacks takes the sting out of the theme.
Weird Loners is one more show about that presents community as a balm to existential angst and pain and stuff (agreed), but makes it look so easy to come by. Television in general needs to get wiser and tougher with this theme. Sexy soul mates don’t grow on trees, and neither do soul magnets, study groups, glee clubs, or Parks and Rec staffs electric and fulfilling, with perfectly matched, opposites-attracting, can-we-fix-each-other?/YES-WE-CAN! camaraderie. The pilot ends with the loners consummating their new union by spying on a wedding, live snarking the vows between the between bride and groom, then crashing the reception. It’s funny and bitter, and it’s the best expression of a show that wants to have it all ways—but fails at being really good at any of them.
The Last Man On Earth is another comedy about weird loners, and another comedy that frustrates more than it pleases. It started strong. The pilot introduced us to Phil Miller (Will Forte, who also created the show), the sole survivor of a global apocalypse, and found both laughs and poignancy by watching him go to great lengths to stave off the loneliness that was slowly, surely degrading him toward despair. It also had great wish-fulfillment fun watching a man no longer bound by the terms, conditions, and limitations of social norms or social contract indulging in anarchic behavior. Plus, it gave us the long-awaited sight gag of a man using his fingers as Twinkie skewers. The moment when he broke into a dress shop and declared his love to a mannequin – a chance to rehearse his best, most romantic self and feel whole and vital again – was beautiful for its sadness and hilarious for its futility. Phil, trauma-rocked and lost, immediately won my own broken heart.
The episodes since then have failed to meet the standard of the premiere, and the thematic interest has shifted. Like the widower who hastily remarries 1.2 years on average* after the death of his wife, Last Man couldn’t stand to keep Phil alone for long. Our post-apocalyptic Adam got the Eve he pined for, but in a form he neither prayed for nor wanted.
Carol (Kristen Schaal)—a shrill stickler for rules and regulations no longer in effect—bothered many critics for being a cliché nag. What’s bothered me more is that in chasing the funny of two people with zero romantic chemistry, the show has wound up with two very fine comedians who, alas, don’t have great comic chemistry, either. (My opinion.) Still, I like Carol—I see her insistence on following social norms, however absurd and impractical, as an inspiring response to apocalypse, a strong effort to resist the temptation to despair, selfishness and nihilism (see Phil). And I like how she challenged Phil’s romantic self-image and dared him to live up to it. With a mannequin (and with his best friends, a collection of sport balls), he’s sweet, tender, soulful; with a real woman, he’s a coarse, intimacy-starved loon who can only think and express with his… well, balls. Ah, the male paradox.
This theme has only continued as more people have found their way toward Phil, including a woman that conforms more closely to Phil’s sexual ideal, Melissa (January Jones, formerly Betty Draper on Mad Men), and a rival for her affections, Todd (Mel Rodriguez), a more fully-realized, full-figured man.
Last Man has become another narrative about male deconstruction intertwined with another narrative about the difficulty and necessity of community. The supporting characters serve to redeem Phil—even after the end of the world, everything revolves around the miserable, entitled white guy—but it also judges him, and recent episodes have made it clear that the brave new world that they’re forming won’t tolerate his crap. “Just be a real person,” Melissa recently told our phony, always-on-the-make anti-hero—a line that full of ironic resonance, coming the former television wife of TV’s reigning, now outgoing toxic male phony, Don Draper.
Last week, Phil donned a hazmat suit to drain and clean up his reeking swimming pool-turned-cesspool for the sake of others—a man literally descending into his own toxic, poisonous s—t. The project defeated him, until catharsis renewed him, and he tackled it anew. For now, at least. I love these sly profundities. But this a comedy; why am I not laughing? It’s a mix of sharp and flat gags, chemistries that don’t click, and high-concept setpieces where humor is secondary to character—like the sequence when Phil attempted to maroon Todd in the desert but couldn’t bring himself to do it, facilitating a redemptive turn.
I care for Phil, and there’s much in his messy recovery from despair that speaks to and for me. I enjoy his companionship and the spectacle of his reconstruction. I just wish I was enjoying this weird loner more.