If there was no one to tell you no, no boundaries or barriers or faux pas or structure or indeed, no one at all, what would you do? It’s the year 2020, and everyone on Earth as been wiped out from a mysterious virus except one man. In Fox’s refreshingly unusual new series The Last Man on Earth, that man — Will Forte‘s Phil — searches for survivors in the lower 48 before settling into a life of extremes and complete freedom. He grows a Biblical beard and runs around in his underwear, entering stores by shooting open their doors, crashing cars together, and drinking $10,000 wine paired with Spaghettios. Every destructive impulse you’ve ever stopped yourself from doing for fear of repercussion is no longer an issue, and Phil takes full advantage of that. It’s a dystopian fantasy.
But that impulse soon grows old, and the lack of running water and electricity makes Phil turn the pool of the mansion where he is now living into a giant toilet. Five months into his life alone, he’s essentially living at Grey Gardens, and has one-upped Tom Hanks‘ Castaway volleyball-friend with a bar full of them. Almost two years later, he falls into an existential funk where he is ready to give up. And then, there’s a sign he may not be alone.
The ideas that Last Man plays with in its first half hour (which will be the length of subsequent episodes) are both funny and complex. Phil relishes in the infinite possibilities his solo status affords him, while battling off crippling loneliness, which he addresses at God (to whom he is at first defiant, and later acquiesces, “you win”). There are plenty of gags about priceless artifacts he collects on his trip across the United States looking for others, but it’s all tempered with the much darker, Twilight Zone-esque realization that none of them have any meaning or value anymore. Phil’s halcyon experience of limitless solitary soon becomes a suffocating prison.
Last Man is a very avant-garde idea, at least to start. It begins as largely silent, and there’s a fear the show will just be Phil wandering around and slowing losing his mind. But even if that’s what it was, it would still be utterly compelling television, because Forte completely embodies the Everyman of Phil, struggling to make the best of what he’s lost. That makes sense, since Forte wrote the pilot, which is fantastically directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, a duo well-versed in layered comedy (they directed and wrote The Lego Movie, among many others).
The press rounds for The Last Man on Earth have revealed that Forte has co-stars, but their exact roles are not known. For spoiler reasons, I won’t reveal what I have seen regarding that. But I will say that as difficult as Phil’s lonely life is, there are some grating reminders of why one would desire a world without people to begin with.
The lingering impression from the pilot, though, is Phil’s desperation, which includes a heartbreaking flashback, and one particularly tragic broken reverie. Last Man is still a comedy, though, and it’s a really, really good one. It may have a lonely road on Fox finding steady ratings, but hopefully viewers (and the network) won’t give up on it without first exploring its many creative possibilities.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
The Last Man on Earth premieres Sunday, March first at 9 p.m.