With “Screw the Moon,” The Last Man on Earth concluded its first season on Fox with mixed results. The post-apocalyptic series started off with a hugely bold and unique premise that was executed in a surprisingly cinematic way (especially for a comedy). Phil Miller (Will Forte) appeared to truly be the lone survivor of a mysterious illness that wiped out the rest of the planet.
For that first episode, Phil dawdled around his hometown of Tucson, setting things on fire and crashing through storefronts, allowing Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse” to run wild. Because why not? That nihilistic spirit, though, eventually led him to attempt suicide after the weight of his loneliness really settled in, but he was stopped by the show’s first big reveal: a second person.
From there, The Last Man on Earth began to change drastically. The revolving door of survivors became gimmicky; who might walk into town next? And instead of focusing on Phil’s attempts at survival, or drawing out — just a little bit longer — some of the issues relating to living out one’s life on a planet devoid of other life, it began to turn into a neighborhood comedy about the sexual politics of an Arizona cul-de-sac.
Much has been made, rightfully, about Phil being such an unlikable character. Though the reasoning has been more or less that his issues illustrate a man who is driven crazy by his situation (as Phil admits after one of his many confrontations with the group of survivors), it seems to be an insanity limited only to him. Everyone else is doing just fine.
That, though, is part of The Last Man on Earth‘s comedy; Phil is dick, and so all of his problems are of his own making. There’s some cheap humor to the revelation that beautiful, blonde Melissa (January Jones) falls for balding, overweight Todd (Mel Rodriguez), or that superman Phil 2.0 (Boris Kodjoe) is immediately drawn to the offbeat Carol (Kristen Schaal), but none of that ever landed as well as the inherently dark comedy of Phil and his bar full of ball friends, and his early flirtations with a mannequin — not to mention his early relationship with Carol and her many rules (in direct opposition to his desire for freedom).
It would have been one thing if Phil was just a complete turd and easy to root against, but that’s also not the case, which is a major part of Last Man‘s tonal inconsistency. Phil can be likable — or at least relatable and pitiable at times — which makes his follies (mostly around his lies) the most cringeworthy kind of cringe comedy. But throughout this first season, there was also a running disappointment that the initial, deeper threads of loneliness and the bleakness of a life without (seemingly) a future — and how that led to surprising comedy — were all wiped away in favor of focusing obsessively on Phil’s inability to get laid.
Early on, most of the references to the realities of survival were among the show’s best, from Phil’s toilet pool (and margarita pool) to the briefly-mentioned idea that TV is limited to what is left on the DV-Rs of the deceased, to the excitement over a cow providing them with dairy products. Last Man quickly proved, though, that it wasn’t interested in looking at the nuances of survival. Yet, how much could have been mined from that idea if it had? (Especially if it had acted as a satire on the deluge of apocalypse-set shows and movies).
“Screw the Moon” concluded the show’s first season with the idea that there are likely more people on Earth, and at least one still in space (Phil’s far more successful brother, played by Jason Sudeikis). But there was something even more important that was mentioned in the moments prior. Phil (a.k.a. Tandy) tells Carol there’s a lot she doesn’t know about him. It’s a reminder that even after all of this time, not only do we not really know much about Phil, but we know next to nothing about the other denizens of the cul-de-sac. That is particularly true of Erica (Cleopatra Coleman) and Gail (Mary Steenburgen), who were never anything more than a pair of sexual foils for Phil and then Phil 2.0.
There’s a feeling that Forte and executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller perhaps never thought their show would last as long as it did (especially on Fox, a network that’s usually quick to wield the ax), especially if it stayed on its original, avant-garde path. But the changed focus to obsessions over Phil’s sex life, and the petty politics of a group of neighbors, turned what could have been a spectacular inaugural season into just an ordinary one at best.
Phil was a fine guy in the pilot, completely lost his way in the middle episodes, and then managed to somewhat (with Carol’s help) start turning things around in the finale. That’s essentially been the trajectory of the series so far. Last Man has been renewed for a second season, and like Phil, it has the ability to start anew. It doesn’t need to scrap what it has, though. Like Carol’s decision to stay with Phil despite his antics, there’s an indefinable pull that Last Man has as a series, despite its own fits and starts.
If the end game is for Phil to start to become a great man after he learns how to master his id, that’s one hell of a long-haul regarding character development. But the magic of the show’s first episode remains a tantalizing echo. Like Phil’s brother’s calls to Earth, it just has yet to connect. But that doesn’t eliminate the hope that eventually it will.