Almost three months ago, The Last Man On Earth ended the first half of their second season with the fates of astronaut Mike Miller (Jason Sudeikis) and the appendicitis-stricken Phil 2.0 up in the air. The last shot of “Silent Night” cut between scenes of Mike hurtling down to Earth in a fireball with his worm friend in tow and Phil 2.0 flatlining in makeshift surgery. A tense juxtaposition that the LMOE team had been slowly building to all season, it would be foolish and shortsighted to juggle both those storylines at once in their mid-season premiere. But with “Pitch Black,” the focus stays squarely with Mike as he lands off the coast of Miami, futilely water triking to find any human contact.

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Some of the best scenes in LMOE’s second season have been with Mike as he struggles to keep his sanity and stave off suicide in space because it recaptures the series’ initial sense of alienation. While Phil’s own alienation shifted and changed after he found Carol and the rest of the Tucson Crew, Mike was where Phil was at the beginning of the series: Alone, terrified, bored, and talking to things that can’t talk back. His decision to plummet back to Earth wasn’t an easy one, but it was one done out of necessity: There’s no point in being alive if it’s spent being alone.

But it’s not suddenly an easy journey when Mike gets back to Earth. After the initial joy of realizing that he and Phil, the worm, made it, he starts to lose his sanity yet again out in the ocean, envisioning a young Phil (Jacob Tremblay of the Academy Award-winning film Room) goading him into soldiering on. He’s relieved he finds a boat with food, water, and clean underwear, but he also discovers its owner Pat Brown (character actor Mark Boone Junior), a loner who believes that he is “the last man on Earth.” Though Mike and Pat initially bond over a bottle of Macallan 1939, a $10,000 bottle of scotch, Pat starts showing his true obsessive colors by watching him sleep and especially with his reluctance to bring Mike to land, citing the “pitch black” emptiness of American cities and the belief that the virus still exists in the air.

Part of what LMOE explores with “Pitch Black” is the idea of “the last man on Earth” as a state of mind rather than an actual reality. When Phil believed he was the last man on Earth, he went through a wide range of emotions, first embracing than eventually rejecting solitude; Mike kept trying to contact Earth every chance he got because he never gave up hope that someone was still out there looking for him. But Pat on the other hand seemed to use the virus as empty validation for a lot of his existing paranoia, like his anti-government views. When a global trauma like an apocalypse comes along, some people pine for the way things were, but others just accept the chaos a little too readily.

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It’s how Mike and Pat end up in Hazmat suits driving around empty streets as a way to prove to Mike that there’s no reason to hold out hope for other survivors, but when Mike finds Phil’s “Alive in Tucson” sign, Pat turns the corner and attacks him with a wrench. He spouts his theory that Tucson is a government booby trap and a secret crematorium, and that going there means certain death. But when Pat finds out that Mike’s Hazmat suit has ripped, he leaves him for dead anyway, giving Mike the freedom to head down to Tucson to find other survivors, even though what he’s looking for is no longer there.

The main problem with “Pitch Black” is its rhythm, which veers between low-key and rushed, so it doesn’t really give the audience a chance to delve into Mike’s psychology. When Mike wasn’t the main focus in an episode, the LMOE writers did so much with so little, expressing internal pain and exhaustion with one or two shots, aided of course by Sudeikis’s performance. But “Pitch Black” doesn’t really allow us to engage with Mike’s loneliness and fear outside of his visions of Young Phil, which are cute but ultimately feel out of place in the episode. Since Mike spends most of the episode negotiating his situation with Pat, it becomes more about Mike’s struggle to escape the clutches of a friend-turned-enemy. While the scenes of them on the boat together have an ambling, dread-filled quality to them, the tension becomes much more manufactured when they get onto land. Part of this is a running time issue, as there’s only so much meandering you can do in a 22-minute network comedy, but it’s almost as if there’s some kind of reservation about having only one person on screen for so long, even though some of the best episodes of LMOE focus on physical and emotional solitude.

Nevertheless, it’s Sudeikis and Boone Junior’s performances that really carry “Pitch Black,” as the former’s earnest curiosity about the world he left behind and the latter’s fear of what the world has become make compelling character studies. Plus, it’s still genuinely exciting to see a network comedy try to shake things up by playing with different modes every week. The LMOE team could have easily set their return episode back with the Tucson crew that we’ve come to know and love, but instead they rolled the dice with a narratively small-scale excursion with Mike at the helm. Sitcoms thrive on familiarity and consistency, and while there’s plenty of experimentation that can be done within that, it’s good to see a show that swings big in its own way even when it occasionally misses. What makes LMOE one of the most interesting network comedies on television right now is its insistence to push against the confines of a typical “network comedy.” Some weeks it’s a conflict-driven ensemble comedy, and other weeks it’s a strange side-trip with an astronaut and a mad seamen coming to terms with the new world order. In short: Welcome back, The Last Man On Earth.

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Stray observations

  • Welcome back to The Last Man On Earth coverage! Glad to see those who have returned to read these weekly write-ups.
  • In case anyone’s interested, Den of Geek’s Daniel Kurland did an episode-by-episode walkthrough of the first half of the second season with executive producer and writer Andy Bobrow, formerly of Community fame. Some interesting insights in there on how the series has developed and some of the behind-the-scenes challenges.
  • Some really good music in tonight’s episode. There was “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” by Willie Nelson and “Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band.
  • Though Young Phil felt weirdly shoehorned into the episode, it’s always funny to see a talented child actor saying things like “fart face” and “flippin’ turd.”
  • The one really sweet scene on land has to be Mike and Pat playing tennis in the Hazmat suits. That kind of sweet strangeness is LMOE’s bread and butter.
  • In case you were worried about Phil the worm, Pat seems to be taking good care of it on his boat while Mike goes to search for other survivors.
  • Pat’s boat is named Deez Knots, which was probably my biggest laugh of the night.
  • Another funny scene was Mike’s explanation of black holes to Pat: “The accepted term now is African American hole.”
  • “Beer, she is a sweet, sweet mistress.”
  • “There’s a very good chance he’s gonna kill and eat me.”
  • “Yeah, I’m more of a skin guy myself.”
  • “That’s game! You owe me a Lamborghini!”
  • “I miss the noise, you know? The sounds of cars driving, horns honking, people talking and laughing, radios. It’s just…so empty.”

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