Imagine, if you will, that you’re the last person on Earth.
You travel the entire country looking for another living soul. You find no one. You try to make the best of your situation. You rob and raid the nation’s most priceless treasures. You take over a large mansion in your hometown. You break stuff. You blow shit up. You make the world your own personal parking spot. You have fun. You become lonely. You pray. You pray for any sign of another human being. You see no one. You start to lose your grip on reality. You talk to yourself. You talk to sports balls. You fall in love with mannequins. You become depressed. You realize no one’s coming. You decide to kill yourself.
You see smoke in the distance. You follow it. You find its location. You see fire. You see clothes. You see signs of life. You see another human being. Your prayers have been answered. God took pity on you. God gave you life.
And then you slowly but surely fuck it all up.
If there was one major problem with the first season of The Last Man On Earth it’s that it really buried the lede. It wasn’t the story of a man coping with loneliness and depression as he struggles with being the sole survivor of a global viral extinction as the pilot alluded. Instead, it was the story of man struggling to reconnect with humanity and discovering along the way that he’s terrible at the one thing he desperately needs to survive, i.e. people. Every week last season, protagonist Phil Miller learned that the selfishness he indulged in when he was alone couldn’t drive his actions when he lives amongst people. He learned the hard way that actions have far-reaching consequences, and that there are no shortcuts to being a good person. It takes hard work, dedication, and a core selflessness that requires constant maintenance and upkeep. The Last Man On Earth was about how the true test of empathy is to connect with people who are not like you. If you constantly act upon your own self-interest, you’ll slowly drive people away, no matter how few people are actually left on Earth.
That’s not to say that The Last Man On Earth’s first season was perfect. At its worst, it was one-note, shrill, and obnoxious, leaning on Phil’s core selfishness a little too harshly, as Will Forte channeled the incorrigible David Brent a little too well. But I also believe the show overall got a bum critical rap. At its best, The Last Man On Earth made a profound argument for the necessity of other people by illustrating what happens when you don’t take them seriously. It also illustrated the difficulties of being a good person, and that no matter how many second chances you get from the Heavens, it’s all for nothing unless the goodness comes from within. By the end of last season, Phil is cast out into the desert and left for dead, realizing that he fucked up his opportunity for a second life, only for Carol to take pity upon him at the last possible second. They drive off into the great unknown as they start over yet again with a host of experiences and endless possibilities.
We pick up six months later as Will and Carol travel the entire country looking for a new home. They’ve landed in D.C. and have shacked up in the White House. The two have re-married and have settled into their relationship nicely, sharing in each other’s indulgences instead of fighting against them. (Phil and Carol wading together in their homemade margarita pool in the Oval Office may be one of the sweetest images on TV this year). They’re goofing off and having fun together. But the problem still stands: They still haven’t found a home. A real home. And Carol longs for the company and presence of other people, which inevitably means returning to Tucson and to those who cast Phil out.
Understandably, Phil isn’t having it. Tensions finally come to a head when Phil brings Carol back to her old apartment in Delaware. When she still doesn’t think it’s the right place to settle down, Phil puts his foot down and demands that Carol either be with him or not, but that they’re never going back to Tucson. This causes a rift between them, and when Phil stops for gas, he accidentally leaves Carol behind when she steps out of their RV to bedazzle an Oklahoma t-shirt. Phil doesn’t realize it until long in the night and goes on a desperate, but futile hunt for his caring wife.
Meanwhile, out in space above the Earth, Phil’s astronaut brother Mike (Jason Sudeikis), introduced at the very end of last season reaching out to a desolate Houston, searches for human life down below. He’s in a similar situation Phil was in at the beginning of the series, but instead of talking to sports balls, he’s talking to worms (Terry and Nancy, specifically). The loneliness is starting to get to Mike as well, as he’s slowly realizing that there may not be anybody left on his own planet, and that his companions (worms) are slowly dying off.
Though Mike’s scenes may initially seem disconnected from the Earth-bound plot with Phil and Carol, they illustrate the core sadness at the heart of The Last Man On Earth. Two of the most tragic images in the entire premiere are of Mike placing Nancy’s nametag on a list of worms that have previously died, and the close-up of Phil driving as he says to himself through tears, “I beefed it. I beefed it bigger than I’ve ever beefed it,” realizing he may have lost the one person left on Earth who actually gives a shit about him. The series constantly argues that living with other people, whether in a planet that’s populated or deserted, isn’t easy, but the alternative is so much worse. It’s that knowledge, plus a quick look through Carol’s sketch book, that drives Phil to do the one thing he doesn’t want to do: Drive to Tucson to find Carol.
But Phil finds something else entirely. The whole town is deserted. The Tucson crew packed up and left. And they burned Phil’s house before they bounced (or at least it seems that way). As Phil stands in the wreckage of his former home, he wonders if he’s truly alone yet again. But what’s great is how the series has expanded that question to two other people: Mike in space, and poor Carol as she waits patiently at the Valero station where Phil left her (Phil thought it was a Speedy Pump, even though Gary the soccer ball told him it wasn’t).
Judging from the premiere, the series has listened to some of the criticisms leveled against it during its first season. They’ve toned down Phil’s worst qualities and they’ve moved the series away from the “us against them” shtick. Personally, these things never bothered me. In fact, I kind of relished the idea of a network sitcom with a boldly unlikable protagonist. But I also understand the need for a series to progress, and what’s wonderful is how easily The Last Man On Earth has done so. It’s become warmer and more inviting without losing what made it special. And though the premiere naturally had to do some table setting for the rest of the season, and it’s clear the series is still relying on “shocking” reveals to end episodes (easily my least favorite quality of the first season), I’m genuinely excited to see where The Last Man On Earth goes from here. It has all the ambition and talent to go to the far reaches of space. And maybe while they’re there, they can swing by and pick up Mike. He seems a bit lonely up there.
- Hey there. I’m Vikram Murthi and I’ll be taking over from Caroline Framke on The Last Man On Earth beat. I hope I can do as well as she did last season.
- Enormous credit to Will Forte and Kristen Schaal who have a tremendous rapport together. Although they were at each other’s throats during much of last season, they’ve settled into a comfortable marital routine that’s very believable and heartfelt.
- Also props to setting the “goofing off” montage to The Kinks’ “Till The End Of The Day,” which is a phenomenal song.
- I love the series’ commitment to continuity. There’s Carol shooting the door of the grocery store in the beginning a la Phil in the pilot; Phil’s refrain of “Boom. I still got it.”; the return of Phil’s sports balls, etc.
- Biggest laugh of the night: Phil blasting M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” in the car with the song’s gunshot samples drowning out Carol’s actual gunshots.
- I really hope the series returns to Mike out in space, for no other reason than to showcase Sudeikis’ acting chops.
- Carol’s knitting group was called K.W.A.: Knittaz With Attitude.
- “I don’t know how to put a bomb back in that little thingy.”
- “And in short, my position on Syria is I dunno.”
- “Talk about winning the arms race!”
- “Look, I don’t mean to be insulting here, but you’re worms, okay, you’re not thinking this through.”
- “Ooh, Carol. Where did you get such an expensive T-shirt? In the jewel markets of Monaco?”
- “Dammit! There’s infinity Speedy Pumps!”
- “I guess it’s just you and me, bud.”