The first few episodes of The Last Man On Earth were, as many have pointed out, like nothing else on television because of how spare, imaginative, and unpredictable they were. 20 episodes or so in, some of those qualities remain, but as the show’s second season has proceeded, it increasingly feels like nothing else on television in a different way: its use of the ensemble that formed after an intentionally slow roll-out (adding a character or two per week back in Season 1) and has sometimes disappeared from the picture (as in Season 2’s terrific opener). For most sitcoms, establishing a go-to cast of seven or so and then subdividing them into different combinations would be one step in the show gelling into a particular rhythm or sensibility. Last Man On Earth certainly has those last two things – plenty of moments in “Baby Steps” felt unique to this show – but it also has a way of keeping its ensemble intentionally un-gelled and its audience off-balance.

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Some of this has to do with point of view. Though there were a few solo shots in a near-closing montage in “Baby Steps,” almost all scenes of this series have either been from Phil’s point of view, or Carol’s. As such, it’s sometimes hard to get a read on the show’s supporting characters, and how empathetic we’re supposed to find them. Last season and earlier this season, the crew’s disdain for Original Phil felt mostly justified, something Phil himself has taken as a given even as he fumbles various attempts to prove that he’s changed. But their dislike for Phil came to feel (to me, at least – your humble substitute Last Man On Earth reviewer) cliquish and almost cruel, lacking the misguided hugeness of Original Phil’s weaknesses, but with a chilly haughtiness at its center. By last week, when Phil 2.0 quite reasonably recommended that the group relocate to a more sustainable (and perhaps less picturesque) home base, the group’s instincts, and its tendency to dismiss and/or gang up on anyone annoying them, felt almost self-destructive in their refusal to really consider Phil 2.0’s point.

Of course, Phil 2.0 has been one of those stubborn folks, too, before finding himself even more on the receiving end of their wrath in “Baby Steps.” At the end of last week’s episode, Erica announced that she was pregnant with Phil 2.0’s baby just after he announced his intention to leave Malibu and take Carol with him, if she’d go; this week, everyone shuns him despite his clear remorse over the timing of these announcements, to the point of siding with Phil (Tandy) in their physical altercation. Yet is it so wrong that Phil 2.0 no longer wanted to be in a relationship with Erica?

Part of what makes Last Man On Earth so interesting to watch – beyond the immediacy of Will Forte’s distinctive comic personality – is how difficult it is to define where these characters stand (and presumably this is intentional). Phil 2.0 makes a lot of sense, but has such confidence in his physical and intellectual superiority that he can be alienating, especially considering he seems to possess no discernible sense of humor, itself a bold gambit for a character on a comedy series. Carol is sweeter and less aggressive than Phil, but just as needy and off-kilter, as seen in this week’s obsessive inability to read Erica’s reaction to her unplanned pregnancy, even oohing and ahhhing over the “unplanned” part. Melissa, for her part, looks more than ever like the most famous January Jones alter ego, one Betty Draper, when she’s glimpsed ski-shooting smartphones. (A cigarette isn’t hanging from her lips a la Betty in that first-season episode of Mad Men, but the sunglasses almost suffice as a replacement.) The group as a whole, in insisting that Phil 2.0 spend time in the stockades, acts both fairly in terms of consistency and pettily in attempting to enforce rules that seem increasingly based in cruel judgment of others.

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So Last Man On Earth is not a show where everyone is pretty much a selfish asshole, like Seinfeld or its more extreme descendants like It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. It’s a show where everyone can be kind of a selfish asshole, which in turn can make its larger story arcs harder to track. It sometimes fixates on those bigger plot points for longer than necessary, but in general “Baby Steps” continues this season’s fascinating mixture of serialized storytelling and the kind of micro-concerns that have been with the show since the first episode. Phil is no longer alone in the world, but most episodes do take time out for little solo (or two-person) showcases, like Phil loading a pick-up truck full of tortilla chips (except Scoops) to get back in Gail’s good graces, or his extended attempts to move Phil 2.0 off of the beach, and out of danger of drowning, using only his non-brute strength and the surfboard Melissa claims as her own. By continuing to utilized these little set pieces even after Phil has found his ensemble cast of wacky (which is to say dysfunctional) neighbors, The Last Man On Earth emphasizes the everyday difficulties of its brightly lit wasteland.

It’s exactly these difficulties that a lot of the group seems content, for the moment, to ignore. Does repopulating this unknown world seem scary or unpredictable? Just swear off having kids! Does Phil 2.0 have inconveniently conflicting feelings about fatherhood, which he seems very open to, and the mother of his child, who he probably doesn’t love? Just ignore him! In “Baby Steps,” where so many of the characters are seen rolling solo, pursuing their own idle interests (no gold-bar Jenga this week), one of the show’s themes seems clear: You can still be alone or lonely even after you’ve found other survivors.

Stray observations:

  • I know Original Phil was faking them, but I do so enjoy Forte’s guttural pain moans.
  • Original Phil shows a hilariously weak grasp of Meg Ryan’s movies and Andy Garcia’s voice, which adds up to a hilariously distorted memory of the movie When A Man Loves A Woman.
  • Peter, by the way, is the only one of Phil’s original spherical friends to have seen When A Man Loves A Woman.
  • At one point in his running monologue as he “helps” Phil 2.0, Forte refers to his sorta-enemy as “fartface.” It’s probably just a phrase Forte likes, but I can fantasize that it was a tip of the cap to the Forte faithful.
  • Thanks to the awesome Vikram Murthi for allowing me to fill in this week! He’ll be back next week. Though I’ve now subbed for Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Last Man On Earth, I don’t imagine I’ll be popping into Family Guy, and not just because it isn’t being covered this season.

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