Television rarely acknowledges the daily struggle to be good person. Oh sure, there are plenty of prestige dramas about the trials and tribulations of being a bad person, and the occasional drama about how doing good deeds doesn’t pay, but I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the actual hard work it takes for someone not to be a dick. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that it’s really easy to assume your worst self because it’s functionally a default. It’s really easy to be selfish. It’s really easy to be bitter and angry towards others. It’s really easy to be frustrated by the present and cynical about the future. These are things that no one has to work at; for most people, it just comes naturally. But the harder choice to make is to be someone of substance, someone who accepts life’s challenges with good grace and exercises empathy and compassions towards their fellow neighbors. It’s not an easy choice. Hell, it’s not even a particularly fun choice. But it’s the right choice. It’s just hard work to wake up and consciously make the decision to be the best person you can be, even if that manifests itself in small, meaningless ways.
I love that The Last Man On Earth acknowledges this struggle by making its protagonist kind of a jerk. Phil is not only a jerk, but he’s a jerk for the most childish reason: He doesn’t get what he wants when he wants it. He can be selfish and mean because he doesn’t get his way, and his actions are characteristically “unlikeable,” that dreaded TV buzz term that tries to reduce all of the complexities of human personality to, “I don’t like that guy.” I can see people dismissing The Last Man On Earth just on the basis of Phil’s characterization, but I feel like that dismissal somewhat misses the point of the series. In the beginning, Phil drove around the country desperately trying to find another living soul, and when he couldn’t find one, he regressed into both existential and physical squalor. He tried to kill himself when he realized he couldn’t simply subsist on talking to inanimate objects, but when his prayers were suddenly answered in the forms of Carol, Melissa, and Todd, Phil then realizes possibly for the first time that he’s not great with other people either. By being alone on Earth, Phil didn’t need to make the choice to be a good person because there was no one else to witness it, but now that he’s not alone, he’s beginning to remember not only how difficult it really is to make that choice, but also what’s at stake when he doesn’t choose.
In “She Drives Me Crazy”/“Mooovin’ In,” Phil faces against his newfound enemy Todd, the all-around great guy that Phil wishes he could be. Todd is sweet and kind, helpful and pragmatic, and filled with a good-natured sense of humor. So naturally, Phil can’t stand him. Plus, Todd is sleeping with Melissa, the woman of his dreams, which sends Phil into jealousy overload. In “She Drives Me Crazy,” Phil hosts a town hall meeting to try and curtail Todd and Melissa’s non-stop sex. He wants to impose a noise ordinance because the two of them play Five Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” on full blast whenever they do it, but ultimately what gets decided is that Phil should clean out his disgusting toilet pool. When Melissa comes over the next day to apologize for their behavior, she sees the fruit of Phil’s labor: Him hunched over and crying in a hazmat suit covered in shit. It’s then that Phil finally asks Melissa about the road not taken, about what would have happened if Todd never showed up, but Melissa simply replies, “Todd is here.” Unfortunately, this gives Phil his worst idea yet: Drive Todd out to the middle of nowhere and leave him there like a dog.
Of course we know that Phil isn’t really going to follow through with it, but that doesn’t make that scene when he struggles with the decision to go back and retrieve Todd any less funny or poignant. Phil drives Todd out into the desert claiming that it’s a place where he goes to think, and then makes up a reason for him to get out of the car. He then takes off down the road only to stop on a dime and let out a terrifying anguished scream. He can’t do it. He wants to, but he just can’t do it. So Phil reverses to go back and get him, but then he changes his mind and takes off again. Then he stops once again and screams because he still can’t do it. This goes on for a little bit: Phil angrily driving off into the distance and then slowly reversing in guilt. I’m sure there are some who watch this scene and scoff at Phil’s behavior, but I see a desperate guy loudly and publicly struggling with being a good person. The easy choice would be to drive on down the road and leave Todd out there to suffer, but the harder choice is to take back the person who drove you into despair because it’s the right thing to do.
Todd, being the great guy that he is, knew in his heart that Phil was playing a joke on him and wouldn’t really leave him out there, and Phil plays along. Todd even buys Phil’s lie that the spot where he was going to abandon him is really the place he was taking him, so Todd and Phil both take a moment to silently reflect on their environment before returning home. On their way back, Phil guiltily turns to Todd and says that he’s sorry. “What are you sorry about?” Todd cheerfully asks. “Just trust me,” Phil replies. “I’m sorry.” Todd shakes his head and tells him he’s a really nice guy, unintentionally rubbing salt into Phil’s guilty wound. It’s a genuinely sweet moment because Phil’s admission feels earned in a way it sometimes hasn’t in past episodes. In fact, it’s that exchange that drives Phil to clean his toilet pool and install a porta-potty in his house because he realizes he could be a nicer person if he tried just a little bit.
The next episode “Mooovin’ In” is a bit of a letdown only because it covers the same thematic territory as “She Drives Me Crazy” just not as well. Phil, jealous by the positive attention Todd receives from Melissa and Carol, wants to do something to refocus the attention back on him. He remarkably stumbles onto a cow, a gift from the cosmos to bring back to the others. However, when Phil brings it back to the group, they balk at Phil’s request to kill it for meat and latch onto Todd’s dairy farming skills so they can have an endless supply of milk and cheese. This drives Phil nuts, so he steals the cow from Todd’s backyard in order to be the hero when he returns it.
Obviously, this plan backfires. Melissa sees right through it and heads straight for Phil’s bar where he hid the cow, but it’s nowhere to be seen. When Phil is out driving around trying to find it, he stumbles on Todd who has comfortably found the cow all on his own. Phil, frustrated by Todd’s continued success in this new world, is surprised when Todd says that he wants to say Phil found it. Todd tells Phil that he’s the reason why he has so much now. It was Phil’s “Alive in Tucson” signs and his fireworks that led him to the woman of his dreams and two close friends, so Todd wants to return the favor. Again, it’s a genuinely sweet moment made sweeter by the fact that Phil hears what he’s desperately wanted to hear from the guy who drives him crazy, but it just feels a little lacking compared to “She Drives Me Crazy.” Part of the reason why is because deck is stacked so high in Todd’s favor for no other reason than to drive the plot. Plus, the resolution feels a tad rushed even though the emotionality is on point. Finally, Phil’s actions are a little more predictable on the heels of the first episode of the night, so it just feels a bit underwhelming.
Nevertheless, I genuinely enjoy the direction The Last Man On Earth is taking because it’s asking a lot of uncomfortable questions, primarily, “What if you suck at the one thing you desperately need to survive?” Phil needs people, and yet he struggles with them every day. Sure, they maybe a little annoying, but they’re honest-to-God good people who don’t want to treat everything like a parking space. Yet, Phil can’t help himself from falling back on his default position. He’s frustrated by his situation and constantly tries to shortcut his way to the things he desires, but he fails every time. So, what else is left? Wake up the next morning and try to make the hard choice.
- I’m subbing in for Caroline this week. Hope I didn’t muck anything up while she’s gone!
- I’m constantly impressed by the direction in this series, especially Peter Atencio’s work in “She Drives Me Crazy.” He constantly employs long shots to underscore the loneliness of the group’s situation, but also for some great visual comedy, especially during the scene when Phil’s driving back and forth from Todd. Also, that one shot of Phil looking in his mirror with shame is just perfect.
- Forte deserves all the positive attention for the work he does on the show, but his knack for physical comedy is really something. The montage of him trying to clean the toilet pool is spectacular.
- Schaal was hysterical as a bit player in both of these episodes. Her delivery of, “Okay, I would like to vote to keep ice cream legal!” was priceless.
- Carol’s go-to karaoke song is Lionel Ritchie’s “Up All Night.”
- I didn’t really get to talk about how funny both these episodes are in the review, but they are, so here’s some lines I really liked:
- “Well, Melissa, maybe next time you’ll go rock the vote.”
- “Do you mind if I go change into something with a little less poo on it?”
- “He definitely deserves all this praise just for standing around.”
- “I am lactose intolerant. Type 2.”
- “I. Need. Cheese.”