The best thing about The Last Man On Earth so far has been its unpredictability. Its pilot is a solo act for over eighteen minutes, its second episode explores how people react to total catastrophes in wildly different ways, and its third twists romantic conventions into something more difficult and honest. This fourth episode introduces another survivor—“Sweet Melissa”—and the most surprising thing about it is that there’s barely anything surprising about it at all.
When January Jones’ Melissa first appears, we see her through Phil’s astonished eyes. She is a blonde babe emerging from a stretch limousine, a startling counter to the strict wife he has come to barely tolerate. If it sounds familiar, that’s because we have seen this scene approximately a thousand times. Countless comedies have used this trio: the slack-jawed slacker, the stereotypically gorgeous woman he lusts after, and the shrill wife he tries so hard to forget. I was still prepared to give The Last Man On Earth the benefit of the doubt, though, because Melissa seems like the latest example of how the show flirts with conventions before dodging them completely. This joyful upending of sitcom and romantic comedy traditions is what made The Last Man On Earth so immediately compelling—and what makes the predictable beats of “Sweet Melissa” so disappointing.
There are some moments that go against expectations. Melissa shows up the second Phil and Carol admit they might not totally hate each other, which makes the obvious next step a love triangle. So it’s much more fun when Phil and Carol fawn all over her in relief, thrilled to see yet more signs of life, only to have Melissa blink at them like she is encountering actual alien life. Will Forte and Kristen Schaal have wholly embraced characters that are barely clinging to sanity, making Jones’ Melissa the closest to an obvious straight-man that the show has had. Melissa even reacted to a virus that devastated the vast majority of the living population with something approaching a level head. While Phil befriended tennis balls and Carol experimented with raisinballs, Melissa quietly sat in abandoned coffee shops. If she was feeling particularly wacky, she would spell her own name wrong on the cup to pretend for a second that she is still living in a world with incompetent baristas. It is safe to say Melissa has never felt the temptation to use a pool, fountain, or any other water receptacle as a toilet.
Truth be told, I’m confused about Melissa right now. There are parts of her that feel real, like the coffee cups and her wariness of Phil’s overt enthusiasm. Other parts, however, feel like holdovers from Phil’s fantasies. She wears skinny jeans and ankle boots, hooks up a generator to chill beer, and finally admits that she can barely function because she’s just so freaking horny. The last admission is an obvious gambit by the script to rile Phil to the point of divorcing Carol, but when he rushes over to Carol’s to inform her that he will now be sleeping with the horny model, the script goes to the just as obvious place of having him run into Carol at a particularly heartfelt moment. After practically humping Melissa’s leg the entire episode, Phil suddenly can’t say no to Carol’s flower wreath. It’s a sweet moment, but still far less convincing than when Phil made his peace offering to Carol in the craft store. On the one hand, I admire that the show is making Phil more difficult to like as it continues; on the other, his aggressive disdain can make these sudden moments of generosity seem more convenient than genuine.
Then there is January Jones. Her casting might have raised some eyebrows, since Jones is not well known for comedy nor for playing characters with much of a sense of humor (see: Mad Men’s Betty Draper Francis, X-Men: First Class’ Emma Frost, one of Love Actually’s gorgeous Midwestern women who found that awful British guy’s accent enough to make up for his awfulness). Still, I never bought the argument that her Mad Men performance only works because Betty is a deliberately blank character; Jones always brings life to the repressed Betty, revealing some real rage and snap underneath the Republican wife drag. I was excited to see what she could do with The Last Man On Earth, if only because I figured she would have to push herself into different territory. Her Melissa, however, doesn’t quite pass that test, and I can’t quite tell yet if it’s on Jones or the character as written. Melissa could be a deliberately “normal” counterpart to Phil and Carol’s tendency towards extremes, or a convenient means to a complicated love life end.
The moment that encapsulates why I’m worried about Melissa is the one in which she shares a cold beer with Phil and apologizes for finding him weird because Carol says he means well. Melissa bonding with Carol over the wedding scrapbook is lovely—and perhaps the most convincing scene in the episode—but it still doesn’t sit right when she reverses her opinion of Phil so quickly. She says she’s tipsy, and Jones does her best with Melissa’s confession that she’d saw off her right arm to get laid, and yet her confiding in Phil so quickly still feels like it comes out of nowhere—so it better go somewhere more interesting.
- Another example of finding humor in the unexpected: when Phil strides down the stairs all smirky and clean shaven, only to have Melissa and Carol tell him he seems smaller and more Tarantino-esque now. (Melissa’s shrugged “I thought [the beard] was cool” is one of Jones’ hands down best line readings.)
- And now, a moment of silence for all of us who thought/hoped Melissa might be gay.
- Okay, moment of silence over. Now: Melissa’s last name is “Shart,” end of sentence.
- For those wondering about the logistics of this virus the green screen view out Melissa’s new home implies that Tucson is not just a desert, but a barren wasteland on par with the Sea of Tranquility.
- Melissa: “I grew up in Akron—” Phil: [knowing nod] “Mmm. Ohio.”
- “That’s what they taught us: sketch fast or the killer will kill again.”