While watching a show burst out of the gate with an immediately distinctive voice is a rarity, it’s even more unusual—and startling—to watch a promising comedy falter the more comfortable it gets. Comedies usually have a certain amount of awkwardness at their beginnings. Pilots are usually written without a set cast in mind, so shows tend to improve by leaps and bounds once they get to know their actors and sharpen their tones. Critically beloved shows like 30 Rock and Community needed several episodes to really become themselves, and even shows with unusually strong pilots like Cheers, How I Met Your Mother, and Friends learned more about their characters once they had time to explore and expand upon their personalities.
The Last Man On Earth was unusual right from the beginning. Will Forte knew he was writing the show for himself, so he could trust his performance and play to his own strengths. The resulting pilot was a brilliant half-hour that managed to explore loneliness and depression with deft humor; it was freewheeling and silly just as often as it was heartbreaking and poignant. It was the most promising and atypical comedy pilot I may have ever seen. As the show went on, though, it got stuck in a frustrating holding pattern. Slacker Phil got married to Shrill Carol (Kristen Schaal), immediately met Hot Melissa (January Jones), and spent the next five episodes squirming away from Carol so he could get in Melissa’s good graces (read: pants). Phil became more and more unlikeable, but that wasn’t the problem in and of itself. A show can have a hapless jerk for a main character and still click on a comedic level, as The Simpsons has proved for almost 30 years now. No, the problem was that Phil and the show thought his wanting to fuck Melissa was interesting enough to pursue for half a season despite the characters lacking any kind of real chemistry. Also, The Last Man On Earth is about the final survivors of a devastating virus that wiped out almost the entire planet, so there surely had to be some kind of way to spice up this stale plot. Last week’s two episodes are, as Vikram Murthi wrote, essentially the same episode. After starting off with one of the most innovative comedy premises in ages, The Last Man On Earth quickly got stuck spinning its wheels in a repetitive rut.
At first, it looks like “The Do Over” is going to take some steps away from the show’s holding pattern. Carol moves in with Phil, and as Phil is complaining to his old confidante God about the situation, he meets two new survivors. Mary Steenburgen’s Gail and Cleopatra Coleman’s Erica met at the White House—Gail was checking things off her bucket list and Erica is somewhat of a “political nerd”—and were traveling around doing the things they always wanted to do together before they saw Phil’s billboards. With this encounter, Phil thinks he has the perfect opportunity for a “do-over”—or more accurately, a life wherein he’s not in a marriage he hates and can sleep with other women.
When he lies to Erica and Gail that he is in fact the only person in Tucson, it’s disgusting, but it’s not surprising. Phil’s decency has been unraveling on a consistent basis between his Melissa obsession and flirtations with murdering Melissa’s new boyfriend Todd. He has been feeling more and more trapped with Carol, who in turn has become more and more of that dreaded harpy wife cliché—and so Phil seizes the opportunity to have a second life with these two new women. We don’t learn much about Erica and Gail at all. We get their hometowns, the aforementioned meet-cute at the White House, and that they’re so grateful to meet a man that they cook him an elaborate candlelight dinner. They might become more three-dimensional characters later, but their first appearance in “The Do-Over” is so catered to Phil’s fantasies that they don’t make much of an impression. They do show glimmers of personalities when Phil slips on his supposedly charming routine and says he was excited to see an older lady and a black woman, at which point Gail and Erica are rightly put off. Then, Phil pretends to come clean by telling them about his wife’s horrible death, and they go right back to catering to his desires and whisking him away for drunken skinny-dipping. It’s a frustrating moment, not least because in The Last Man On Earth’s reality, everyone has died a horrible death. Gail and Erica have also lost everyone close to them, so it makes no sense why Phil’s story should strike them as singularly awful or surprising.
When Carol, Melissa, and Todd ruin Phil’s attempt at a double life by running into Erica and Gail at the end of the episode, I let out a sigh of relief I didn’t realize I had been holding until that moment. The show’s pacing has been so uneven to this point that I really had no idea how long it would try to keep this ruse up; the very idea of watching Phil run from complex to complex so he could sleep with multiple women was exhausting. “The Do-Over” is frustrating and messy, but at the very least, it burns through more story than the previous five episodes combined.
This holds even truer for “Pranks For Nothing,” which is the strongest episode in a long while because it finally signals some kind of forward motion for the show. The other survivors, fed up with Phil’s shit, decide to shun him until further notice. Erica and Gail call him out for planning to keep them away from other people “just to get laid.” Melissa tells him he’s disgusting with a tone so full of disdain that any remaining hope Phil might have had of winning her over gets crushed. Todd ambles away in resigned disappointment that the only other dude on earth is such a tool. Carol kicks him out of their house. After being a part of a makeshift community, Phil again finds himself alone in the bar, drinking himself stupid and talking to balls with faces drawn on them.
While all the survivors are pissed about Phil’s selfishness, Emily Spivey’s script doesn’t bother to give Melissa, Todd, Erica, or Gail much of anything to do—which turns out to be a strong decision. As much as those characters could use more fleshing out, this episode rightfully belongs to Phil, Carol, and the dissolution of their misguided marriage. Phil is unhappy in the marriage, but once he finds himself alone again, he remembers how much more miserable he was before. Carol has been resolutely ignoring the fact that Phil hates being married to her, but she has accepted this as the new normal and is going to make the best of it, gosh darnit. Meanwhile, they have been trapped in a loop where Carol is a facsimile of that dreaded henpecking sitcom wife and Phil is just a jerk—a dynamic that has long overstayed its welcome. They didn’t necessarily need to have the heart-to-heart they end up having by this episode’s end, though I’m glad they did. They just needed to break out of their tiresome bickering and remember that once upon a time, they were actual characters with more nuanced personalities than the tired clichés they became.
So after umpteen failed “pranks,” a brief attempt to live life as Phil’s curly-haired twin brother Mike, and a round of failed silent treatments (which includes a great standoff between Forte and the cow), Phil accepts that he has become a gross liar. The montage of all his lies is a little on the nose, but it’s undeniably effective as a way of conveying just how overwhelming it is for Phil when he realizes the gravity of the situation. While his final coming clean to the camp at large is straightforward and well-acted, it’s still unclear whether Phil’s learning his lesson in time for the end credits will stick this time—until Carol meets him at the bar. This final conversation is one of the series’ strongest scenes to date. Both Phil and Carol shed their acts to be completely honest with each other. Carol’s still Carol, so she uses a longwinded quilt metaphor to admit that she knows they aren’t compatible right now even as she forced their intimacy. Phil, having already admitted that he shouldn’t have agreed to marry Carol, accepts that she might have a better shot at happiness without being married to him. Kristen Schaal and Will Forte play this scene beautifully, letting Carol and Phil have their first honest conversation even as their respective weirdness shines through. In fact, they’re so good that even after several episodes in which Carol and Phil seemed doomed to mutual hostility, it ends up feeling exactly right that they experience their first real chemistry over their signed divorce papers while kissing each other goodbye.
- In other news: It’s a good thing we’re moving on from Phil’s libido to some more substantial storylines, because The Last Man On Earth has been renewed!
- I really do hope that Mary Steenburgen and Cleopatra Coleman get more to do later, as they are both very warm presences. I doubt they’ll stick around the cul de sac for long, though, since Gail and Erica seem to like adventure too much to sit around in Tucson.
- Melissa and Todd have a very sweet, low-key chemistry, but we’ll see if it’s enough to keep them together if more survivors show up.
- “I didn’t co-write ‘Fields Of Gold.’ The only person who wrote ‘Fields Of Gold’ was Sting.”