Last week’s episode of The Last Man On Earth upended expectations by telling a mostly self-contained story involving a recurring guest star and two fresh faces. Mike Miller’s daring return to Earth and readjustment to a radically different world was compelling in its own right, but that LMOE chose that episode as its mid-season premiere signals the series’ willingness to make bold choices within the inherent constraints of network television. LMOE boasts one of the funniest, most talented ensemble casts on a current network sitcom and the decision not to bring them back for the series’ first episode in roughly three months says a lot about their ambition, even though they’re not exactly tabling the interpersonal drama of the Tucson in favor of an extended Mike Miller arc (no matter how cool that would be).

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So does this week’s episode featuring the Tucson crew match the audaciousness of last week’s episode? Not at all, and it’s better for it. “Valhalla” is as close to a “normal” episode of LMOE, focusing on the fallout of Phil 2.0’s death after a botched surgery and Todd’s precarious love triangle. There aren’t any major revelations or surprises, nor does the episode end with a stunning cliffhanger. Instead, it’s just a very funny episode that re-emphasizes all the characters’ personalities and reminds viewers why they’re worth watching in the first place. In short, it’s a pretty standard mid-season premiere, but it’s executed with care and intelligence.

By the standards of LMOE, “Valhalla” is fairly light on plot as well. It opens with Phil’s absurdly elaborate Viking funeral for Phil 2.0, something that he never would have wanted but, at least according to Phil, something he deserves. Though the rest of the crew mourns his death, Phil takes it the hardest because he wanted Phil 2.0 to be his makeshift brother and friend. Yet, Phil 2.0 never liked Phil and accurately diagnosed him as a serious risk to the long-term safety of the crew, given his history of destructive, impulsive behavior. For most of “Valhalla,” Phil acts out his misplaced grief by trying on his clothes and singing a terrible song in his memory, but his sadness turns to fury when he discovers two things about Phil 2.0: 1) He lied about not having a middle name so Phil was forced to go by Tandy instead of Phil 2.0 going by “Stacy,” and 2) that his last wish before he died was that Phil does not raise his child.

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While most LMOE episodes showcase Will Forte’s considerable comedic talent, “Valhalla” does an especially good job of depicting his ability to maneuver between different modes—performatively mournful, mildly pissed off, and full on rageaholic. Forte’s workmanlike commitment to a joke has always been one of his strongest talents, and “Valhalla” spends most of its running time reminding us of this. Watch his faux-stoicism at the Viking funeral crumble into frustration once he realizes he’s not a good enough archer to actually shoot a flaming arrow at Phil 2.0’s coffin, or the painfully earnest way he sings “The Story of Us,” or just the shot of him tearing off Phil’s clothes onto his body and throwing it onto a bonfire. LMOE has always thrived on physical and visual comedy more than humorous dialogue, and “Valhalla” is chock full of examples of this. Everything from Phil recapping his entire relationship with Phil 2.0 in the mirror to him just falling apart at the feet of Phil 2.0’s coffin works like gangbusters.

Meanwhile in the B-story, Todd has trouble keeping his relationship with Gail a secret and Melissa devolves into a depressive state following Todd’s rejection to her marriage proposal. Naturally, Todd’s attempts to conceal the truth are strained, and his lies blow up in his face when he kisses Melissa on a supposedly platonic TV date. Though this plot is classic sitcom fare, it’s elevated almost entirely by January Jones’ hilarious performance. LMOE has often made Jones play the voice of reason in the crew, which she’s great at but limits her comedic potential, but the series lets her off the hook with this episode. The scenes of Melissa reeling from her rejection by breaking Carol’s ornaments and un-bedazzling Carol’s boots with her teeth are some of the purely funniest moments of the season, especially Todd’s concerned delivery of, “You chewin’ on your boots, there?”

While LMOE is certainly a weighty show that has more on its mind that the average half-hour sitcom, sometimes the best thing it can do is dial down the drama and just be consistently funny if for no other reason than to remind people that it can be when it really wants to. Let me put it this way: I pretty much started cracking up as soon as Todd tearfully sang an accordion rendition of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” and didn’t really stop until Phil unpacked the “That’s not a knife; this is a knife” line from “Crocodile” Dundee. As far as pure comedy goes, things are looking good for the back half of LMOE’s second season.

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Stray observations

  • Other funny recurring bit in the episode is Carol ignoring Melissa because she doesn’t want to spill the news that Todd has been sleeping with Melissa. It ends with Carol pulling a Michael Corelone on Todd.
  • Funniest sight gag has to be Gail pouring a bottle of white wine into a Double Gulp cup.
  • Finally, the other funny Melissa bit is her singing Phil’s song while she’s gnawing at her boots after the act break.
  • Phil’s made up slam poetry is also aces: “White man always find black man guilty! Rage! Hatin’ on puppies so hard!”
  • “Thanks a lot, Gail! I will start wearing more hats!”
  • “Nice hair, George Jefferson!”
  • “I wouldn’t raise your baby with a ten foot pole, even if that pole was made of gold and I got to keep it!”
  • The full lyrics to “The Story of Us”: “Have you ever had shoulda coulda woulda sitting right on your face / When you think about the did that done that finished that could have been in its place / Well the second one’s what happened to me / I finished all my business / Gotta say goodbye to your friends / Cause you never know when their lives going to end / I’m over you, I miss you, but I’m over you / Closure, closure, closure, closure, closure, closure in my bones and in my skin / Closure, closure, closure, closure, closure, put those hands together for closure.”
  • Finally, here’s the video to “Tubthumping”:

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