When you write about a hundred blog things a year, sometimes you write about game design, sometimes you write about business and marketing, sometimes you write about a chicken sandwich that has too much mayo on it, and sometimes - sometimes you write about The Last Man on Earth, a sitcom that until very recently used to air Sunday evenings on Fox.
It's a program that I enjoyed an awful lot, and I was saddened to hear it was cancelled after four seasons, though not terribly surprised; really, it's amazing the thing existed at all. It is aggressively weird and frequently off-putting, anchored at first by the bizarre anti-charisma of its nominal lead, Will Forte. His character's shtick is grating, but that's the point; the jokes never land, but that's the gag. It's funny because it isn't funny, and somehow, almost magically, it becomes funnier the longer it isn't. What sells it is a sense of iron-clad commitment: commitment to the gag, commitment to the character, commitment to the same deeply absurd sensibility that gave us the potato chip sketch, commitment to all these things above all other considerations, including and especially traditional notions of what the audience wants out of a half hour of television.
Surprisingly, I know of at least a few folks who gave up on the show because it almost immediately abandoned its original premise of Forte's character Phil Miller being "the last man on earth", the only human survivor of a worldwide epidemic. Over the course of its first season, the show introduced a number of other survivors, three women and two men. Not only was Forte's character not the last man on earth, but he wasn't the last man named Phil Miller, a delightful gag that led to Forte's character going by his middle name, Tandy. Even after that other Phil Miller left the cast in season two, he still went by Tandy, a weird, subtle, and lovely almost-joke running through the last three seasons.
In talking about the show with coworkers and friends, I found that a number of them wished the show had really been about Will Forte being the last man on earth, and thought that the introduction of the larger ensemble was terribly conventional and disappointing. Let's set aside the fact that it's probably one of the best ensembles on network television. Kristen Schaal's Carol matches Forte for sheer nuttiness and nerve-wracking idiosyncrasy. Mel Rodriguez's Todd is almost comically nice to a fault; a particular highlight of the series is when he finds himself unwittingly and haplessly the pivot point in a love triangle.
January Jones's Melissa is one part of that triangle. In the third season, deprived of anti-psychotic medication in this post-apocalyptic world, she becomes frightfully (and hysterically) weird. It's probably a form of schizophrenia. It's handled with real sensitivity, both for Melissa's plight and in the way she lashes out at the people who care about here. It's played both for pathos (it is, ultimately, a sentimental show) and for laughs (it almost always undermines the sentiment, and in so doing, earns it), and it demonstrates how adventurous the show is. (Another example? Fred Armisen's hilarious guest star turn in the show's final season as a Dahmer-esque cannibal serial killer.)
Melissa is a riot when she's violent and off-her-meds, but I think Jones's best work on the show is when she's not in the spotlight. She is a great comic foil. The others might get the funnier lines, but they're only funny because of how she sets them up, and it only comes across because of the way she sells it.
Cleopatra Coleman likewise is often relegated to playing exasperated and grossed-out straight man to Tandy and Carol's assorted nonsense, and does it well, but is often given less to do than Jones. I wouldn't say that she was a weak-point in the ensemble, but rather that she was often under-served by the writing, which was a real shame.
Gail performs surgery on the other Phil Miller in the 2nd season episode "Silent Night".
And then there's Mary Steenburgen. In praising an ensemble, one probably shouldn't focus on one point, but episode-for-episode, moment-for-moment, Steenburgen's Gail Klosterman is a boozing, deadpan MVP, by turns both quietly and uproariously funny. She exists somewhat detached from the others, watching them from somewhere between "not having time for this nonsense" and being amused by it. As she says to newcomer Lewis (Kenneth Choi), who is aghast at one of Tandy's transparent psycho-dramas, she likes to see how these things play out. Steenburgen is hands-down my favorite member of the cast. She's no slouch dramatically either. There's a sequence mid-way through the second season in which former chef Gail is press-ganged into performing a life-saving surgery on another survivor, and she absolutely botches it. She really sells the character's anxiety before and guilt after.
Lewis and Tandy salute before Lewis's flight in the 3rd season episode "The Spirit of St. Lewis".
Watching that mid-season finale episode, I really became aware for the first time that I was watching something really special: a sitcom that took risks and committed to the real consequences of its post-human world. And, more than that, it wasn't afraid to do that in service of an offhand, did-they-just-do-that punchline (cf. the jaw-dropping season 3 episode "The Spirit of St. Lewis").
Improvised medical care. No medications. Expiring food. Unmanned nuclear reactors melting down. All of these elements show a real commitment to answering the question, how can you live without other people? It's the question that was posed by its first episode, by its title, by the high concept it seemed to abandon immediately. But the people who wanted the show to just be Will Forte talking to a collection of sports balls in a bar, the people who stopped watching as the cast grew, are missing two important things.
First, that question - how can you live without other people? - is answered in full in the show's first episode. We see Forte's not-yet-Tandy Miller throw himself desperately into hedonism, with increasingly diminished results, until, finally, the profound isolation and emptiness becomes unbearable and he resolves to kill himself. The answer to how can you live without other people is, you can't.
The other important thing they're missing is that, at base, it's just not a very interesting question, and certainly not as interesting as the one that the show does answer: how can you live with other people? People as annoying as Tandy, as peculiar as Carol, as damaged as Melissa? How is it that we can tolerate one another long enough to learn how to love one another? How can we change how we act around other people without changing who we are?
The show's title doesn't really refer to literally the last man on earth, but idiomatically, as in, "I wouldn't live with you if you were the last man on earth!" The only people left in the world (give or take a few quickly-dispatched guest stars) are forced to put up with one another, and the show is about them doing that. It's a necessary part of the human experience that holds together all human civilization, all friendships, all marriages: this ability to forgive and even embrace the things that annoy us about other people.
Every episode of The Last Man On Earth, particularly once the ensemble is established, was about this social dance, about bonds that are frayed and then repaired. It was about how all people, no matter how annoying, how awkward, or how damaged, are still people, are still capable of loving and of being loved. In this way, it was the most profoundly humanist and decent post-apocalyptic show on television. Most shows that adopt that sort of setting, The Walking Dead perhaps the most notable among them, are nasty slogs that go out of their way to affirm our worst fears about people and how they might act in a desperate and desolate situation. Last Man by contrast went out of its way to affirm our best hopes. And it did it with fake eyebrows, accordion funerals, terrible cooking, and the hottest Shawshank Redemption roleplaying in television history.The entire series is currently available to stream over on the Hulu. As you might've gathered, I think it's worth watching.