Will Forte and the directors of The LEGO Movie have pulled off something really difficult — and really special — with their new show The Last Man on Earth. They have created a show about the madness and despair of living in the post-apocalypse while making it utterly watchable.
Last night, we got a double dose of Will Forte as Phil Miller (a mashup of the names of pilot directors and executive producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller), who may be the last man on Earth. After a virus wipes out most of humanity, Phil drives around the United States (and Southern Canada) looking for signs of other humans (and snagging a few priceless artifacts along the way). He leaves messages wherever he goes that someone is alive in Tucson, but after he finds not a single soul in Utah, he heads home, dejected.
I think the fact that the writing team called their protagonist "Phil Miller" is telling, because it feels like they genuinely asked themselves, "What would I do if there were no other human beings around?" Phil goes full epicurean for a while, enjoying the sensory pleasures that his abandoned world still has to offer, with no accounting for the traditional rules of the aesthetic road. He hangs priceless works of art up in the Arizona McMansion he's claimed. He dons a suit of armor to protect himself from tennis balls. He pairs and expensive bottle of wine with canned cheese. He stops wearing pants.
But that quickly loses its luster.
At first, Phil talks to God. The world may have gone to pot, but Phil can still imagine that some invisible force is watching him and cares about him. That's when he's still making fun of Castaway for having Tom Hanks talk to a volleyball.
Five months later, Phil has descended into useless hedonism. He's not enjoying his pilfered historical items anymore. He's literally wiping his mouth on the Declaration of Independence. And now he's not talking to God; he's talking to balls. You can almost imagine how that happened. It started as a joke, and it made him feel a little better. So he put his face on more and more balls until he had a little ball family, a perversion of the friends and family at his birthday party before this whole apocalypse started. Soon he's kissing the mannequin in the store window and hating himself for it.
Meredith Woerner put it best when we were discussing the pilot: "Will Forte can carry a fucking scene."
This is a premise that could get old fast. But Forte makes Phil likable and interesting, even in the depths of his despair. Phil is a creative guy, funny and easygoing. He knows which of his paintings is a Rembrandt, even if he doesn't take great care of it. He derives great satisfaction from creating a massive Jenga tower. He loves his mom. He doesn't just get day drunk; he makes himself a margarita swimming pool. You feel like, even if the rest of humanity is dead, the world is just a little brighter with Phil Miller in it, and it would be a shame if he died.
Fortunately, just before Phil decides to ram his car into a giant rock, he spots smoke in the distance. This whole time, the one thing he has been truly fantasizing about is a female companion. He asked God for one. He kissed the mannequin in the storefront. And when he passes out at the realization that he's not the only person left on Earth, his fantasy takes the form of a beautiful young woman who sings the theme to Ghostbusters with him and can't believe her luck. Instead, he's stuck with Carol (Kristen Schaal), who pulls a gun on him and incorrectly corrects his grammar. He immediately hates her.
And, at first glance, Carol is kind of a nightmare. Where Phil responded to the apocalypse with irreverence, Carol responded with a bit too much reverence. She tries to retain her sanity by adhering to the rules of society, although she tends to pick and choose the most symbolic rules. Moving into someone else's house? Fine. Stealing from a hardware store? Not a second thought. But God forbid you park in a handicap space or end a sentence with a preposition.
There are a few things that work really well about the Carol-Phil dynamic. First off, Forte and Schaal have remarkable chemistry. They are both talented comedians and watching them argue is a joy. It's not that Carol is all hard-ass and Phil is all awesome, devil-may-care. She gets him to admit that he wouldn't burn down a church and that some things are still sacred. And he doesn't actually want to see her poop.
But the thing that works best is that we've spent an episode's worth of time getting to know and love Phil, and as soon as Carol appears, he's an asshole. Yes, she's infuriating. Yes, she adheres to awkward mythical grammar rules and pronounces "tomato" wrong seemingly on principle. But she also offers Phil something he desperately needs: purpose. And he rewards her by stealing her tomatoes. It's not that he's a hedonist and she's a shrew. It's that they're two people who have gone slightly mad in opposite directions.
There's a beauty in their shared madness and the realization that they will have to settle for one another. After Carol loses it and goes full Phil, Phil actually bucks up and figures out a way to irrigate Carol's little tomato garden. That's when they both decide that they can make their two-person human race work. But it's not going to be easy.
In a scene that builds from polite frankness into outright mania, Carol tells Phil that she's willing to procreate with him, but only if they get married first. Phil, incensed by the ridiculousness of her request, storms out for just a moment before recognizing that this is just the way his life is going to be from now on. It would be easy to treat this as some stereotypical battle of the sexes — oh, the lady wants to get married and the guy doesn't — but there's more to it than that. Carol still cares about the rituals of life, and she feels that, if Phil doesn't, he should just surrender. Phil, for his part, doesn't like it, but he's going to be a fucking human being. Because that's all he's got left.
Then, in one of the best moments from the episode, they playact that they're happy. On one layer, they pretend that they're happy, and a layer below that, they pretend that they're friends sharing a joke. It's the only way to ignore the fact that they're both miserable, and it works so well.
There is still a huge challenge ahead for the show. Phil and Carol have to remain engaging enough and likable and acerbic enough to keep the show interesting. But if any two actors can pull it off, it's Forte and Schaal.