Two episodes of the first season of “The Last Man on Earth” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
The words “The Year 2020 (two years after the virus)” appear on screen against the backdrop of a barren desert, before dissolving as a RV bus speeds across. Phil Miller (former Saturday Night Live star Will Forte) drives himself from coast to coast while sporting a bushy, untamed beard. His meek calls of, “Hello?” echo across the empty cityscapes. He drives his bus through a mall in New Jersey. Dejected and in stained clothing, Phil spray paints “Alive in Tucson” on a highway sign, then quietly re-enters his bus and drives away.
Balancing wry wit with these slower, pensive moments, The Last Man on Earth brings the sweep of dystopian television shows into the comedy realm. Co-created by 21 Jump Street and The LEGO Movie writer/directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller (who each serve as half of the protagonist’s namesake), The Last Man on Earth is a return to television for the duo after creating Clone High and writing on early How I Met Your Mother episodes. With their work on the Jump Street movies as well as in LEGO, Lord and Miller have proven a penchant for subverting expectations. Their strong ability to construct jokes is often accentuated by a manic delivery and keen insight on wish fulfillment.
It’s that gleeful approach to self-indulgence that makes The Last Man on Earth a fun counterpoint to the bleak dystopic visions of shows like The Walking Dead. Phil’s loneliness may force him to befriend a collection of athletic balls with faces drawn on them (a trick Phil learns from Tom Hanks in Castaway), but he’s been able to swipe a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull from a museum for display in his home alongside his 20-foot tall Jenga tower. The virus alluded to by the opening’s title card is barely referred to again in the rest of the series premiere, and there are no diseased corpses for Phil to navigate. His actions lack any sense of nobility, which allows Forte to feel empathetic even as he becomes unnecessarily disgusting. He’s easily the most charming character with his own margarita pool for drinking and soaking that you’ll ever see.
Will Forte has spent some of his post-SNL time in more serious roles (Run & Jump, Nebraska) than what was required of him on the NBC sketch show. In The Last Man on Earth, the actor gets to ride a middle ground between the wacky broadness he demonstrated on television and the dramatic heft he’s played in movies. As the tone shifts between dry humor and bizarre slapstick, his performance remains the consistent, likeable element at the show’s center.