“Phil Miller, last man on Earth.”
Phil Lord and Chris Miller are funny, talented storytellers. People are always ranting and raving about Clone High, and rightfully so, but these people are much more than that. The ability to turn something like The Lego Movie or a 21 Jump Street reboot into not only winning franchises, but genuinely good films takes a great deal of skill and versatility.
So it’s significant that Lord and Miller have made the return to television from their busy jobs of killing it in the film industry. But more importantly, they have said that they did it for this project specifically because of how important it was to them. This isn’t just the two of them being a big name to attach onto the pilot (like the directing duty they did for Brooklyn Nine Nine) but rather this is a story that they’re deeply involved in. Them, along with Will Forte (who is also a significant part of the equation, having written these episodes and created the show with them), have created a journey that required time and needed to be told on television. This couldn’t be done in movies.
This is why the season has a strangely abrupt ten-episode order. This trio wanted something shorter and more specific to what they were trying to unfold here. Knowing all of this, I was very excited for this show. Lord and Miller have shown their ability to weave a longer, interconnected story before on Clone High, but with this seeming to be even more narrow-minded and precise, it could truly be something great. And if these two episodes can dictate the rest of the show’s quality, it’s not just something great, it’s something incredible.
The pilot, which feels like an insane MacGruber/Clone High hybrid, is smart to not waste any time getting into the devastation that’s fallen onto the world. It quickly plods ahead, merely telling us that it’s set in the year 2020, and that this is two years after “the virus.” A desperate Phil Miller (in a cute mash-up of both Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s names) has searched every outpost throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico on his bric-a-brac heavy RV, and has found no fellow survivors. All of this is framed in just beautiful cinematography and a distinct filmic look to the show that’s almost Breaking Bad-like in its glowing shots of the desert terrains.
After Phil (who’s played by a tremendously bearded Forte. Seriously) deduces from this that he’s the only person left alive, he returns home to Tucson. Well, home to Tucson but not his home. He’s instead commandeered a fancy mansion, which now might as well be his home. What ensues is the episode’s first big gag, and it’s a fantastic one that sets the tone for the show. Phil decks his new home out with basically every valuable item from pop culture that you can think of. It’s clear that this show operates in the same heightened reality that Forte, Lord, and Miller’s other properties have existed in, but it’s nice to see this one so quickly going for broke.
Behind its crazy premise, this is really a tour de force of Forte and a true showcase of how fantastic he is. For whatever reason he’s failed to find huge acclaim through the years, in spite of deserving it many times over by now. With any luck, The Last Man on Earth will finally do the trick, because this is primarily just him, and he’s never not captivating. He runs amok like some unhinged character from a Saturday Night Live sketch as he shoots his way through buildings and drinks $10,000 bottles of wine (if you do the math, that’s about $400 a sip), because why the fuck shouldn’t he? The first half of the first episode is pretty much just Phil going nuts and having unbridled irresponsible fun. Granted, all of this is a little aimless, but so is Phil! Besides, you hardly care due to how well these jokes work.
A perfect example of the sort of escalation and chaos that is ever-present here can be seen when Phil begins recklessly bowling in a parking lot. The world is literally Phil’s playground here, and I can’t think of any other time when I’ve seen such inventiveness and gleeful abandonment over a “last man on Earth” situation. The goofing around might be a little more frustrating if we were only getting the first episode, as it’s mostly filled with this fodder, but the inclusion of the second one helps this material breathe a little more and even pace the story better by getting more of it at once.
It’s also refreshing to see the show get outright bleak and poignant at times, as Miller thinks back on his former life, which might have irritated him at the time, but now longs for as he is steeped in loneliness. He celebrates traditions like his birthday all alone. His conditions even slowly drive him crazy, with the paradise of singularity quickly becoming a curse that’s broken his mind. The fact that Forte is doing all of this solo is quickly forgotten as he builds dozens of friends in the form of balls, and pines for the love of mannequins from afar. It’s all so bizarre and is constantly toeing the line between creepy and pitying. It feels like a lot of Forte’s vintage SNL sketches, which often featured detached weirdos.
One of the many great bits here on the subject is that we see Phil watching Castaway, where Tom Hanks talks to his own ball friend, Wilson. When Phil eventually displays the same behavior, it’s not because Castaway gave him the idea to do so, but rather that Castaway is a serious, authentic depiction of what your mind goes through when you’re alone. Ball friends are inevitable. It’s very weird logic at play, but if you’re a fan of stuff like this, this is really the perfect show for you.
Fair Warning: Spoilers from here on…
The first episode ends with a pretty large twist, but one that most people had probably clued into already. Phil meets a woman named Carol (played by Kristin Schaal), and while he might be the last man on Earth, it in fact seems like he’s not the last person after all, with the show’s title still being accurate.
Even though getting so much solo Forte was a delight in the first entry, seeing Schaal and Forte go back and forth, each with inspired timing, might be even more satisfying. Schaal is a more than capable foil for Forte here, with her inclusion obviously changing the shows’ dynamic in a big way. Seeing them argue over whether it’s worth observing stop signs or handicapped parking, due to the population being decimated, is great stuff that’s even thought provoking. Seeing both of their styles clash, while predictable, still works really well as judgment looms over both of them and neurotic Carol keeps needling him. They feel like an old married couple, which they almost de facto are with there being nobody else left. Seeing Phil try to get water for her to help raise her to-mah-toes, and the ways in which they’ll push each other to be better is a nice indication of how this show might operate moving forward. There’s a sweetness to the two of them (when they’re not arguing), and it’s nice to see such chemistry existing between them only one episode in.
Last Man on Earth will only leave you wanting more as it rubs its potential in your face. It’s going to be an unpredictable and bewildering ride, and you’d be foolish not to give it a chance. Why don’t you watch it? Or, as Carol would surely be quick to grammatically correct you on–It, for what, do you not watch?
Which, we swear is right. Really.