Even in the Golden Age of Television™, it’s hard to think of a premise more distinctive than the one underlying Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth,” which airs its first two episodes back to back on Sunday. Created by and starring Will Forte, the show follows Phil Miller through a world devastated by an unspecified virus that seems to have wiped every member of humanity but one. After criss-crossing the country in a quick opening montage, Forte’s Phil Miller settles in Tucson, decorating a McMansion with treasures ransacked from a depopulated nation — a couple of Oscars, a Van Gogh or two, and so on. He uncorks a $10,000 bottle of wine and mixes it with spray cheese, because who’s around to judge??
As a performer, Forte has often been at his best when he’s the strangest person in the room. (Think his unforgettably odd Tim Calhoun from “Saturday Night Live.”) But in “Last Man,” at least at first, there’s no one for him to play off. He mocks Tom Hanks’ “Cast Away” character for befriending an anthropomorphic volleyball, but after a smash cut and a “Five Months Later” caption, he’s chatting up a whole sporting goods store. “LEGO Move” Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who directed the pilot, insert quick flashes of Phil’s past, just enough to see Forte without his mountain-man beard and the wild look in his eyes, but they’re much more interested in exploring his present, using quick cuts to convey the associative leaps of his deteriorating mind.
Intriguing as the one-man-show setup is, you can’t really expect a TV sitcom, network or otherwise, to stick with it for too long, and — spoiler! — “Last Man” doesn’t. Before the end of the first episode, Phil has discovered another survivor in the person of Carol (Kristen Schaal), a high-strung stick-in-the-mud who insists he obey the rules of the road even when there’s no one left to yield to. That Phil quickly yearns to return the solitude that nearly drove him to despair isn’t a surprise, or even an especially sharp joke, but Forte and Schaal make it work by paying eccentric specificity rather than glib misanthropy. It’s not that they’re intolerable people but that they’re intolerable to each other, in ways that, although they brush up against easy gender stereotypes, quickly develop into their own things.
Like most critics, I don’t feel three episodes is sufficient to judge “The Last Man on Earth.” This is a show that could almost literally go anywhere, and the test will be seeing where it dares to go. But considering how many sitcoms feel as if they’re settling into a rut in a month or two, not knowing where “Last Man” might end up is kind of thrilling, and more than reason enough to watch.
“The Last Man on Earth” premieres on Fox, Sunday, March 1 at 9 p.m.
Reviews of “The Last Man on Earth”
James Poniewozik, Time
I wasn’t sure how that premise could hold down a TV series, but I wanted to see more. Having seen the double-length March 1 premiere and one episode after that, I’m still not sure how the premise can sustain a series. And I still want to see more, so consider me sold. There is no roadmap for this kind of show, and it could easily fall apart quickly. But I will say this for “The Last Man on Earth”: it does not seem like the sort of thing that would be a primetime network sitcom. And that’s precisely why it should be one.
Robert Bianco, USA Today
In the wrong hands, Last Man could have easily been either grim or silly: “I Am Legend” or “Gilligan’s Island.” Instead, Forte and “The LEGO Movie’s”
Molly Eichel, A.V. Club
Watching Forte gloriously destroy societal conventions is the show at its best, but that only works for so long. Phil gets depressed at the lack of human contact (especially the romantic variety), losing his sense of self and devolving further into bearded slobdom. That’s where “The Last Man on Earth” has a harder time navigating its subject matter, if only because sitcoms are not generally fertile grounds for total and utter despair. Forte can certainly handle the darkness, the lack of contact weighing down his heavily bearded face, but his attempts to compensate for that lack of connection make for some strange turns of events.
Willa Paskin, Slate
For a show that includes the annihilation of the human race, utter hopelessness, and suicide in its first 20 minutes, “Last Man on Earth” has a remarkably light touch. Apocalypse narratives have become such a genre unto themselves that there is comedy in tweaking the expected conventions, and the excellent script does this with precision. As Phil bombs around America, the streets are not jammed with abandoned cars and rotting corpses. He has a gun, but he uses it exclusively to shoot out the glass doors so he can go shopping. Phil doesn’t even have a resource problem. When you’re the only guy on Earth, there’s enough gas and canned food to last a lifetime.
Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
“The Last Man on Earth” is the ultimate Gen-X dystopian fantasy, but with a sober twist that makes it more like that “Twilight Zone” episode about Burgess Meredith after the apocalypse, tailored to a hyper-relational social-media age. Hooray! Phony, rotten civilization has finally fallen away! We can play with our toys and talk about pop culture and just hang out and chill…except everyone’s dead. Womp-womp!
Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe
The series serves as a great playground for Forte, who gets his glorious freak on to show what being alone can do to a person. With mordant wit, the script has him dragging around world-famous oil paintings, the ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz,” and a few Oscars as he drives a bus in search of other living creatures. He wears Hugh Hefner’s pajamas — “I washed them,” he tells God — when he’s not in his underwear blowing up cars and other sundry items for kicks.
David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle
The show itself is slight, the conceit perhaps worthy of an extended sketch, but after two episodes, it begins to feel stretched. Oddly, as great as Schaal is, as usual, and as great as the interplay is between Forte and Schaal, “Last Man” is actually funnier when its title is still accurate and Miller believes he is the last man on Earth. Not funnier to sustain a weekly sitcom, but on its own, funnier.
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com
It’s high-concept, strange, and, again, hard to judge having seen only the first night of what it has to offer in back-to-back episodes. I admire its black swan quality in the way it doesn’t resemble anything on else on network TV but the first two episodes are more strange than funny. And it’s a concept I’m not sure can be carried over a season, much less multiple ones. It might have been a stronger feature film.