It’s a line we hear at the start of every new TV year in at least one sequel season: “The old [insert character name here] is dead.” Sometimes it’s a point of fact, and the show is “dead” set on becoming something different than it was before. Other times it’s a bait and switch where he or she promises to bury old sins only to bring them up all over again. Will Forte, whose lovable nature pairs nicely with his character’s more capricious qualities, does indeed say the line during the first hour of “The Last Man on Earth” Season 2, the series’ actor and creator actually seems committed to both interpretations.
The difference of opinion, both critically and commercially, regarding Forte’s first foray into serialized comedy was stark during a fascinating Season 1 run. After being pushed to the brink of suicide in the pilot, Phil found another living, breathing person — instead of a mannequin or set of sports balls with faces painted on them — and thus a reason to keep living. Carol (Kristen Schaal) proved to be, essentially, the opposite of Phil, causing an immense amount of frustration on the part of a man who was so desperate for human contact he nearly passed out while smelling her clothes. Of course, what Phil didn’t realize was there would be more people coming; people better suited to Phil’s “tastes,” yet kept at a distance by his commitment to Carol.
What we couldn’t see was just how badly Phil would screw up. By the end of Season 1, he had alienated all four women, lost the friendship of the only person forgiving enough to accept his manipulative nature and been driven out of town to die by a man he’d attempted to murder. In short, Season 1 got very, very dark. Phil was at the center of this black hole, pulling down the few survivors around him, the show in general and making a pretty convincing case for why whatever caused the near-extinction of humanity should have finished the job. When Carol drove out into the desert, abandoning her friends and a new civilization beginning without the man she once (fake) married, it felt slightly false, even if her overwhelming kindness was needed to balance the scales.
In Season 2, things have changed drastically in terms of story and remained nearly identical in regard to plot. Phil is still smashing expensive things together and aimlessly traversing the country. The only change is that now he has Carol along with him. She’s adopted certain aspects of his lifestyle, but more importantly — and I say this only because Phil has much more work to do in terms of being a better person — Phil has become a little bit more like Carol. Whether it’s the fact that he’s finally having regular sex again — a desire that overwhelmed much of what else was going on in Season 1 — or that he really did bottom out after being left for dead in a desert, Phil is a slightly kinder, slightly more patient and slightly more genuine person than the one we came to know in Season 1.
Thank God. As engrossing as the world was surrounding Phil before, watching a character be boiled down to his most basic animal instincts just wasn’t compelling or revealing enough to support 13 episodes. Sex and power drove Phil to do maddeningly selfish and horrible things, and watching another season of such debasement would have proved impossible. But rather than apologize for what came before — which would have been silly considering there were some overtly positive responses — Forte treats the first season as a stepping stone; a literal worst case scenario that showcased the WORST aspects of humankind. Season 2 is very much phase two in Phil rediscovering his humanity.
It’s also a bit more forthright about some of the show’s minor mysteries. We’re told what force killed off humankind in the first episode and also spend a good chunk of time with Phil’s astronaut brother, played by Jason Sudeikis (who was teased at the end of Season 1). How both of these elements will figure into the season as a whole remain up in the air (no pun intended), but touching on them proved an effective reminder of the potential within this world — a potential some critics found lacking after the first two episodes of Season 1.
Forte — either by design all along or in reaction to Season 1 responses — consciously injects what was missing from Season 1 into the first two episodes of Season 2, but he does so without upsetting an alluring, already-established tone and world. In Episode 2, “The Boo,” when Phil says, “The old Tandy is dead,” he’s not apologizing for what he did in Season 1. He’s hinting there’s a bigger plan in place, and we may want to stick around to find out. Consider me sold.
“The Last Man on Earth” Season 2 premieres Sunday at 9:30pm on Fox.